The recent onslaught and streaming obsessions of period dramas (thank you Bridgerton and The Crown) conjure up elegant visions of the past, wherein families in a polite and refined society spoke eloquently, dressed in their finest, and traveled through beautiful rolling countrysides in horse-drawn carriages.
When a day’s journey came to an end, these carriages, the horses, and their drivers had to go somewhere. Enter the carriage house. Carriage houses have a long history, lots of unique features, and some pretty cool modern uses.
Read on to find out everything you need to know about these unique historic dwellings.
What is a carriage house?
Carriage houses were originally designed as outbuildings and were used to store horse-drawn carriages and related equipment, much like a modern-day garage. Sometimes — if room and finances allowed — they also included stables for the horses and living spaces.
Carriage houses date back to 18th-century England. They started showing up in the Northeastern United States in the early 19th century but can be found across the country. Carriage houses were viewed as a status symbol because homeowners used them to store wagons, buggies and horses, which were expensive to own. For some context, carriages cost about $1,000 at a time when workers made less than $1 a day.
With the development and subsequent popularity of motorized carriages and automobiles in the 1900s, horse-drawn carriages naturally fell out of favor. Homeowners started converting carriage houses into garages and the structures became more commonplace dwellings for house drivers and for staff members, if a lofted living space was available.
Carriage houses are also known as coach houses or cart sheds, but — stay with us here — they shouldn’t be confused with carriage homes. While the names may sound similar, the two are actually quite different.
A carriage home is classified as a single-family home that sits on a plot of land not much bigger than the home itself. It is more like a condo or townhouse and often doesn’t have setback regulations, which keep houses and other dwellings from being built closely together.
So what makes a carriage house a carriage house?
Carriage house features
Most carriage houses were two-story structures with a center doorway that was tall and wide enough to provide drivers ample room to maneuver the horse-drawn carriages in and out of the structure. The houses were most always free-standing from, and located behind, the main house.
Although they were a separate structure, carriage house designs often mirrored or complemented the main home’s architectural style. For example, if the main house was built in the Victorian style, the carriage house would often have a steep roof, dormer windows, stained glass, and scrollwork near the eaves.
Carriage houses have high, loft-like ceilings on the ground floor — sometimes as high as 20 feet tall. Some also included a small loft-like living space on the upper floor, which served as a home for the carriage driver.
While the interiors were basically large open spaces, they often didn’t get a lot of light because the buildings were deep and it was common to place windows only at the front of the building.
Most carriage houses in cities had small and simple designs because they typically weren’t built on large lots. They usually were only big enough to hold one carriage and the related equipment, but didn’t include living space for the driver.
Rural carriage houses were often built on sprawling estates, so they could be quite large and more elaborate. The structures could be big enough to house more than one carriage and all of the related equipment. In the case of wealthier homeowners, carriage houses included stables for the horses and many had second-story living quarters that had enough space to accommodate an entire house staff.
Modern-day uses for carriage houses
Over the years, homeowners and developers have restored and transformed carriage houses to serve ever-evolving needs. And the houses’ popularity hasn’t missed a beat.
“Carriage houses are always going to be a little special,” says Lita Belcher, of Lita Belcher Interior Design in Knoxville, Tennessee.
“They’ll always be just a little different, a little bit eclectic, because you’re taking something that was originally meant for one thing and doing something else with it.”
These multi-floor garages have become the perfect framework for second homes and garage apartments, considered accessory dwelling units. Some have been repurposed as industrial workshops, artists’ studios, and even underground clubs.
People who want a more eclectic or unusual home embrace coach houses because they have unique layouts, a lot of layout options, and — depending on the design — can be quite cozy. When gutted, the constructed living spaces can be tailored from top to bottom to meet the specific needs of the owner. Homeowners can dictate the number of rooms they want, the living concepts (open vs. more division), and the use of space (dwelling, studio, or entertainment room).
Because they can serve as garages, workshops, guest suites, office space, studios, short-term rentals, or stand-alone dwellings, carriage houses can add significant value to a home. They can also be tough to come by, so they often sell for a premium.
Take Clinton Hill, for example. This sought-after Brooklyn neighborhood is home to more than 30 carriage houses, garages, and stables, but if you want to buy here, you’ll be looking at price tags in the millions.
Another example is a 3,106-square-foot 1913 carriage house in Seattle. Its exterior is quite standard, but the inside is anything but. Architect George Suyama renovated the home and added a steel staircase, vaulted skylight ceiling, built-in bookcases, a gas fireplace, a chef’s kitchen, and a modest primary bedroom with an en-suite bathroom that features dual vanities, a soaking tub, and a walk-in shower. The asking price? Nearly $2 million for the three-bedroom, three-bath abode.
The growing interest in renovating historic homes combined with the functionality of carriage houses can make these structures a solid residential investment that generates a steady stream of passive income. Carriage houses can offer homeowners supplemental income in the form of long- or short-term rental space and a more private place for personal guests to stay, but Belcher cautions that these dwellings can be like a pool: great if you want it, but a lot of upkeep if you don’t. While they may be helpful in boosting income, they will also require upkeep and repair, so keep that in mind when deciding if this is the route for you.
Building your own modern-day carriage house
The original carriage house design is versatile, but increasingly rare, so some homeowners simply opt to build their own. New construction plans are made to look like the older-style home. You can even purchase a prefabricated carriage house kit that comes equipped with a garage.
Though a true carriage house is a historic building, many modern carriage houses are being built as some cities are adjusting their zoning codes to provide more allowances for accessory dwelling units. In Portland, Oregon, zoning reforms paved the way for a whole carriage house community. There is even a Build Small, Live Large ADU tour so people can learn more about the ADUs, their homeowners, builders, and designers.
The state of California has also passed legislation allowing these modern carriage houses to be easier and less expensive to build. The changes removed a lot of contractor restrictions and permitting guidelines in hopes of creating more affordable housing in an area of the state where rent was skyrocketing.
Is a carriage house for you?
While carriage houses offer a unique opportunity to unleash your inner contractor, buying an older home can come with its challenges. Before making a purchase, be sure to hire a professional home inspector so you can thoroughly check the foundation, roof, plumbing, sewer lines, electrical, as well as environmental issues. Understanding the common problems with older homes before jumping in can help you avoid unwelcome — and costly — surprises down the road.
Historic homes can pack a punch when it comes to repairs, and the cost to modernize a carriage house can become relatively high when you tally up design, materials and labor charges.
Still, many homebuyers love older homes because of their charm, uncommon layouts, and the countless stories held within their walls.
“A carriage house, in and of itself, carries history,” says Belcher. “No matter what you decide to do with it, you always carry a little bit of what came before.”
If you have your sights set on a carriage house, let a top agent be your guide throughout the buying process and help you find the perfect place to call home. Horses are, of course, optional.
Header Image Source: (Patti Black / Unsplash)