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These impressive Baltimore homes once housed 20th century elite. But are they marketable to today’s buyers?

Claire Smith delights in escaping on her runs to what she considers an enchanting part of the city, North Baltimore’s Guilford neighborhood, where she often stops to admire some of the historic homes that transport her to another era.

The neighborhood, sometimes lauded as a national model for development and residential planning, sprawls across some 210 acres acquired by the Roland Park Company more than 100 years ago. Just north of Johns Hopkins University and about three miles from downtown, Guilford includes a mix of residences — mansions, cottages and row houses — in broad range of popular 20th century revivalist architectural styles.

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A century ago, these homes housed members of the city’s elite: doctors, tea importers, inventors, artists and bankers. Despite Guilford’s rich aesthetic and history, selling the now aging homes to 21st century buyers, especially the larger ones, can be challenging.

Sherwood Gardens in North Baltimore's Guilford neighborhood is seen from above a few weeks before the parks famous tulips emerged this spring.
Sherwood Gardens in North Baltimore's Guilford neighborhood is seen from above a few weeks before the parks famous tulips emerged this spring. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

More than a dozen homes priced between $789,000 and $2,485,000 are currently listed for sale ― which might be an unusually high number of large homes on the market at any one time in the neighborhood, said Ann G. Giroux, an architectural historian and author of “Guilford” and “Guilford: A Walking Tour in Pictures.”

Many of the homes have been listed as active for more than 100 days which, though perhaps not uncommon for the neighborhood, is longer than the city’s median number of 44 days on the market, according to data from Bright MLS. One has been on the market for nearly a year and a half.

Some real estate and housing experts say contemporary factors such as shrinking market demand for high-end, single-family houses, a desire for modern floor plans, shifting attitudes toward homeownership in general and Baltimore-specific concerns such as schools, property taxes and crime might further increase the difficulty of selling homes in the neighborhood.

Dennis Pogue, a professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and the director of its historic preservation program, said many historic homes in Baltimore, some of which include space for servants, might simply prove too large for modern families, which no longer feature as many offspring or live-in helpers.

Noah Mumaw, a real estate agent with Monument Sotheby’s International Realty currently handling three Guilford properties, said above all, many of today’s increasingly busy clients seek modern, “turn-key” residences that do not require additional time or financial investment prior to moving in.

“It’s about getting the right buyer,” he said. “People can be categorized into either old house buyers or new house buyers."

Old house buyers, Mumaw said, welcome the task of refining historic homes into sleek, modern abodes and usually accept the costs that accompany their projects. Meanwhile, new house buyers aim to avoid additional investment in their properties and look to settle in right away, he said.

“Turn key definitely sells faster than ones that need a lot of work,” said Mumaw, adding that the $2.485 million property listed at 4200 Greenway represents a harmonious blend of old architectural detail with modern upgrades. “They don’t build houses like this anymore — they can’t afford to.”

Giroux, who also lives in Guilford, said a home’s condition there heavily influences its marketability. While the Guilford Association maintains the neighborhood’s character and scale by regulating facade additions, extensions and new construction through its deed and covenants, it does not regulate interior renovations or mandate upgrades, she said.

“You just never know what problems you’ll find, or what amazing luxury you’ll find,” she said. “It depends on the person.”

The potential challenge of selling a Guilford home also could stem from cyclical and generational changes in attitudes and means.

Pogue said the current generation of homebuyers perhaps views homeownership differently than their parents and grandparents.

“There’s indication that millennials are ... deferring completely and just don’t see themselves as being homeowners,” Pogue said.

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Guilford Association president Tom Hobbs said since many of the large houses require consistent upkeep and renovation, residents of older age groups tend to downsize into more manageable dwelling situations around the same time. Younger generations might be dissuaded from purchasing sprawling pieces of real estate like many of those found in Guilford, he said, due to economic factors such as the city’s employment opportunities and its high property tax rate compared to other Maryland counties.

“There’s nothing directly that we can do besides be very positive about the environment that exists here,” Hobbs said. “In other cities, these would be scantily low prices. But, it requires a lot of investment.”

Christopher Ptomey, executive director for the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing, said Guilford’s challenges are not uncommon. Nationwide, a “mismatch” exists between demand for smaller or multi-family units and availability, he said. He suggested remedying this by eliminating zoning and other living restrictions and turning large homes into multi-unit dwellings or small apartments.

“It doesn’t mean you destroy character of the neighborhood,” Ptomey said. “You’re making it relevant again by serving current needs, which will enable its character to be preserved over time.”

To Hobbs, the neighborhood’s existing character distinguishes it from others. Many recent newcomers to the neighborhood have come to Baltimore from other states like California, New York and Ohio, he said, and are struck by the neighborhood’s overall scale and value compared to other places, especially since many homeowners qualify for The Heritage Preservation Tax Credit Program. This provides Maryland income tax credits equal to 20% of the qualified capital costs spent on the rehabilitation.

“You will not find this kind of community very frequently," he said. “People who make the conscious decision to live here love living in what might be a suburban setting in the city.”

Smith, a Roland Park resident for over five decades, said she considers Guilford a shining example of the Baltimore she knows ― and not the one so often depicted in the news.

But it’s also an example of a darker side of Baltimore with its institutional history of segregation. The original developers of the neighborhood included a racially-restrictive deed that barred “Negroes or persons of African descent” from purchasing homes, a practice that the Supreme Court ruled unenforceable by 1948.

While such restrictions are history, they continue to impact the city and where people live and choose to live. Many of the city’s business elite joined the white flight to the suburbs in the 1950s and ’60s, opting for large houses with more land off exits up the newly built Jones Falls Expressway and Interstate 83, for example. The desegregation of city schools helped spurred that exodus.

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Yet Guilford continued to thrive. Neighborhood residents said that in addition to Guilford’s architectural aesthetic and maintenance, they enjoy its close proximity to downtown Baltimore, the city’s universities and hospitals, and its many private schools. They describe a tight-knit camaraderie with their neighbors and relish the walkable distance to parks, shops and restaurants.

While violent crime is an issue in the city, the rate in the neighborhood is four times lower than the city’s overall rate, according to the latest statistics from The Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance - Jacob France Institute.

Michael Yerman, a Baltimore real estate agent with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Homesale Realty currently handling a Guilford listing, said he considers urbanites a “different breed” of buyers who intrinsically believe the benefits of their purchases outweigh the costs.

“If you’re willing to live in the city, Guilford is probably the prettiest [neighborhood] in Baltimore,” he said. “It’s wonderfully convenient, and the houses sell."

Although the neighborhood experiences turnover, Giroux said it typically does not struggle to attract buyers, even those of diverse backgrounds.

“They actually planned Guilford to have a luxury feel and look, but really, they were selling houses for all different kinds of families and income levels,” said Giroux, adding that many of the area’s more modestly sized and priced homes reside in the neighborhood’s secondary and tertiary roads, farther away from the nationally renowned Sherwood Gardens, which attracts thousands of visitors each spring for its tulip bloom.

Jean DuBose, a Guilford homeowner for seven years, said the neighborhood offers her a “best of both worlds” situation that enables her to enjoy the conveniences of urban living in a family-friendly environment.

“We wanted a yard, and we have a nice, quiet street, and some space," she said, adding that she’s enjoyed raising her children there. “I just think that it’s beautiful — the gardens people have, the homes. I like living in a unique neighborhood with unique property."

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