DC Rowhome

If you aren’t familiar with housing in older cities like DC or Baltimore, the term “rowhome” may be new to you. Since the rowhome is a prevalent style of home in Washington DC, we’re going to not only discuss what you need to know about them but also take you inside one!

Harry Wardman is credited as the builder of many rowhomes throughout NW DC. The original rowhome was designed in the 1800’s and the first rowhomes were built on the 900 block of Longfellow Street. Wardman went on to develop throughout DC and is responsible for thousands of rowhomes in the city. There are iconic DC styles of homes throughout the city. Each neighborhood has its own clusters of styles depending on when the home was built and what the style was at that time.

Michael and Melissa both live in rowhomes in the city. Melissa’s home was built in 1932, and she found the newspaper advertisement for it. Michael’s home was built in 1915 and he also found his house advertised in the newspaper by the original builder.  Michael’s was initially listed as a rental home along with the four other rowhomes next to him for a whopping $17.50 per month!

“These handsome new solid brick homes incorporate every comfort and labor-saving device known to our age. Outstanding among the many modern features are Chamberlain metal weatherstrips, copper screens, beautifully finished recreation rooms, colored tile baths with the new Chromard fixtures, cedar lined closets having mirror doors, colonial brass bracket lights, paneled wallpaper, double oak floors, French doors leading from reception halls to kitchens, 2 built in book-cases in the living rooms, new McDougall kitchen unit with standard double drainboard sink, choice of Westinghouse or Electrolux refrigeration, cement front porches, screened double rear porches, built-in garages have overhead doors. We urge your immediate inspection as 2 homes in this original group of 6 were sold before completion.”

For 8 rooms and 2 baths the price was $9550 in 1932. Here we are 92 years later and we still have the same real estate speculation where homes sell before construction is complete.

How is a DC Rowhome different from a townhome?

They aren’t different in living style, but rowhome is a term that pre-dates the “homeowner’s association” coming into existence. Generally, anything post 1960 is called a townhome. Townhomes are part of communities where you share amenities or street maintenance plus green space. You will pay a monthly amount of a few hundred dollars for that shared maintenance. Rowhomes do not have anything mandated, though you do see some neighbors share in maintenance for common areas they may be lucky to enjoy.

What Should You Know About Rowhome Living?

  • You may have a shared chimney, and you’ll need to have a relatively amicable relationship with that neighbor as you will share the maintenance. Or you can be like Melissa’s neighbor who lets them replace the liner and then dodges them every time she sees them.
  • Brick work needs to be repointed in full about every 50-75 years. Masons recommend doing it all at once. In Melissa’s condo building we do it in pieces because it’s so expensive, but water constantly finds other ways to infiltrate the building. It is vital to repoint brick when needed to maintain the structural integrity of your rowhome.
  • Your home could be affected by the homes that are attached to yours. Rowhomes operate more like one large house – the neighbor’s plumbing backup could overflow into your basement. This is less likely to happen in a townhome which are built to function more independently of each other.
  • There is a difference between settlement and structural Issues. Generally rowhomes will not be entirely level, but this isn’t direct evidence of a structural issue. If the floors are sloped one way or the other, that is usually settlement. If they are sloped so the center of the home is the lowest point, that could be a structural issue or if you see large stair ladder style cracks in the walls. When a window or a door is difficult to open, that also could be a sign that there is something structural going on with the home.
  • Not all framing and walls are square, so symmetry can be difficult sometimes when completing upgrades like tile unless you gut the entire rowhome – to include some wall studs/framing.
  • Even with new windows and doors, the internal temperature can still be difficult to maintain.
  • Insulation in most of the old homes isn’t great unless someone installed good insulation before a major overhaul of the home.
  • Rowhomes have stood the test of time and are very sound.  That’s what we love about old homes.
  • Get a boundary line survey when you close on your home. These homes are very old and you need to know what easements are granted on your property that could affect things such as your alley access.

What Updates Should be Complete?

  • Central HVAC can be added without removing the awesome radiator heat. Many people remove the radiators because they take up room and aren’t very attractive but they make really great coverings for them that can help your room look nice. FUN FACT: There is a company that actually manufactures fun styles of radiator covers that come in many colors.
  • Heavy-up the electrical. The original homes were not outfitted with the electrical capacity to handle central air conditioning.
  • Upgrade sewer line & main water line (You can find this information on DC’s Lead Service Line – Water Service Information site)
  • Lead pipes should have been replaced
  • Asbestos boilers should be removed
  • Asbestos tile needs to be removed by a licensed contractor or covered.
  • Brick repointing may need to be completed.
  • Check the DC Permit System (SCOUT) to see if any structural work completed on the home and what permits have been pulled. Often there is significant work done to homes without the proper licenses and permits.
  • Also check the seller disclosures for any evidence of structural work having been completed.
  • If the home has a crawl space, a vapor barrier should be installed.
  • Ensure a sump pump and french drains have been installed.
  • Check the age and condition of the roof and ensure it’s been repaired / replaced in a timely manner so there is no leaking in the attic space above your top floor.

What Do We Love About Rowhomes?

The Federal and Victorian architectural features are endless. Vestibules, exposed brick, wood trim which hopefully hasn’t been painted, tall ceilings, turrets, curved walls, large windows and transom windows.

If you’re lucky, the following may still exist in your home having survived decades of renovations – antique hardware and lighting, stained glass, pocket doors, ornate newel posts and stairway handrails, and ornate fireplace mantels.