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So You Want to Buy a School to Live In? We Can Help!

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Choosing to purchase a school to use as your home can be the start of an exciting and unique journey. It can preserve a piece of history and has the potential to revitalize a community. But it can also lead to remodeling and re-zoning that can be time-consuming and costly.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 2008 and 2018, just under 15,500 schools were closed. While some of the buildings continued to house a school within a shared building, some of the school buildings were abandoned and left to decline year after year.

When a school is abandoned, there is a chance that it will be put up for sale, much like many schools owned by Detroit Public Schools. In 2012, the city began selling off more than 200 vacant properties, many of which could be converted to adaptive reuse properties and turned into apartments, condos, and more, creating a unique investment opportunity.

If you’re considering buying a school as a single-family home rather than an investment property, that’s an option, too. And a more manageable one at that.

We did some digging, talked to someone who is renovating a local schoolhouse, researched the benefits of buying a school, and even dipped our toes into rezoning laws to bring you this guide for buying a school.

A school that was bought for a residential home.
Source: (Stacie Grissom)

A new life for an old schoolhouse

When Stacie Grissom and her husband Sean, along with their 11-month-old son and their dog,  moved back to their hometown of Franklin, Indiana from New York City and began looking at homes, they never expected their Realtor® to tell them that the school that they grew up near was up for sale for the first time since 1956.

Even though this schoolhouse in Franklin had been a residential home since 1956, when Grissom and Sean bought it last year, they knew it would need some love. But they were up for the challenge.

They understand that buying a school comes with a unique set of challenges. Grissom says,“the price to buy the school was $175,000, and by the end of all the renovations, we’ll be spending a lot more than that. It’s a big building that needs a lot of work, but we’re excited to make it a long-term project.”

The school holds a special place for the couple. Not only is it in their hometown, but “Sean and I were on the same cross country team, and our competition course was right past the school.”

They’ve embarked on a research project to find out as much about the history of the school as they can, and Grissom even got to interview the 90+-year-old-women who used to live across the street. Grissom found out that “her parents used the school as a barn from the 40s until 1956, when it was purchased by the family we bought it from. Her family used the school to house farm equipment, turkeys, chickens, sheep, pigs, and even cattle!”

Because they live in a school, they’ll obviously need a school mascot. “We decided to make our school mascot the ‘Gobblers,’” Grissom says.

To do the project justice, Grissom and Sean have enlisted the help of local experts and Grissom’s parents.

“We’re pretty early in our process,” she says, “but there is absolutely no way we could do this without the insights from my parents, especially my dad.” Because her parents run a commercial real estate business, they are able to use their relationships with contractors and vendors to help the renovation work go smoothly.

If you’re going to buy a school, Grissom recommends “having someone who can give you advice on the long list of projects you need to line up!”

She’s also working with Danny Causey, who offers conceptual architectural renderings in Franklin — you can check them out on her Instagram page, SchoolhouseHomestead. “He is helping us design the layouts and plans for the school, which is helpful to have before we get architects and contractors going.”

Where can I find converted schools for sale?

Finding a converted school for sale is a little more difficult than just typing “converted school for sale” into the Google search bar. It requires more digging, but if you’re really looking for one, there are ways to uncover them.

One way is to contact the school district in your area to see if they’re selling any surplus property.

You can also contact your city department or check their website to see if they have any property for sale. The City of Milwaukee, for instance, has a page dedicated to properties that are available for sale for adaptive reuse.

Other sites that provide listings for schools include:

You can also check your local real estate websites and check their commercial listings. Landman Realty in Friendship, Wisconsin, for instance, has a page dedicated to Wisconsin schools for sale.

A school that was bought to preserve history.
Source: (Stacie Grissom)

Why should I buy a school?

You might be asking yourself: Why should I buy a school? Here are a few reasons.

Preserve a piece of history

Schools hold a special place in the hearts of many. Walking into a school building can release a flood of memories from our pasts — growing up, learning, making friends, getting our hearts broken. And many schools, especially older schools, capture unique architectural styles and features of the past.

In Boynton Beach, Florida, the Boynton Beach high school building, which was abandoned in 2000, integrated Art Deco lines into its Mediterranean revival form, one of the only buildings in South Florida to blend these styles. It had been slated for demolition, but luckily has found new life as a cultural arts hub for the city.

Old schoolhouses that are more suitable as a single-family home can showcase unique brick work, names etched in stone, heavy wood doors, and iron railings. Grissom plans to include a museum wall in their finished schoolhouse to further preserve the history of the building.

Improve the community

In 2012, when Detroit began selling many of their abandoned schools, Roy S. Roberts, the Emergency Manager, explained that selling the schools would not only help the school system with its budget deficit, but it also “rids the surrounding communities of buildings that have become eyesores.”

Vacant buildings break down quickly for many reasons. Left uninhabited and unheated, temperature fluctuations cause the building materials to break down. Water can seep into the building, causing damage to the integrity of the structure, especially as it repeatedly freezes and thaws. Vegetation begins to grow, breaking down surfaces, and encouraging animals to take shelter inside. Animals cause their own damage and leave behind signs that they’ve been there. An abandoned building ages five years for every single year of aging in an inhabited house.

Abandoned buildings are also vulnerable to vandalism and theft, further accelerating their decay. Purchasing an abandoned school can help to revitalize areas in a community, whether it’s used as a single-family home or developed into a creative housing solution.

Ease housing shortages

The U.S. faced a housing supply deficit of 3.8 million units as of the end of 2020, according to a Freddie Mac study, and continues to see various housing crises. So while tackling rezoning a property can be a lengthy and expensive process, converting buildings, like schools, into housing can help to ease housing shortages. Renovating an existing structure can also help to slow the expansion of urban areas into the surrounding areas (urban sprawl).

Some areas try to make it a little easier by making specific provisions in their municipal code for the adaptive reuse of schools.

The Detroit municipal code uses include adult foster care facility, family use, lofts, and multi-family dwellings. Adaptive reuse architecture can breathe “new life into historic structures by converting them into something useful for the surrounding area, like low-income housing, student housing, community centers, or mixed-use creative venues.”

How do I have a property rezoned?

If you buy a school that hasn’t yet been converted to residential use, you will have to go through a rezoning process.

Zoning laws control what land can be used for, be it commercial, residential, industrial, or agricultural; the point of zoning laws is to use land for the purpose for which it is best suited and for the orderly development of a community or area.

Zoning laws are specific to local needs and are created and enforced by local governments. The process to change a property’s zoning can be lengthy and expensive and includes applications and public hearings. But some cities have made the process easier by including provisions for adaptive reuse along with suggestions for how a building can be repurposed.

In Detroit’s quest to sell the school district’s vacant property, the Detroit City Planning Commission voted to recommend the approval of a School Building Adaptive Reuse Ordinance that would make it easier to rezone the properties that it sold.

Other buildings suited to adaptive reuse

If you think living in a school might bring back memories of homework and school lunch, there are lots of other buildings that are well suited to adaptive reuse.

This New Hampshire church has 3100 square feet to play with and design the perfect space. You could buy this Buffalo, New York church for just $10 per square foot, convert this water tank to a residence, or live in an Arizona ghost town museum. When it comes to creating a home, your imagination is the only limitation!

Header Image Source: (Nicola Tolin / Unsplash)