Style and atmosphere abound in Karoo Heritage homes

Steeped in history and dating back to the 18th Century, the quaint and picturesque towns of the Karoo continue to capture the interest of those wanting to escape the pressures and stresses of urban living.

And for those who love the style and romance of bygone eras, there can be no greater find than a heritage home to call your own, says Wayne Rubidge, Pam Golding Properties area principal for the Karoo.

Spanning all three Cape provinces and extending into the southern Free State, the towns of the Karoo are steeped in history and date back to the 18th century. Somewhat aptly, the unique architecture of the Karoo has in recent years provided the stimulus for the economic revival of its towns.

The Karoo’s older towns, which form the bulk of them, boast an abundance of heritage homes. Some towns have many in all the different styles that have occurred in the last 150 years. Towns like Bethulie, Graaff-Reinet, Phillipstown and Loxton, are but a few. There are distinct exceptions or variations to this such as the tiny hamlet of Rhodes in the Eastern Cape, where the entire town, with its gorgeous Victorian cottages and homes has been declared a National Monument.

Rubidge says in many instances, aspects of an older house which in days gone by were necessities are today very attractive and fashionable features in a house, for example, multiple fireplaces with wood or cast iron trimmings, elaborate staircases, Yellowwood or Oregon floors and ceilings, stained glass doors, sash windows, beautiful Art Deco fittings and spacious verandas. Whether you plan to purchase and restore your own cottage or invest in a magnificently restored home or guesthouse, owing a building or home that has historic value can be a sound investment as well as a rewarding experience.
The popular historic and heritage homes range from large Victorian palaces  and stately mansions to the typical Karoo vernacular architecture one finds in a variety of styles, including impressive farm homesteads, and with the lock-up-and-go historical Karoo cottages in high demand due to their affordability.

Says Rubidge: “Heritage homes abound in the Karoo. It is said half the Knysna yellowwoods are in the Karoo in the form of ceiling and floor boards as well as doors and windows. Yellowwood is a protected species so owning a Karoo home with Oregon or Yellowwood interiors all for R450 000 is without compare.

“The main driver of demand for this type of home is in the fact that you own something special and irreplaceable which cannot be replicated as the original materials cannot be purchased, coupled with the fact that in some towns you can buy a grand old home for the above price which would cost you three times to build if you had to start from scratch.”

“Besides the luxurious wood trimmings there are also Victorian homes with their magnificent fireplaces and pressed steel ceilings. Again it is impossible to replicate these authentic and original building materials. So besides the luxurious comfort of big volume rooms with high ceilings there is a certain amount of prestige in owning a historical home whether it is a national monument or not. Often these older homes have all sorts of heritage condiments’ such as perhaps a stone wall surrounding the property, or old grapevines or trees from the turn of the century - all adding to the knowledge that you have acquired something special.”

In many towns there are strong heritage associations which play and important role in safeguarding the look and feel of these homes, buildings and towns. In many cases the interior of the house can be converted if needed into a form of open plan house but often this is a fundamental mistake as the bigger volume rooms are not easy to heat in the cold winters and often structural damage is a concern. Advises Rubidge: “Ensure that you get an architect or qualified builder involved who understands the importance of safeguarding the integrity of these heritage homes. Historical homeowners are therefore placed in a very responsible position of being a custodian to a distinct Karoo and South African heritage. The façade is often the most important attribute as far as the heritage of the town is concerned so make sure that whatever you do is in line with heritage legislation by which any building over 60 years is bound.”

The price of heritage homes varies substantially due to the number of different types of building styles. For example the typical Karoo flat roofed house is genuinely smaller and is reminiscent of a cottage - this compared to a grand Victorian home which is normal substantially larger with extra trimmings and will command a higher price. Another consideration is the condition of the building as well as location as most of these properties are located in the older parts of the almost 50 Karoo towns that are home to these types of properties. Says Rubidge: “Due to the dry Karoo climate many of the historical homes are in very good condition with superficial work required. Restored heritage homes often are sold at a premium but this would depend on many factors. When restoring a Karoo home it is important that all the wood not be stripped of paint as with a short period the wood will crack. This is a big issue in the dry Karoo as the paint has preserved the wood for over 100 years and it takes five years of untreated exposure to dry climate for the wood to crack. This is relevant for doors, floors, ceilings and windows.”

Pam Golding Karoo sponsored a booklet published by the Nama Karoo Trust called “Caring for Karoo Heritage Homes” which can requested via

In Oudtshoorn in the Klein Karoo in the Western Cape, Pam Golding Properties agent Ingrid Noble says the appeal of a heritage home is often based on nostalgia, given the fact that you can actually live in and enjoy such a home, while being able to retain its character and historical value for generations to come, thereby contributing to the history of the area. “The unique architecture alone attracts home owners and the fact that there is a limited supply.

“One of the main reasons for moving to Oudtshoorn was my majestic home and its historical value.   It was run down and a rental property for years but had all the structure I needed to begin my life in the ‘Little Karoo’.  I have lived in my home for just under six months and although it will be an ongoing project, I would do it again in a second.  I bought with a vision and this will continue until such time as it is fully restored to its former glory and it gives me great satisfaction.

“The benefits offered to heritage home owners are numerous. Although the planning of these homes can be fairly basic, they were built when they relied totally on structure to keep warm in winter and cool in summer, the two most important factors for comfortable living in a climate that can vary from one extreme to another.  The solid stone walls, very high ceilings, wooden floors and smaller windows, all contribute towards this and add to their uniqueness.  The archways, lead glass windows and so many intricate features are timeless and these alone take you back in time.”

Noble agrees that the value of such a home is very dependent on its condition and position, and if it has been well maintained over the years, it will always retain the appeal while the value will continue to grow over time, making it a very sound investment.

In Oudtshoorn the Heritage Committee is connected to Heritage Western Cape and all plans to change the face of the home have to be passed by the committee. They also encourage all plans to be submitted to them prior to submission to the council to ensure they conform to the heritage requirements.

Adds Noble: “One can purchase a fairly neglected home at a great price and over time restore it to the condition that suites your lifestyle and needs. The first important factor is to find a contractor who is familiar with these homes and understands the integrity of them and is respectful to keeping within the parameters of all the existing features.  Modernising the outside of the home and extending it has to be within the heritage rules and in so doing allows these magnificent homes to exist for generations to come.

“The original homes were mostly located on the farms but as the town developed, they are many situated in the centre of town and close to all amenities.  However the larger homes, known as ‘Feather Palaces’ can still be found on the outskirts of town and these homes range from small two bedroom homes to large six bedroom residences.”

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