Grant Bermann and Ryan Velandria McCarthy fell in love with the Italianate brick façade of the 1889 Shaw row house when they purchased the property in 2015, but were less impressed with the interior. “The house had been renovated a few times in an incoherent way and its character had been stripped away during these piecemeal projects,” says McCarthy. “We had to use our imagination to visualize what it might be like.”
The couple, both attorneys, hired Josh Hill, a principal with Hill and Hurtt Architects, to realize their goals, which included introducing period-appropriate details and charm, increasing natural light and modernizing the layout with a more sensible placement of the bathrooms and kitchen.
“Ryan and Grant didn’t really nest in their new home because they knew they were going to remodel it,” Hill relates. “The interior was so disappointing compared to the exterior. The living and dining rooms had been combined into one big space, the moldings had been replaced with drywall and the fireplace tiles had been removed.”
Phase one of the renovation started with a reconfiguration of the first floor. “The kitchen had an awkward layout with a powder room in the middle so when you opened the oven door it banged into the powder room door,” recalls Bermann. “Josh moved the powder room and demolished a back staircase to increase the size of the kitchen without needing to build out and lose any garden space.”
The back elevation had been neglected in the home’s previous iterations, so Hill designed a new rear façade with a second layer of brick, stone steps and floor-to-ceiling glass doors that re-center the kitchen and connect it to the garden. “We don’t want the back and front of the house to match,” he explains, “but we do want both entrances to feel important.”
To add charm to the open dining and living rooms, each of which has a fireplace, Hill installed Victorian-era fireplace surrounds and mantels. He layered in crown moldings, ceiling beams and pilasters to define the spaces. “The fireplaces, built-in bookcases and cabinets are the focal point for this level, and we were even able to find a mantel with a pair of lion’s paws at the base,” he notes.
In the kitchen, the goal was to marry modern style with the home’s Victorian details. Hill accomplished this by extending white oak flooring throughout the main level, adding simplified moldings that echo those in the living and dining rooms and choosing simple, white-painted, flat-panel cabinets and a white quartz waterfall island.
Few original architectural elements remain in the interiors other than an elaborate newel post. “The vestibule and staircase were completely redone and opened to the rest of the floor plan,” says McCarthy. “The staircase had a partially exposed brick wall, and we were able to completely expose the brick and paint it white.”
A large skylight above the staircase on the third floor bathes the stairwell in natural light. While the front windows couldn’t be altered because of historic preservation requirements, new larger windows across the back of the house are double-hung to relate to the originals.
The plan reconfigured the second floor, where the two bedrooms that once shared a bath were allotted their own en-suite, marble-clad bathrooms. “The primary bedroom had a large 1980s Jacuzzi in the corner that we took out,” Bermann observes. “The rooms are more rationally proportioned now, with the primary bedroom centered around the fireplace.”
A new staircase boasting visibility to the first level leads to the third floor, replacing what McCarthy calls a “tunnel-like” stair. “My favorite room is the third-floor lounge, which has a slanted ceiling that reaches about 15 feet tall at the highest point,” says Bermann. “The first floor is where we entertain, but the top floor is where we enjoy day-to-day life, especially with the balcony overlooking the street.” The third floor also houses closets and a full bath.
The couple’s happiest memory in the house is their wedding day in 2018, when only the first floor had been renovated. “We were married under the chandelier in front of the fireplace by Jim Obergefell, a dear friend who was the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that allowed same-sex marriages,” says McCarthy. “It was understated but beautiful, with a small reception in the new kitchen and dining area.”
Architecture: Joshua O. Hill, AIA, LEED AP, NCARB, Hill and Hurtt Architects, Washington, DC. Contractor: Cem Sevim, Buffalo Company LLC, Washington, DC.
DRAWING BOARD: Q&A with architect Joshua Hill
How do you reconcile modern tastes with historical vernacular?
It’s always a challenge to recall an earlier era while not wholly replicating it. No one wants an 1890s kitchen, and everyone wants more natural light and flow. Reconfiguring the floor plan while keeping or adding details can provide the right results.
How do you decide what to restore and what to replace in an older home?
It can be hard to take away something such as a beautiful oak staircase that’s in the wrong spot, but we have confidence that what we put back will be better. We try to preserve as much as we can in every home. In this house, most of the original details were taken away in earlier renovations.
What are common renovation mistakes to avoid?
Renovating can be an emotional ride, so you need to work with people you trust and like. It’s important to hire the right builder and design professionals who will work as a team. The other mistake people often make is being unrealistic about their budget and then needing to cut corners. You need to understand the costs from the beginning to make the right choices.
While enjoying the views and the experience of making your architectural mark on a site, you also assume the role of protector to some of the area’s most precious and valuable land.
“Buying waterfront property for your custom home comes with lots of extra challenges,” says Trey Rider, a real estate agent and vice president of TTR Sotheby’s International Realty in Easton. “There are critical rules in place that are environmentally friendly and impact what you can and cannot build on a waterfront lot.” A team of experts knowledgeable about local regulations, including a real estate agent, civil engineer, architect and builder, will be necessary partners in the creation of a home that matches your vision. On the following pages, area experts weigh in on what to consider every step of the way.
