REAL ESTATE


Turning a One-Room Schoolhouse Into a Vacation Home

The dream of owning a retreat for downtime or a place for family to gather inspires Americans to purchase some 500,000 vacation homes each year. Roz Fitch is making her dream a reality, but she has no yen for a cookie-cutter beachside condo or a mountaintop A-frame. Her nearly finished country place is truly hers, a one-of-a-kind monument to five generations of family.

SEE ALSO: How to Finance a Second Home

Fitch is overseeing the transformation of an 1856 one-room schoolhouse into a cozy second home where she and her husband, Jon, can stay while visiting family and friends. The school is in Delaware County, N.Y., a stone's throw from the dairy farm where Fitch grew up, which has been in her family for more than a hundred years. "I've walked by it my entire life," says Fitch, who is 59.

The 20-foot-by-25-foot structure—a wood box set on dry stones—has had as many lives as a cat. Many of Roz's ancestors learned the three R's there, until the school district closed it in 1929. Since then it has been a storage shed, a shelter for farmhands, a rude rental residence and, since the 1960s, an empty wreck.

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Fitch long considered a rescue, but working as a lobbyist and raising a family hundreds of miles away in Washington, D.C., intruded until 20 years ago, when she decided it would be fun "to go for it." She found the owner and, in 1991, paid $6,000 for the structure and a third of an acre. Then time stood still for almost 20 more years until she found the time and money for the project.

Her husband is an architect (not the kind who does historic restorations, though), so Fitch knew this wouldn't be a paint-and-patch job. And restorations are never simple. You need experts who know what is salvageable and what isn't. It was a miracle the place never succumbed to the harsh upstate New York weather—a testament mostly to the quality woodworking. "It's phenomenal how much we were able to save," Fitch says, showing photos of the exposed beams.

Crews had to jack up the building and put it on a true foundation. The roof, floors, windows, well, septic system and electrical wiring are new. Workers are now installing a staircase and a second-floor sleeping area. The job is almost finished, but the tally is more than $100,000, which Roz is paying for out-of-pocket. (The National Association of Realtors says about half of vacation-home buyers pay cash.)

Hundreds of one-room schoolhouses all over America are preserved and restored, but usually as museums, community centers or small parts of large homes built over and around the old classroom. If you restore a historic home to become your primary residence, or if you fix up a falling barn for agricultural use, you might be eligible for some state and federal tax credits. Fitch looked but came up empty. That’s how singular her project is. "There are five generations of us around here," Fitch says. "I'm thrilled at this."

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