I moved to West Virginia in January 2019. Before that, I was renting in Virginia. It was the typical millennial story; I had a dream job that was in an area where the high cost of living was high, so I could, or could not, do the things I wanted.
In late 2018, I was interviewing for a job in Wheeling, West Virginia at my apartment in Virginia and scrolling through Instagram looking at the historic districts of Wheeling via geotags. I found this picture of someone’s Victorian era house. It was just the fireplace, but it had a really beautiful tile, with dogs running over it and poles on either side. I had never seen anything like it; It was so unique and beautiful. I realized that if I moved to Wheeling there was a very good chance I would be able to buy something just as good in the next few years.
I moved into a loft apartment in a converted warehouse in downtown Wheeling and immediately, the city felt great. I really fell in love with the quality of life, the low cost of living and how tight the community is.
I first saw the McLean House during a walk on Labor Day 2019. I was always looking at properties, as I frequent older buildings for my job as a Historic Preservation Specialist. But I had student loans and although I had some savings, I was not working towards buying a property yet.
I remember looking up and saying, probably out loud, “I really love this, I wonder if it’s available?” A neighbor was sitting on their porch and said the owner had moved to Louisiana and asked if I wanted him to contact her. The next day I brought it to the office and because it’s a small town, everyone knows everyone, so my coworker texted the owner saying, “I think Betsy wants to buy your house.”
When I finally passed the house over Thanksgiving weekend 2019, I opened the door and the chimney was one I saw on Instagram back in 2018. I knew this was my home. The owners are also conservationists and so they posted the McLean House on the Cheap Old House Instagram account in December 2019, just to give it some attention. I love the account and have been following it for years, and the house really resonated with people, probably because it was so cheap and had so many original features.
I think it was listed for about $25,000. But the owners had a very emotional connection to the house and wanted it to go to someone nicer, so they told me they would let it go for $20,000. It eventually rated for $16,500. So we split the difference and I bought it on May 28, 2020 on May 28, 2020 using my savings for $18,500.
The house was bought off the demolition list, it was almost irreparable and the owners before me did a ton of stabilization work. He repaired the structure so that it was not in imminent danger and then he did some repairs; They actually brought it back from the brink.
The house was built in 1892 and is 3,400 square feet on three levels and a basement, so on the first floor you have the entrance hall, stairs, living room, dining room, a half bath and kitchen. There’s a front room, master bedroom, and two other bedrooms on the second floor, and then three rooms on the third floor, but they were barely rooms when I bought it. A big selling point for me was that there is a lot in the part of the house that was part of the parcel so I have a humble side yard.
Before closing the house, I brought through contractors, architects, and engineers. We were really trying to determine if the amount that could be financed in the construction loan would be enough to fix the problems that were there. The value of the house once settled was estimated at $130,000. So 80 percent of that meant the bank could loan me $115,000. I knew then that I was working with a total budget of $125,000, which was enough.
But I didn’t touch a room inside for at least six months. Everything happened almost like a new build. You don’t build the house room by room, you build it layer by layer, so I worked from the outside and top to bottom.
Drying the house was the first priority; Roofing, fixing gutters and closing any openings. There were 10 or 12 windows that were missing entirely; The master bedroom had two shower doors where the window opened!
There was no gutter in the house, so water was flowing down for 35 years. We not only had to fix the roof and gutter but had to completely redo a ton of bricks. I hired professional masons to fix the decorative masonry on the front of the house, but my boyfriend and I redeployed the other three sides. The part from the second floor to the ceiling needed 100% repair.
So, we spent from June to the end of November of 2020 doing this. Apart from my job, I used to spend every 40 hours a week at home if not 50 or 60. I couldn’t do that, although I probably would at some point during the pandemic, because we were working from home and my calendar was cleared.
Once the exterior structure was in good shape, we installed heating and systems; Gas lines, electricity, plumbing and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) and walls and floors put back in. By that time, I had spent about $110,000.
Then, in January 2021, I was approached about working on an episode of with the old About the restoration of the house. It really shook my timeline and my plan! I had to complete three rooms for the show within three months. So the living room, dining room and main bath went from drywall point of view to being a beautiful, finished home. But the opportunity and exposure to the community was great, so I signed on to do it. The show spanned 12 weeks of filming on those three rooms, and they ended in May and were televised in October 2021.
From an architectural standpoint, largely the entire house has been restored. I haven’t changed the floor plan or removed any doors. Nothing that was built in-house or is part of its original integrity, unless absolutely necessary. Then, since that time, I am someone who firmly believes that furniture and decor are ephemeral and reflect the person who owns the house. Decorating is how you should inject yourself into an old building.
I already had a lot of things in storage for the living room, dining room and main bath. I bought new chairs for the dining room and two chairs for the living room, but I have an incredible vintage sofa that I knew I was going to use and two months after buying the house I found an amazing coffee table online, And I made my boyfriend drive me all over Ohio to get it. With the attention the house has gotten over the past two years, I’ve also started working with companies for sponsored content. So, my wallpaper in my bathroom was a sponsored collaboration, as was the lighting throughout the house.
I took a month off in June 2021 and then we came back and started working on putting up the walls and windows in the master bedroom. In the summer and fall, we also made minimal efforts to make the kitchen a usable space. It was in a very disgusting state; It didn’t have walls and the roof was falling down, so we fixed them up and installed tools.
I had already spent the entire $125,00 budget by then, but I knew I could refinance as soon as I was ready to go. This has to be an accurate, up-to-date value of the house as it is completed, which then allows me to wrap my loan into a traditional mortgage, taking out a bit more to do a more high-end kitchen remodel. I moved to Thanksgiving 2021, refinanced in December and I’m closing in mid-January.
I don’t know, as a naughty conservationist, if I’ll ever actually be finished, but I will say that by the fall of 2022, the house will look to the outsider like it’s pretty much complete.
I love my home and want to live here. I am not a flipper in any way, shape or form. But I want to continue to do this with other properties and sell them or rent them out to good people, or help the community. Such assets, once lost, cannot be rebuilt in the same way. Bringing the contents of these historic properties back to life requires more finesse, but it is a very worthwhile cause.
Many young people have been sold the idea of what success looks like, a four bedroom “McMansion” with granite countertops and white kitchen cabinets. I think we’re all coming to the realization that vision may not really be “it”, and it may not look good.
I would encourage anyone to do the same, but especially young people with no children who may have a single or double income. You are creating the life you want, so don’t be afraid to do something like this. If you have a little patience then you can get a lot for very little money.
Betsy Sweeney is the Director of Heritage Programming at Wheeling National Heritage Area and lives in Wheeling, West Virginia. you can follow him on instagram @betsysweeny and find out more about his home betsysweeny.com,
All views expressed in this article are those of the author.
As told to Jenny Howard.