VIEW FROM THE TOP
When you buy property on a river, tributary or bay, a plan that maximizes water views is crucial. “Waterfront lots are expensive, so it’s important to work with an architect who can make the most of the land,” notes Marta Hansen, principal of Hansen Architects in Annapolis. “Once we know the land we have to work with, we start the design process by looking for the best view—the one you want from the rooms you use the most, such as the great room, the kitchen and the primary suite.” Hansen also watches the pattern of the sun across a property to prioritize natural light.
At Annapolis-based Hammond Wilson, architect and principal Leo Wilson begins the process by determining the size of the house. “We then talk about how to site it on the land to take advantage of views, sunrise, sunset and even the wind,” he relates. “The waterfront itself drives the layout because people want their primary suite to be private but have a water view. We try to design the informal living spaces and kitchen near the pool but keep the formal living spaces away from it because you don’t want to look at a pool cover during the winter months.”
Restrictions on how close you can build to the shoreline and what percentage of a property can be developed mean that newer homes on the Eastern Shore often are very vertical, with two or more stories to create enough living space—and more rooms with a view. “During one project we brought a manlift to the property to show the owner the perspective from the second floor so he could approve the design,” recalls Dave Carlisle, president and founder of Bayview Builders in Annapolis.
Carlisle advises homeowners to loop in a builder, along with a civil engineer and an architect, early in the process. “A local builder can provide advice on constructability and address budget and timeline constraints,” he explains. “We also know which materials will hold up to the wind, water and sun you get near the water.”
SETBACKS, SEPTIC & MORE
While buildable lots require a 100-foot setback between the water and the house, other rules set by states, counties and towns determine a home’s possible footprint. Complications that impact the size and shape of a custom waterfront home include the location of the septic system and how much of the land can be covered by an impervious surface—meaning paving stones, pathways and structures that cause water to run off rather than absorb into the soil.
“To determine the size of the septic system, soil testing needs to be done during the wet season from late winter to early spring. It will show how water is absorbed,” says Wilson, adding that sometimes forest conservation easements require an architect to design around the trees.
The percentage of the land that may be impervious to water is unique to each property and impacts the allowable footprint of the house and terraces, says Hansen. A driveway on a long, narrow lot could use up much of the allowable impervious surface. And while decks are pervious because water can seep through wood, flagstone terraces and even gravel driveways are considered impervious.
Purchasing a property with an existing house to tear down may ease the home-building process, as it’s likely to already have a septic system, driveway or pier in place. Looser provisions may be grandfathered in as well. “You don’t have to stick to the footprint of that house, and you can design laterally or vertically,” Hansen explains. However, “you can’t go any closer to the water than the previous house did, or to that 100-foot setback.”
Since waterfront homes often attract boaters, Rider cautions that buyers with plans to keep a boat on their property should check the mean low-water depth to make sure it will accommodate their boat. And determining navigable water depth is key to ensuring a boat can reach the bay or river without hitting a sandbar. For example, homes on the South River have beautiful views, but the river is too shallow for most boats.
Also be aware that waterfront property-owners must maintain their shoreline. “The guidelines call for a ‘living shoreline,’ which slopes into the water and should include native grasses,” Rider observes. “This creates a habitat for wildlife—but it can cost $350 to $450 per linear foot to build a living shoreline with stone hidden under the water” for stability. Repairing an existing riprap stone shoreline or wooden bulkhead can also be costly.
For boaters and non-boaters alike, a carefully designed custom home can bring indoor-outdoor living to a new level. “Outdoor living is even more important by the water,” Wilson notes. “So waterfront homes need a seamless connection between the interior and exterior.”
Purchase contracts for waterfront lots typically include a 30-to-90-day window for a feasibility study, even if the land already includes a structure that will be torn down. According to Wilson, the design process takes between nine and 12 months, during which period permits can be requested. Construction will require an additional 12 to 18 months before owners can settle in and begin to enjoy their new home.
Waterfront properties have always been desirable for their views and the relaxation that comes with watching light play on water. But since the pandemic hit, vacation-home markets along the Chesapeake Bay have experienced a dramatic increase in buyers.
“We’ve seen a sea change in demand,” says Chuck Mangold, an associate broker with Benson & Mangold Real Estate in Easton, Maryland. “This is the lowest inventory of homes for sale I’ve seen in 20 years because buyers have swept in and bought everything available.”
A similar story is playing out in Virginia’s Northern Neck, where demand is substantially higher than normal, says Susan Bowman, a realtor with Bay Properties/One South Realty Group in White Stone, Virginia. “We usually see people from Richmond and the DC area here, but this year people are coming from farther away to buy homes—as far as Minnesota and Philadelphia,” she reports. “And they’re staying longer because they’ve discovered they can work from here and live on the water.”
