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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A second hand home fits old is gold adage

When you hear the words ‘second hand’, the first thing that comes to mind is that it’s been used and/or owned by someone else before, so how can I buy it? This is, however, not a consideration at all for many looking to buy a resale property rather than a brand new construction. Here the rules change when it comes to a second sale and many actually seek it. Sometimes old homes/properties have been given a new lease of life giving the concept of second hand a twist, when it comes to real estate.

A lot of old properties – palaces and havelis - have been restored around India and converted into hotels. The Neemrana Hotels Group has been at the forefront of this movement and have won awards and appreciation for restoring these defunct and in some cases, decrepit buildings to their former glory and also putting it to good use. The Taj Group and the Oberoi Group of hotels have also been putting the same principle to work for years now - of using princely properties to lure in business. These business houses have taken over larger properties while Neemrana has taken over the smaller ones.

In Kerala, the CGH Earth Group has restored old therawads or family homes for the enjoyment of the contemporary traveller. I’ve stayed at their properties called Coconut Lagoon as well as Brunton Boatyard and the experience was wonderful. They have plucked the essence of rural Kerala by recreating the cottages in the very manner of those you would see if you sail down the backwaters in a houseboat or in a hotel launch. The carved wood furniture and the Corinthian pillars with embellishment near the eaves and at the base, which have been picked up intact in some cases, from some home about to be torn down, and reused on their property.

All this was done with help from the local craftspeople who “were invited to restore the work of their forefathers and create an experience of ecological living that was shot through with the spirit of ancient Malabar”, as their website eloquently and aptly puts it.

Brunton Boatyard, another CGH property is actually a 750 year old boatyard, once owned by a Dutchman called Paul Brunton (hence the name) is located at a prime seafront location. This hotel also has kept a lot of the look-n-feel of a boatyard intact while managing to give visitors a five-star experience to savour.

But there are others who have used old-world homes as a showcase of our heritage - like DakshinaChitra. The concept for DakshinaChitra was created by the green-architect Laurie Baker. Deborah Thiagarajan who founded the Madras Craft Foundation which includes DakshinaChitra said, “The implementation was done by Laurie Baker in the beginning and then by his erstwhile student, Benny Kuriakose."

She adds, "The traditional buildings were constructed by teams of craftspeople from the region, from which they were procured. The costs are difficult to give but a ballpark figure for the entire center, all costs included, would be about Rs 5 - Rs 6 crore at the actual prices - from the days (when it was constructed) between 1991 -1999.”

Another really good example of a heritage property being acquired and used as a home is actor Shahrukh Khan’s sea-facing home, Mannat, which he has had to restore keeping in mind the fact that he has bought a piece of Mumbai’s brick and mortar history.

The actor has not done many interior modifications to the house because he can not tear down walls at will but the interiors - which consists large four-bedrooms - reflects the best that a lot of money can buy – Italian marble, Spanish furniture, the large bathrooms have jacuzzis installed et all. This reputedly cost him in the range of Rs 5-Rs 7.5 crore over and above the cost of acquiring the property. In 2007, this property was valued between Rs 70-Rs 100 crore, according to a real estate website www.indiaproperty.com.

Celina Jaitley is another star who has a quaint 150 years-old bungalow in Moira village in Goa called Casa de Francis Celina. Another celebrity who is said to have acquired a heritage property in Mumbai is cricketer Sachin Tendulkar. He’s only just acquired the property in 2009 and renovation work has yet to begin.

Some wealthy people who are not in the public eye have also restored crumbling old mansions set in their own gardens, which in itself is quite a luxury these days, where every available square feet of space is converted into parking space or space to be rented out for commercial business. So, some family friends of mine who have the Mercedes and Ford dealerships in Pune and the Porsche and Audi one in Mumbai (so can afford to) live in a heritage home in Pune, which once belonged to a Parsi family.

They took pains to rebuild this property keeping in mind the original architecture and décor of the house. So, even though all the art and showpieces that are so painstakingly bought and lovingly arranged around the home belongs to them - the façade, the intricate mosaic tiles, the plaster-of-paris false ceiling and the trellis-work windows have all been kept the same as the original. Everything obviously needed to be spruced up and that cost them quite a lot of pennies! In fact, their architect went to the original source for more of the mosaic tiles because many of them were cracked and chipped and had to be removed. He went all the way to Iran for this! Not surprising since Parsis originate from that country – from a location called Paras in southern Iran, so it’s possible that the original owners had quite a lot of stuff imported to build their home away from home.

Yet another decrepit property that I saw years ago in Pune called the Jeejeebhoy Mansion, was ripe for the picking because it was also a big old house set in a huge garden but I think, it might have been under dispute back then. Such properties are worth crores today and Parsis had the foresight to buy real estate in some plumb locations all across India at a time when such properties were neither valued or hoarded. In Mumbai, they have housing societies in places like Colaba, Dadar, Hughes Road etc which is today prime commercial and residential space with ease of access to schools, hospitals, shopping, recreation and the entertainment district.

Anyway, what real caught my eye when I went to look at the Jeejeebhoy property years ago was the beautiful replica of a Rodin sculpture in marble, of the ‘Wrestler’ also called 'Nude Balzac' because its muse was apparently the French writer Honore Balzac. (The Greeks have an assortment of such sculptures, but I'm assuming this is by Rodin because of it's similarity in form and grace to his more famous 'The Kiss' sculpture.) This abandoned sculpture reflected the despair, over the neglect of what at one time must have been a vibrant and wealthy home. The overgrown garden added to the Neverland-like atmosphere of the place.

It is true that the rest of us can’t hope to step into such expensive homes – heritage or not – but sometimes the saying ‘old is gold’ holds good. In this case, second hand is very uber cool.


Here are the most common questions on most people's mind regarding owning an old or heritage home. I asked architect Brinda Gaitonde, who conducts heritage walks around Mumbai with fellow architect Abha Bahl, to clarify these issues. She has experienced the thrill of restoring vintage homes and explains what goes into making them liveable again. To know more about the heritage walks, click here: http://www.bombayheritagewalks.com/index.php

1. Are old homes bought and restored frequently or is the cost so prohibitive that it's not feasible?
A: It is not common for old homes to be bought and restored frequently. Usually they are bought up to be redeveloped and not necessarily for restoration. Yes the actual cost might make it out of reach, plus the added cost of repairs, which most of these old houses need.

2. If done...how much does it cost to do such projects?
A: It varies on the condition of the house, the location etc.

3. How close to the original do you aim to keep the restoration keeping modern utilities etc in mind?
A: Restoring an old house to the original, contrary to popular belief, can offer a lot of flexibility for planning and incorporation of utlitilies. It would require adept organisation and understanding of the construction methodology of the property.

4. Have you had difficulty in sourcing any material to restore such properties?
A: Not really, there is no major difficulty in sourcing information. Sometimes we do run across some problems to source material such as for e.g. encaustic tiles, stained glass etc. But these can be incorporated within modern materials to give a period, and at the same time contemporary look.

5. Have you done any work like this and would you like to share some anecdotes.
A: When I worked with ANL Associates at Botawala building, one of the eight buildings at Horniman Circle (in Mumbai), we wanted to restore some of the replaced modern aluminum sliding windows back to the original. So at a general body meeting an old gentleman came up and said he had managed to salvage some window frames from demolished historic homes. Cannot forget the day that I went to his workshop to see these original frames as I was literally window-shopping! He had about 20 different kind!

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