7 Ways to Repurpose an Abandoned Building

 6951025223_48e7c1e1fa_b                          Photo by Ganesh Dhamodkar

Of all the ways an old building can be repurposed, the worst is for it to sit empty or be torn down. What a waste. At least let it be a refuge, where weary travelers with sticks over their shoulders may warm their hands by the fire on their way from here to there. That is my romantic vision.

The truth is, what happens inside abandoned houses makes most people shudder. That is why they want them bulldozed to the ground. In the wake of urban renewal planning pervading neighborhoods worldwide with its mission of salvation, some pretty interesting things have been done with old houses, buildings, and structures. The following are just a few of the things you can do with a structure when you let your imagination run wild:

Live in It

Ok, so this idea isn’t exactly off the beaten path. Updating an old house with modern amenities and a contemporary open floor plan has been done and done again, with amazing results. Whether your house lechery tends toward a Victorian mansion or a New England Shingle style house, a few essential updates will make a huge difference in coaxing your home into the modern age.

Remember the old white fridge and white range with metal coil burners that are ridiculous to clean? Invest in stainless steel or black and a stove with cooktop elements. Rip out the weird laminate countertops and replace them with wood, stone, metal, tile, or a tasteful contemporary laminate. As long as the structure, plumbing, and electrical is solid, there isn’t too much else to worry about except what suits your personal style. Even the antique clawfoot tub is en vogue.

And, why limit yourself to houses? A lot of luxury living spaces have been constructed from storage containers, factories, lighthouses, even water towers.


Check out this stunning water tower home in Sunset Beach, California

Student Housing and Apartments

The Shelton-McMurphey-Johnson House has been a landmark in Eugene, Oregon, for more than a century. After surviving two fires and a series of renovations, this 1888 Victorian house was repurposed first as apartments and then as student housing.



Photo by Kathleen Conklin

Dormant factories, schools, post offices, and a plethora of other abandoned buildings have been successfully transformed into modern lofts and purposeful housing. Imagine an old building recycled into a rec center or women’s shelter!

Turn It into a Restaurant

Realize your dreams of restaurant ownership by repurposing an old building. Many fine dining establishments reside in old buildings. Some restaurant entrepreneurs gut the building to create something completely new and chic; others use the original architectural details as a catalyst for design. Remnants of the old business can be incorporated into the decor, whether vintage signs, railroad crossing signals, or farm implements. Check out this dairy farm-cum-tavern in Bristol, UK.






The “Willy Wicket” pub and restaurant, Wick Wick, South Gloucestershire

Photo by Robert Cutts

Reinvent as a Hotel

Restoring an old hotel to its original grandeur is the most obvious choice for nostalgic hotel owners. Setting up a bed-and-breakfast in a historic house is another popular pasttime for history-lovers. Other brave investors, hoping to attract an equally adventurous clientelle, make hotels out of old buildings that were originally something very different.

Take The Dean hotel in Providence, Rhode Island. The structure was built in 1912 as an Episcopal mission. It has been reborn as an exquisite boutique hotel featuring a restaurant, karaoke lounge, cocktail den, and coffee shop. The owners chose to keep the original floors and elevator, and vintage decor from around the world makes an appearance.

dean hotel lounge


Bring History to Life with a Museum

From the Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemons) House  in Hartford, Connecticut, to Ernest Hemingway’s tropical sanctuary  deep in the Florida Keys, old house museums attract thousands of visitors who want to see where famous people lived and worked. Many of these museums offers tours, events, and hands-on activities for children. The Dolly Kindle house in Ketchikan, Alaska, is more of a hands-off for children. The former brothel on historic Creek Street is furnished with original memoriabilia and mementoes from its glory days.

Some museums have no connection to the past of the building. The charming Edinburgh Writers’ Museum is a tribute to Scottish writers Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Built in 1622 by Edinburgh merchant Sir William Gray, the building later housed the Countess of Stair. It was bought and renovated by the 5th Earl of Rosbery in 1895, then gifted to the City of Edinburgh in 1907 for use as a museum.


