Posted in Historical fiction, Writing

How to use real estate ads for research

One of the many mistakes I made while researching and writing my abandoned storyline about the Konevs moving back to NYC in 1952 was reading current real estate ads for historic properties as though they’d always been that way. Regardless of which city, era, or type of housing you’re writing about, you should never assume a house or apartment is completely unchanged from the day of its creation.

So you go to a site like Zillow, choose the neighborhood or street you’re researching, plug in age range (e.g., 1880–1930), square footage, number of bedrooms, and style (condo, townhouse, apartment, detached house). You read the descriptions and look at the photos and floor plans, and start basing your fictional homes on your favorites.

Except you may be barking up the completely wrong tree.

Yes, that home physically existed in that year, but it may have looked a lot different. If it’s in a major city (e.g., NYC, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore), and your story is set anytime from the Depression through these cities’ nadirs in the Seventies and Eighties, odds are it wasn’t used as a single-family home and was a lot smaller.

Unless one were lucky enough to already own one’s home and have fully paid it off, the Stock Market crash forced many people into new dwellings. They could no longer afford rent on luxury apartments or upkeep of rambling estates. Many townhouses and rowhouses were split up into duplexes, triplexes, and SROs.

Some townhouses had as many as 29 SRO apartments!

Others were split up in response to the severe housing crisis following WWII. Many large apartments were also chopped up into smaller units, and some tenants were pressured or outright forced into moving or accepting the decreased square footage of their homes.

Likewise, many estates in cities like St. Paul and San Francisco were used as boardinghouses and apartments. People were able to get them for free or cheap, but had a lot of work to do fixing them up.

The same went for townhouses which escaped the division into SROs, duplexes, and triplexes.

And speaking of townhouses and rowhouses, many had entry floor businesses (restaurants, shoe stores, bookstores, candy stores, business classes, photography studios, florist shops, etc.). Even if a single family owned the property, they may not have had residence on every floor.

Many amenities featured in modern apartments and condos didn’t exist until very recently. It’s one thing to create a fictional building with a pool, gorgeous courtyard, a few upscale businesses on the lower floors, and maid service, but things like dog parks, communal treehouses, Yoga studios, and bowling alleys wouldn’t have existed in all but the most contemporary hist-fic.

The above is from 1936, so it’s not entirely implausible for your characters to be well-off during the Depression and have a luxury home. However, that wasn’t very common. Not much new housing was built after the Stock Market crash, and an architect or realtor in touch with reality wouldn’t have built, developed, or marketed such upscale housing.

The former hotel being refurbished into condos in all but name, an urban kibbutz of sorts for an unrealistic amount of my characters to all conveniently live in, was beyond unrealistic. People would’ve been squatting in that hotel, or it would’ve been split up into SROs.

Forget about terraces, a three-story penthouse, sprawling apartments, a steamroom, indoor pool, libraries on every floor, and private-entry elevators! Those would’ve been added decades later, not during such a severe housing crisis.

Co-ops were uncommon until the Sixties, and condos didn’t exist in the U.S. till about the same time. However, some luxury apartments called it even after a certain amount of years paying rent, and became condos in all but name.

Obviously, things like air conditioning, central heating, and electricity were added at much later dates, but those generally aren’t the only changes. Wine cellars, wet bars, private gyms, spa rooms, I’m looking at you! Elevators are also almost certainly very recent additions.

And if that house was built before 1950, you know it wouldn’t have been a tacky open concept originally!

It’s fine to use modern real estate ads as a jumping-off point for creating your own fictional homes, but it’s also important to look up vintage ads.

You also want to look up the average home and rent prices in that area in that era. Plugging modern numbers into an inflation calculator won’t give an accurate price, since the cost of living has gone WAY up over the last few decades.

Author:

Writer of historical fiction sagas and series, with elements of women's fiction, romance, and Bildungsroman. Born in the wrong generation on several fronts.

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