How do you find a space to convert into a home?
April 20, 2011 11:03 AM   Subscribe

After reading this post, I've realized that I want my next house to be.. different. How do I go about finding a warehouse/church/water tower to convert into a home?

My husband and I plan on selling our current house in about a year and a half. I'd like to find an unusual building we could convert into a house. I'm a competent carpenter and I'd like to do as much of the work as possible myself. I'm up for more or less anything non-conventional. Do you live in a converted space? How did you find it? How is it working out? What should I be looking for? What should I avoid? What have I not even thought of?
Bonus for tips on finding a space near Boston.
posted by Adridne to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Getting a mortgage will likely be much more challenging because lenders generally hate non-traditional homes.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 11:26 AM on April 20, 2011

odinsdream: First, get a lawyer who can help you with the rezoning.

Before that is necessary, find something you like and talk to the local planning/building officials. The building and safety codes for residences are different than they are for churches, boats, or water towers. You might find something that can become a residence (residences allowed in that zone, it's not a historic structure that needs to stay as-is, whatnot), but the how is the tricky part.

Then, if the zoning doesn't allow residences, ask the planning/building officials if it's realistic to change the zoning to allow that charming church become your home. Churches are generally permitted in residential areas, so that's not a biggie. But warehouses are often in industrial areas, and if the perfect building is in the middle of a bunch of industrial uses, there is probably little chance of getting that land re-zoned as some form of residential.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:40 AM on April 20, 2011

Best answer: Many residential neighborhoods have older churches that are underused/empty-- I would think that a vacant church building would be an easier conversion than an industrial building (would likely have standard wiring, plumbing for bathrooms, kitchen(s), etc already), and be less likely to have ground and/or water contamination issues that a more commercial/industrial use might. The soil/water/environmental contaminant issue is a big deal, especially in older cities, especially if you're looking at a property that was used for something toxic. Even if you could buy an abandoned gas station and turn it into a home, for example, the environmental clean-up cost would be pretty major. Also keep in mind that using a structure for a residence means it's subject to residential codes/fire safety issues, etc-- there are some totally valid safety concerns that will make conversion expensive.

In many areas (don't know about Boston, though) religious uses are permitted in residential zones via a conditional use permit or similar-- so it's quite possible that the site would still be zoned residential, eliminating the need to do any rezoning. You don't necessarily need a lawyer to request a zone change.

In any case, you're likely to need to do pretty extensive rehab/modification to the building/property to make it habitable, so you'd probably want to see if your city planning department does pre-development conferences. Find out if you can go in and talk to a planner about the kinds of things you'll need to look for in terms of property, existing buildings, red flags that are likely to mean that rehabbing to make a place legally habitable will be too difficult/lengthy/expensive. Think about having a similar conversation with a contractor.
posted by Kpele at 11:43 AM on April 20, 2011

Location, location, location. For example, Detroit has huge numbers of beautiful, abandoned churches. Buffalo has a lot of disused office buildings. Most New England towns have a grange hall that is falling apart. If you have a specific place you're looking for, the answer is to drive around (or walk, or bike) and see what there is.
posted by Jon_Evil at 11:47 AM on April 20, 2011

Just saw the part about Boston. Shit, Lowell, New Bedford, Fall River, and so many other towns have abandoned mills, factories, and pretty much everything, as populations have shrunk with the vanishing of the textile industry and the cold war military-industrial complex.
posted by Jon_Evil at 11:49 AM on April 20, 2011

Best answer: I have lived in a warehouse space before.

Are you only interested in 'legit' living situations, ie you have the correct zoning for residency, or are you willing to grey-market things? Grey-marketing means higher costs for utilities as you will be charged based on what's supposed to be there, not residential rates; it means any emergency call will be prefaced by a thoughtful consideration of just how much official attention you are willing to call upon yourself.

Do you want to live in an industrial area or a mixed use neighborhood? Industrial spaces can be cheaper, but come with added costs like required travel for basic needs (no walkable grocery stores, etc). They tend to be noisy, dirty, and poorly policed at night. These things can be pluses if you are going to be noisy and dirty yourself, or annoyances if you wanted some place quiet with a nearby park for walking the dog at night.
posted by nomisxid at 12:37 PM on April 20, 2011

In my mid-Atlantic state (Hint: think DC and Baltimore), you'll probably have a rough time with zoning laws . However, I have two separate friends who have successfully converted churches into really nice private homes, and since they were both in residential zones, they didn't have to deal with obtaining variances.

I have some fond memories from about 30 years ago of one of them renamed by the owner as "The Church of the Divine High". This was a beautiful renovation/conversion, and the owner's Triumph 650 Bonneville's parking place was where the altar was formerly located.
posted by imjustsaying at 4:46 PM on April 20, 2011

Response by poster: I'd known I would have to think about zoning, but I hadn't considered environmental cleanup. Churches are looking better and better...
Nomisxid- thanks for the info about industrial spaces. Residential sounds more like what I'm looking for. I don't want to pour time/money/effort into converting a space just to get kicked out by The Man.
Thanks for the info, everyone.
posted by Adridne at 5:59 PM on April 20, 2011

How about starting with a Realtor? A good Realtor will know what's beyond the cookie cutter homes. Actually I think in greater Boston (Central Mass here) you'll have much better luck than other places since so much development is older than the rest of the country. Ask around in towns you are thinking of moving to and find someone you are comfortable working with. If they think you are crazy (and I love your thinking) move one. In this market they'll be happy to have a customer.

FYI- the first Catholic church in my town is now a Dentist's Office. Circa 1840 I think. It would be such a cool house.
posted by JohntheContrarian at 7:45 PM on April 22, 2011

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