Central Florida couple purchases perfect home in not-so-perfect condition

1920s fixer-upper in Winter Park transformed after $200,000 in renovations

ORWIN MANOR, Fla. – Anyone who has ever lived in one will tell you: The love and charm of owning an old house isn’t for everyone.

There’s the maintenance, the quirks, the absence of modern features, and the inevitable “things in here work kind of differently.” 

At the turn of the last century, homes had small bedrooms, smaller closets and garages designed for just one car. Knob-and-tube electrical was “finicky” and not very reliable. Plumbing was cast iron. Kitchens weren’t the open-space extravaganzas that are must-haves in today’s new construction. 

Fast-forward 90 or so years and it seems as if every TV contractor and designer updating an older home wants to --  needs to -- knock down a wall or two to open up a room, which of course inevitably leads to the discovery of a pipe or support they didn’t expect to find.

And then there’s shiplap.

A staple of some older construction, covered up in the '50s, '60s and '70s, it’s now been rediscovered like some sort of long-forgotten construction gold. 

Yay, shiplap.     

For better or worse, the adage of “they don’t build them like this anymore” is a common mantra for anyone who has ever lived in their own real-life version of "This Old House." And for many people, older is better and they prefer it that way.

“I think that an early interest in architecture and being peculiar with details drives my interest in older houses,” said Aimee Spencer. 

Aimee and her husband Michael, who consider themselves preservationists, bought a 1924 home on the Winter Park side of Orwin Manor about six years ago. Orwin Manor was developed by Walter Rose and his Central Florida Development Co.

What is now North Orange Avenue used to be known as Dixie Highway with the main thoroughfare nicknamed “The Great White Way.” The house the Spencers would eventually call home was one of the first built in the neighborhood.

Old but new to them
When Aimee and her husband were thinking about relocating from West Palm to Orlando, the home they zeroed in on was far from move-in ready.

1509 N. Orange Ave. had paint peeling from the walls, a leaky roof, holes in the ceilings, and rain-damaged floors. That wouldn't have been so bad, but there also was no electricity, no running water and parts of the house were falling from supports. 

Aimee recalled what her realtor said when she first saw the property.

“She said it was the worst house she had ever been in, that nothing had ever smelled so bad, and she was pretty sure she had fleas when she left,” Aimee said.

There were four dogs and six cats living in the house. The animals never went outside. Not even to use the bathroom. 

While their real estate agent saw the house as a teardown, Aimee and Michael instead saw it as a blank canvas.

“Because I knew to rewire it and replumb it and put in central air conditioning and heating, all of the walls would have to be stripped and the ceilings would have to come out anyway,” Aimee said. “So to me, all of those things were cosmetic.”  

The list of other “amenities” and surprises was long and varied.

“We found an abandoned 267-gallon diesel tank buried in the yard,” Aimee said. “That was a little bit of a surprise and clearly had to go.”

The second-story floor joists over the carport were “dust.” There were engine parts and steering wheels in the garage. Then a tree fell on it and destroyed the structure.
The couple found a Suzuki Samurai “hiding” in the overgrowth. The home didn’t have a sewer connection. Aimee broke her thumb while she was retrieving bricks from a Dumpster. And one day she fell through the subfloor. 

“I was sort of left hanging with my legs in the basement,” Aimee said. “It was painful, but more embarrassing,” 

Michael had to cut Aimee out with a reciprocating saw, which then tripped a breaker causing all of the workers to start wondering why their equipment wasn’t working and start looking around to find out. 

Still, through all of this, “I thought it was perfect,” Aimee told News 6.

Despite the rundown condition, the family saw through the dirt, the damage and the decay and recognized something about the fixer-upper. With a toddler in tow, Aimee and Michael started renovations in December 2011 and moved in just five months later.

The Spencers paid $275,000 for the home and invested about another $200,000 for renovations. 

Which leads to the inevitable question: Which gives you more bang for the buck -- old or new?

“If you’re talking about a three-to five-year period, the old house probably costs more depending on the condition that you buy it in,” Aimee said. But she also added: “Ten years from now, I’ll have everybody beat.”

House genealogy
Aimee has always taken to heart the history of old homes. In the family’s two previous houses, she has always left behind a photo album and information about the property for the next owner.

“I think if you can do something nice for the next person who’s going to live in your house, do it,” she said. “I think that goes for everything in life. If you can do something nice, do it.”

Call it her own style of a time capsule.

When they first moved into this new house, Aimee remembers finding an old briefcase and some photos in the attic from one of the former owners. J.M. McCord was in citrus research and did work for the University of Tampa; his two daughters went to Stetson University and Rollins College.

Aimee got lucky when one of McCord’s relatives stopped by the house when he was visiting Florida. Ecstatic at being able to connect with someone who knew a little about the house, she was able to find out some details and return the found items to him and his family. 

Another stranger stopped by one day and gave the Spencers a picture of her grandmother standing in front of the house in the late 1920s. Some of Aimee and Michael’s friends stumbled across an old sales brochure from the 1940s that had a picture of the home on the cover. Aimee was also able to do some research on her own, searching the archives at both the Winter Park Library and the Orange County History Museum

“If you’re open to finding things, they’ll appear in the most unusual places,” she said.