How-to Guide for Purchasing a Historic House

Talia Lee-
June 13, 2024

Have you always dreamed of owning a historic house? There’s something enchanting about an elegant Victorian with lacy gingerbread trim and a wrap-around porch, or the gabled roofs and distinctive columns of Craftsman homes that ignite your imagination. Perhaps it’s not just the style that captivates you, but the layers of history embedded within the house, each one a moment in time waiting to be discovered, like peeling back sheets of old wallpaper.

However, old houses come with unique challenges. Removing decades of wallpaper, for instance, is less about revealing romantic memories of past owners and more about hard, tedious work. Layers of purple, gold, florals, birds, toile, and damask—some styles are best left in the past. Yet, you might stumble upon a treasure, such as a stunning tapestry-inspired wallpaper from the early 18th century. Old homes hold many secrets, and you never know what you’ll find when you buy one.

You find a house built in 1902. It’s definitely old, but is it historic? There’s a notable difference between historic and historical. Any house over 50 years old might be considered historical due to its age alone. However, a historic home possesses a significant feature or relevance that makes it special. It might be associated with a significant event, such as a former President’s visit or a major battle. Alternatively, it could be notable for being the work of a famous architect.

If you believe your home should be considered historic, you can apply to have it added to the National Register of Historic Places. The process varies by state, so you’ll need to review your state’s nomination procedures. Houses are evaluated based on their age (the home must be at least 50 years old) and their historical context related to one of the following criteria:

  • Association with a major past event or events
  • Relationship to significant people from the past
  • Distinctive characteristics or architectural style that represent the work of a master or have high artistic value
  • Has yielded or may yield information important in prehistory or history

If a house is registered as historic, there may be restrictions on modifications you can make, depending on your local historical society. For example, building an addition to increase square footage might not be permitted. You may also be limited in paint choices and face challenges altering historical features like windows or shutters. The rules vary by location, and you might need to submit an application and have the house evaluated before undertaking any renovation or remodeling. Check with your local historical society to understand the regulations in your area before doing any work on the home.

In 1966, the National Register of Historic Places was established under the National Historic Preservation Act to identify and protect historic properties. This act was a response to the widespread demolition of entire neighborhoods after World War II, undertaken in the name of progress. The pivotal event that spurred this movement was the demolition of the original Penn Station in New York City. Completed in 1910, Penn Station was a stunning example of Beaux-Arts architecture. Its destruction between 1963 and 1968 highlighted the urgent need to preserve the nation’s most treasured buildings.

The National Park Service manages the National Register, focusing on identifying historic structures. Once a property is added to the list, its preservation typically falls to state and local preservation societies. The law mandates that states take responsibility for historic sites within their jurisdictions. Consequently, each state has a historic preservation office and is required to maintain an inventory of significant sites.

While owning a historic home may come with restrictions on the types of changes you can make, there are tax incentives and grant programs available to help you maintain and renovate your property. If your home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, you could qualify for a tax credit to cover rehabilitation costs. Additionally, your state might offer extra tax credits.

Historic homes often retain their value, even when property values in the area decline. Because historic properties are unique, they are likely to increase in value, especially with proper care.

If your house is part of a historic district, there may be considerable community interest and involvement at both the local and state levels. Historic districts are often protected from new construction to preserve their aesthetic appeal. These districts may be featured in local events, such as holiday celebrations and walking tours. Your neighborhood, and possibly even your home, could be showcased on the city’s website to attract new residents and visitors. Owning a piece of the town’s history brings a sense of pride that can’t be overlooked.

The National Register of Historic Places is primarily a list of historic properties maintained by the National Park Service. It does not impose any specific rules or regulations on the homes listed. From the perspective of the National Park Service, you have the freedom to remodel, renovate, sell, or even demolish your house as you see fit. However, significant alterations to the home may lead to its removal from the National Register. Additionally, if you receive federal funding or licensing for the property, there may be specific rules and regulations that apply.

While the National Park Service itself does not regulate your actions with the house, state and local historical societies often have their own restrictions to safeguard the historic integrity of the property. It’s advisable to contact your state historic preservation office (SHPO) to understand the guidelines before proceeding with any modifications to the home. To ensure that the work is done correctly and preserves the historic character of the house, consider hiring a contractor with expertise in historic home restorations. If needed, the SHPO can provide recommendations for qualified professionals.

Historic homes offer enduring value, a sense of pride, and a deep connection to community history. Renovating such homes can often qualify you for financial assistance. However, purchasing an older home, whether historic or not, presents its own set of challenges.

Compliance with SHPO guidelines is crucial for renovations to historic homes, which typically require more time and expense due to the meticulous sourcing of historically accurate materials and the need for precise execution to preserve historical integrity.

Even non-historic old houses often require frequent maintenance due to aging infrastructure. Plumbing systems and electrical wiring, such as knob-and-tube wiring prevalent until around 1940, may need updating. Homes built before 1978 might contain hazardous materials like asbestos or lead paint, necessitating inspection and remediation.

Structural issues, such as foundation settling leading to cracks or uneven floors, are common in older homes. Repair costs can vary significantly based on the severity of the damage.

Older homes also tend to have smaller rooms and fewer modern amenities like open-concept layouts or en suite bathrooms. Storage spaces such as closets are typically smaller, reflecting historical lifestyles with fewer possessions.

Furthermore, older homes may feature quirks like obsolete staircases or non-functional fireplaces, reflecting past modifications by previous owners that may require undoing or correcting.

Navigating these challenges when purchasing an older home requires thorough inspection, adherence to regulatory guidelines, and possibly substantial investment in restoration and modernization efforts.

After carefully considering the advantages and challenges, you’ve concluded that a historic home aligns perfectly with your preferences. The craftsmanship, meticulous attention to detail, and rich history of old houses have captured your imagination. Before embarking on your search for the ideal vintage home, there are essential aspects to keep in mind. Alongside typical considerations like location, square footage, and financial implications, here are some additional checks specific to older homes:

  • Foundation: Look for cracks in walls, doors that don’t close properly, and uneven floors.
  • Pests: Inspect for signs of pests in nooks, corners, crawl spaces, and attics, especially if the house has been vacant.
  • Mold: Check ceilings and window areas for mold, as old plumbing may have caused leaks.
  • Insulation: Ensure the home is adequately insulated to minimize heating and cooling costs, as older homes tend to be drafty.
  • Electrical: Verify outlets have three holes for grounding and assess for potential issues like knob-and-tube wiring.
  • Roof: Assess the condition of the roof, including missing shingles or signs of aging and deterioration in the chimney.
  • Plumbing: Look for leaks, water damage, and the type of water source—older wells may need modernization to avoid contaminants.
  • Historical Aspects: Consider any historical reputation, such as stories of hauntings, which could impact future resale value.

To ensure safety and compliance, conduct inspections for lead paint, asbestos, and radon. Consider specialists for systems like septic or electrical, particularly those experienced with older homes. If structural issues arise during inspection, seek an engineer’s assessment before finalizing the purchase.

Despite these checks, most old homes are robustly constructed, with many standing strong for over a century. Built with durable materials like plaster and lath and old-growth wood, they exhibit superior craftsmanship and longevity compared to modern constructions. Rest assured, your historic home is poised to provide enduring enjoyment for years to come.

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