Photo by Martin Hearn

Open a Shop

There is no sweeter treat than browsing merchandise in a historic house or building. An old building or house adds flavor to antique stores, ice cream parlors, clothing boutiques… just about anything you can sell seems better in a historic building.

Service providers are always more interesting in a historic setting, too. Think real estate office, beauty parlor, tax service, mortuary … the list goes on.



Take me to the candy shoppe!

Make a Movie

Whether you have ties to Hollywood or you’re just an amateur on the loose with a camera, abandoned buildings provide the ideal backdrop for your feature film slash indie production. Horror movies, in particular, have been filmed in such desolate locations as abandoned mental hospitals, amusement parks, disaster areas, and sanitoriums.


I think I’ll pass on that room for the night!

So instead of voting to condemn that old house or building on the corner, make suggestions on how it can be used. Maybe even buy it yourself! As long as the foundation is good, everything else can be worked out.


“Needs TLC” — Four Tips for Buying a Fixer-Upper

Whether you are purely in it for the investment, or you just like houses with “potential” like I do, buying a fixer-upper is a major decision. In a perfect world, everything runs as smooth as silk. You buy a house, do a few repairs here and there, design it to your taste, and either sell it for twice the money you invested or live there for the rest of your life.

In this dimension, the plumbing needs replaced, the light fixtures and power to the microwave flash on and off spookily, and an uneven crack has formed from one side of the concrete patio slab to the other. Did you see that episode where the girl decided to flip houses in a traditional Cuban neighborhood in Miami? Her first project was haunted by the spirit of an old lady who practiced Santeria and didn’t like change. Uh huh. There were altars hidden in the walls. So before you start feeling like your fixer-upper is cursed, here are a few tips to consider before sealing the deal on your new old home.

                                     Can It Stand On Its Own Two Feet?

Of course not. Houses don’t have feet. Even if they are on concrete blocks, that would be more than two feet. Point being, major structural damage is a no-no. Unstable or cracked foundations or a roof-gone-bad will drain your financial resources with a quickness.

Can It Be Saved?

Suppose you find an irresistable historic house that once gave shelter to the Duke of So-and-So on a rainy night in 1792. You have plenty of money in the bank. Go for it. Otherwise, hire a professional structural engineer to inspect your prospective home before going for broke.

                                                       Land Value

Location. Location. Location. If you’ve got your eye on a fixer-upper in a floodplain or tornado alley, look the other way. A sweet bungalow in the “urban renewal” zone a block away from the homocide vortex of the city, likewise. At least, not if you plan to make a return on your investment within the next year or 30. There are plenty of case studies of innocents skipping into a new home deal, pouring money into the house, and getting stuck with a house fit for a king in a less-than-royal neighborhood. However, a questionable house on a valuable piece 110629132_49d8523486_z

of property is worth a try.

Disclaimer: This does not apply to everyone. During the housing market collapse, wise investors were quick to jump on foreclosed properties in low-income areas, where many of them received an assured rental income by way of housing vouchers. But, then, wise investors are not out to make a quick buck. They know how to hold and they know how to wait. More on that later.

                                              Home Renovation Skills

Maybe you are handy with a hammer. You may have been in the DIY scene for years. One important thing to remember when buying a home that needs TLC — don’t overestimate your skills. Trying to connect the red wire to the white wire might land you in the hospital. Consider what kind of experts you have on speed dial. Electricians? Plumbers? Carpenters? Try to find a house that needs repairs you can fix yourself, or that you have a budget-friendly back-up team for. The estimated renovation cost plus any minor surprises should always figure into your original cost analysis.


Now, for the good news. You can save thousands buying a fixer-upper. The HUD 203(K) program offers FHA guaranteed loans for homes that need repair. The loan covers the purchase of the property, remodeling expenses, and closing costs, with some left over for unforeseen repair expenses. If you can’t actually live there while renovations are taking place, you can choose to include up to six mortgage payments in the loan to cover the time it will take to make the house habitable.






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