Buying time

A homebuyer’s introduction to Reno’s historical houses

The view from the roof of the Nevada Museum of Art overlooks the Old Southwest neighborhood and the Sierras.

The view from the roof of the Nevada Museum of Art overlooks the Old Southwest neighborhood and the Sierras.


Did you know that spring is homebuying season? What about the fact that homes for sale are actually pretty scarce and fairly expensive these days? It's what's known as a seller's market, and according to the Reno/Sparks Association of Realtors' monthly market report for March, it's likely to stay that way.

The result is that many prospective homebuyers face looking at homes farther and farther away from the Truckee Meadows’ metropolitan center. Still, the coming months will likely see an increase in the number of existing homes going on the market. And if you’re thinking about buying, it’ll help to know what’s out there—especially if you think you may be interested in snapping up one of Reno’s centrally located older homes.

Perhaps you’ve always found the idea of a Queen Anne house with a steeply pitched roof and ornamented gables appealing. Or maybe you’re drawn to the large picture windows and wide roof overhangs of a ranch. On the other hand, those architectural terms may mean absolutely nothing to you. But even if you think you know what you’re looking for, it can help to ask yourself some questions before beginning your search in earnest.

Relax—these are simple questions, not riddles. Mostly, they deal with how you envision life in your new home, and many would apply regardless of said home’s age. Consider things like whether you’ll want a big backyard, a prominent front porch, an attached garage or multiple stories.

After narrowing in on these preferences, you’ll be ready to look at the types of old homes Reno has to offer and determine which might make the best fit for you.

What’s in an architectural name?

Realtor and historic preservationist Barrie Lynn owns multiple copies of a thick volume called A Field Guide to American Houses. Laid out in chronological order, the book covers architectural styles ranging from pre-Columbian indigenous structures to millennial mansions. When discussing architecture in Reno, Lynn flips immediately to the back half of the book.

“Reno’s architectural history begins in the late 1800s, so when you have a book like this you’re really only using the very back half of it, because there’s a whole section of architecture in here that comes way before Reno existed,” she said.

Early architectural styles found in Reno include Queen Anne homes and Craftsman bungalows. Born of the Victorian era, Queen Anne homes are generally ornate and multistory. They were being built for several decades before the Arts and Crafts movement made its way west to Reno, bringing with it what Lynn describes as a “rebellion against the era of mass production and industrialization.”

With the Arts and Crafts movement came Craftsman homes, which feature roofs that are less steep set atop homes that place a greater focus on horizontal space and hand-built details. Their nature-influenced, rough-hewn exteriors can include things like river rock chimneys and exposed roof rafters. Here in Reno, though, Craftsman bungalows often have another signature feature—solid brick construction.

A home near Wells Avenue had a “for sale” sign in early March. The sign was gone by the end of the month.


The Reno Press Brick company was in operation by the early 20th century, Lynn explained, “but because that was more of the Victorian era [brick] was considered too crude for most home building, and it was reserved for commercial buildings. … But then, in the ’20s, when the Craftsman era came [to Reno], brick suddenly became an awesome material.”

In time, Queen Anne construction gave way to Craftsman. The two styles once seemed very different, but modern buyers are more likely to notice the things they have in common. Both often feature prominent front porches. Their interiors are not generally open concept, and neither are likely to have much of a backyard. That last makes sense when you consider that these homes were built in a time when cars were scarce and neighborhoods were designed to be walkable.

“They faced the street,” Lynn said. “So when you sat on your porch, it was sort of a social interaction.”

Slowly, beginning in the late ’20s, porches began losing ground to garages in Craftsman construction. Eventually, the Craftsman style gave way to Minimal Traditional architecture in the form of small, simple homes without porches or much in the way of added architectural details outside of a well-placed gable. And by the time cars became commonplace in the 1940s, Renoites had again moved on to a new style—the ranch—featuring a prominent garage and a broad, low-to-the ground layout perched close to the street to accommodate backyard life.

These four architectural styles are, of course, not representative of the entirety of older construction in Reno. But they were popular in their times and—excepting Queen Annes, many of which were destroyed to make way for Interstate 80—they’re still prevalent in the valley today. You’ll find Queen Anne and Craftsman homes in Reno’s oldest neighborhoods, north and south of the river and surrounding the university. Minimal Traditional homes and ranches crop up in immediately adjacent neighborhoods. And some areas, like those surrounding Wells Avenue, present a vibrant patchwork of styles from different eras.

What’s really in store?

There is another line of questioning you really should subject yourself to before deciding to purchase an old home. Will you love your new house as is, even if it’s dated and worn? If not, will you renovate it or restore it to period?

The term “fixer upper” has never been so romanticized as it is today. A Google search quickly turns up more than 50 home renovation television shows, ranging from the Vanilla Ice Project to This Old House. The idea of owning and renovating an old home seems adventurous and charming. And it certainly has the potential to be all of that—in addition to risky and time consuming.

This is something Renoite Nancy Gilbert knows firsthand. She and her husband have renovated 13 homes in Reno’s Old Southwest neighborhood since 2003. Her advice for prospective buyers is be prepared to address structural issues and updates to things like plumbing, HVAC and electrical before even considering aesthetic changes.

The inspection on your new old home won’t be done until after the seller accepts your offer. And while you’re not locked into the deal if the inspection turns up serious problems, it would nonetheless be a lot of effort wasted if you found that your dream home’s design-related renovation plans would have to take a back seat to more mundane repairs.

When it comes to issues of renovation versus period restoration, Gilbert doesn’t push an agenda. She and her husband have employed a mix of the tactics in their own projects. And yet, just to hear her talk about those projects—from refurbishing wrought iron fences to tracking down replacement vintage kitchen and roof tiles—seems a compelling case for restoration.

“It’s just a research project,” she said. “It’s really fun. It’s the best part.”

At the very least it would be another part in the research project that is old home buying.