Turning old homes into businesses: A lot of work, but worth it

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Turning old homes into businesses: A lot of work, but worth it

cake_e48f74576d510a0d56963c5d622c0b59Gloucester County’s long history began hundreds of years ago when sleepy bedroom communities began to develop around key farming and transportation areas.

In the late nineteenth century many large, Victorian-era homes began popping up along the main corridors of these small towns.

Recently, while the desire for newer houses grew, large, modern residential developments began springing up, just for the housing market to dry up, leaving an expanse of empty older homes.
But with the help of cooperative local governments many entrepreneurial individuals have found a way to bring new life to the old homes.

In towns such as Mantua and Harrison Township these homes have been transformed from residential houses to places of business, from law and accounting offices to antique stores, florists, bakeries and retail shops.

“For a lot of small business owners there’s an appeal to living where you work,” said Lisa Morina, Gloucester County’s director of economic development. “It helps them get established without having to go into a lease. Especially with a start up business it’s hard to get established. This is a way to get it off the ground with less risk.”

But changing an older home into a place of business is not an easy task. There are zoning issues and traffic concerns, as well as making sure everything is up to code. And that all needs to be done before someone can begin any construction that will inevitably be necessary to change a building from somewhere that people live to somewhere people can shop.

For Alexandra Benas, owner of the Cake Boutique in Mullica Hill, the decision to use an old house as the home of her new business was an easy one, but there were plenty of obstacles that kept popping up before she could open.

“We knew it would be a long process,” she said. “But I knew the bones of the house were great and it had a great look. It gave a a good story to the business and to me it has so much more of a character than a new building.”
Zoning regulations, however, determined that the house stood too close to Route 322 — which did not exist when the house was constructed — to function as a business. Thus, Benas was required to obtain a variance from the planning board, allowing her to begin construction.

She then had to replace the house’s flooring before any heavy baking equipment was installed. Benas also had to replace the electrical system to make sure it was up to code.

“It’s a long process and can be extremely frustrating,” Benas said. “You have to go through all those channels before you even start. It’s definitely more of a pain to fix up but with the type of business I have it fits just fits perfectly with an old house.”

According to Lou Manzo, Harrison Township’s mayor, creating businesses out of older homes is a great way to preserve the historical buildings as well as giving them a new purpose, especially on Route 322 in downtown Mullica Hill. Traffic in the area has continuously increased, making it not as attractive to homeowners, but increasingly so for business owners.

“The best way to preserve them is to get people to put money into them and we want to do everything we can to preserve the homes,” he said. “At one point it was a sleepy little farm town but it’s changing.”
The township has designated the area as a historic district, allowing potential business owners to receive tax abatements and to ease their transition with variances and zoning issues.

“In a lot of towns all you hear is ‘permits, variances, escrow,’” Manzo said. “We try and make someone understand we are very much behind getting it done.”
Written By: Rebecca Forand/South Jersey Times

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