For most buyers, the priority is space for family and friends to gather—with more bedrooms than they may need in their permanent residences. In addition, Bowman says, people want a place where they can have fun outdoors with boats and fire pits, then gather on a big screened porch to play games, read—and enjoy the view.
About 75 to 80 percent of second-home buyers on the Eastern Shore would prefer a waterfront home, says Mangold—though landlocked Easton and quaint St. Michaels have evolved into destinations of their own with art, culture and restaurants that are almost as big a draw as boating. “And some people want to live where they can walk to town,” he notes.
On the Eastern Shore, custom homes are more popular than those in planned neighborhoods, which typically have homeowner’s associations that require property owners to pay dues and follow community rules. These enclaves sometimes offer amenities such as a swimming pool or a dock in addition to services including trash and snow removal.
“The homes in HOAs tend to be a little less costly, but the fees and town taxes add to ongoing expenses,” Mangold explains. “Some people like having access to a fitness center, pools and tennis in an HOA, but I find that most second-home buyers would rather have a stand-alone house.”
While waterfront properties are often the preference of homebuyers in Virginia, Bowman says the quiet of the area, with its old-fashioned towns, is also a draw. “Some people want the peace and solace of being away from a city and don’t care whether they have a water view or not,” she observes. “Others are nostalgic for a quieter way of life in a town where they have a sense of safety and camaraderie, with an ice cream shop on the corner and little cafés.”
The Boating Life
Buyers on the bay typically prioritize boating, which in turn drives their choice of a home. “Many people think they want a house right on the bay with endless water views, but your house and your boat can take a beating from all the wind,” Bowman notes. “A deep-water creek may be a better option because you get the water view, but your property is a little more protected. Your boat and your dock will last longer.” Keep in mind that some HOAs on the Northern Neck prohibit residents from keeping a boat on land—so if you envision taking your boat out of the water for the winter, you’ll want to ask about that rule.
Most waterfront homes on the Eastern Shore have private piers with water and electricity. One caveat: Boaters should be sure to check the water depth for the entire route they want to take from their home into the Chesapeake Bay. “A buyer purchased a home with the water depth he needed around his pier,” Mangold recalls. “But he found he couldn’t get the boat past a nearby cove because the cove wasn’t deep enough.”
Bowman recommends tracing the waterway from the house you want to buy all the way to the bay or the Potomac River. “Sometimes listings say they have water access, but really you’re just stuck on a pond,” she says. “You could be on a big, beautiful creek, but a storm might change the entrance to the Potomac so you can’t get out.”
Sailboat owners need a depth of at least five feet to navigate, while three or four feet is usually enough for small power boats. Bowman also suggests confirming that the pier belonging to the house you’re considering can accommodate the number of boats you want to keep.
All in the Details
While owning a vacation home revolves around fun and relaxation, many people today are using their second homes for extended periods to work remotely. That means robust Internet service is a must. “Only about 30 to 40 percent of homes in the Northern Neck have high-speed Internet, which can exclude a house from being marketable to many buyers,” says Bowman, who advises clients to ask their real estate agent or check to see if high-speed Internet can be installed.
Another consideration is insurance. Vacation homes—particularly those on the water—face greater risk from wind and storms; they also need to be inspected to see if they are on a flood plain. Most require special flood insurance, and homeowners premiums can be a little higher because of the added risk of a waterside location, says Mangold, though flood insurance usually costs under $1,000 per year. “The risks from flooding are more about the elevation of the property than its proximity to water, and we’re not in an area with terrible flood hazards,” he points out.
When obtaining a flood-insurance policy, Bowman recommends checking for a “named storm deductible” feature; for claims related to a named tropical storm or hurricane, insurance companies sometimes set a higher deductible that can equal from one to 10 percent of a home’s insured value.
When shopping for a home on the water, buyers should consider potential maintenance issues as well as trouble spots. For instance, natural materials such as cedar shakes and painted surfaces will require frequent repainting and maintenance due to weather, while crawl spaces can collect moisture and even standing water—requiring expensive repairs to get rid of odors and rotting floor joists. Eroding shorelines are another consideration. “If there is an existing retaining wall or riprap, make sure it is functioning properly,” Bowman says. “If the property has no shoreline protection, estimate the cost of fixing the problem and preventing future erosion before purchasing the house.”
While some owners hire someone to check on their vacation home periodically when they’re away, Mangold still recommends everyone follow three important rules before leaving: Shut off the water; install a programmable thermostat; and make sure there’s a back-up drain line attached to the air conditioner’s condensation pan.
Ask An Expert
According to Mangold, home values in Chesapeake Bay communities can be even more subjective than homes in urban and suburban communities. “It’s important to work with someone who knows the idiosyncrasies of the homes and the area,” he observes. “You need to understand how you’ll want to live when you’re there and consult someone who can demonstrate the value of different properties.”
Adds Bowman, “A local agent will know to check on the maintenance needs of a property, the water depth or the tendency for flooding. For instance, he or she can look at the plat to make sure you’re not buying a place with a big easement so everyone in the area can use the community dock.”