Buying an Historic Home? What You Need to Know.

I Speak Vintage has heard quite a few horror stories from folks that have bought vintage or historic homes, only to be left holding the bag, as it were.  While historic homes have an appeal and charm for many buyers, there are certain restrictions and expenses (that’s an understatement)  you need to know about before signing on the dotted line.

Newport Landmark District

While being the proud and preening owner of a piece of history or a home that may literally be one-of-a-kind is alluring, you may run into unexpected complications when purchasing vintage homes. Older homes can have serious structural problems as well as hidden problems, which will only surface later.

To help protect your future home investment, here is some vital information and expert advice about buying an historic home.

So, what is an historic home?

Here’s the Reader’s Digest take — A home is labeled historic or “architecturally significant” by the National Register of Historic Places or by a local historic or preservation board if it exemplifies a signature architectural style, captures the essence of a given time period (period of significance), or is associated with famous people.  Also included in this category are homes located in neighborhoods that have been designated as historic districts.  There is much, much more that to be considered regarding historic designations and land marking a property but that is for another time.  Moving on.

Benefits of buying an historic home.

Lakewood BalmoralThe aesthetic benefits of historic homes major draws for many homebuyers, as is the often-unmatched architecture that has withstood the test of time. Other homebuyers are attracted to the historical significance of the home or district, or have an attachment to the era that these iconic homes represent.

If you are thinking about buying an historic home, you will be happy to learn that additional benefits may accompany the purchase of an historic property. Many states and local governments offer tax incentives in the form of tax credits or lower interest loans for preserving and restoring historic structures. Although you have to qualify for these tax abatements and while the amounts won’t make you rich, they are still benefits you would not otherwise receive when buying a new house.

 Listen up: here’s some sage advice on buying historic homes.

 If you have set your sights on a vintage home, let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of purchasing your coveted property. Before you seal the deal, here is some expert advice on buying an older house.

  • Conduct a formal home inspection by a licensed home inspector who specializes in older homes and/or by a structural engineer.
  • Make sure the house meets safety and health standards, including passing asbestos and lead paint tests. It’s an old house – be prepared for anything.
  • If your dream house suffers from major structural problems, think long and hard about moving forward. The long-term headaches can far outweigh your emotional attachment.
  • Solicit price estimates from contractors experienced with vintage and historic properties regarding all necessary repair work.
  • Carefully study the Standards for Rehabilitation or Restoration of Historic Buildings imposed by local/state laws on owners of historic structures. You may have remodeling/expansion plans that you will not be able to fulfill.
  • Historic Home Restrictions – Since the goal of historic home renovation is to preserve a home’s true nature and original construction, a homebuyer wishing to renovate must obtain special permits and is subject to restrictions aimed at protecting the character of the property or neighborhood.

Here are some of the typical restrictions and extra costs you need to know about before buying an historic home:

Nationally and regionally, listing on a historic register limits what a homeowner can do to the property.

Additions: Adding square footage to registred historic structures is a messy task and requires strict adherence to local and national standards and guidelines. 

Exterior Treatments: Since house exteriors such as windows, shutters and roofs embody the original architecture or design style, they are to be preserved and can only be replaced in kind. More on this in another post.

Utility Bills: Before you seal the deal, study the previous year’s energy bills. It may cost you significantly more to heat and cool an older home than a new one.

Taxes: Although you may qualify for tax benefits for investing in a home or in a district where preservation and restoration are priorities, tax levies for merely living in a historic neighborhood may be higher than other neighborhoods.

There is so much more to be considered when buying a vintage or historic home or building and DYSV will address more details in the future.

Next up:  Foundation to Roof :: What to Consider when Buying an old House

5 responses

  1. Regarding “Conduct a formal home inspection by a licensed home inspector who specializes in older homes and/or by a structural engineer.” – the comment suggests a limited understanding of the capabilities of both agents and no understanding of what an architect does.

    In the first instance, a homeowner should probably seek the counsel of a conservation architect because
    a) home inspectors are not really qualified by training or experience to deal with both legal and construction related matters (and thus they are not a ‘profession’), and
    b) structural engineers can only speak to the carcass as a structure, and are not trained to deal with building envelope, services, finishes, legal or planning issues, etc.

    Put another way, there is a reason that architects are the prime consultants in ‘whole building’ heritage projects, and why home inspectors have standard contracts replete with caveats waving responsibility for whatever advice they provide.

    Tsk. Tsk.

    • Thanks for the comment, Brian. I advise clients to engage the advice and services of conservation architects after they’ve had an opportunity to assess the property in more detail. Just like real estate brokers, architects are not paid on their counsel, advice or service unless they are contracted for a job. I advise clients to involve an architect after they have a higher level of commitment to a property – which is usually after an inspection. Frequently buyers usually have a much clearer picture of what to discuss with an architect after they’ve spent a few hours in the property and experienced how the building lives and breathes.

  2. This is great information, especially the part about utility bills. Make sure you check out the history of the electric and heating bills. You never know if they have energy efficient windows, doors or exterior.

  3. I have always wanted to get a historic home and update it a little bit. So, I liked what you said about how I should study what the standards are for restoring a historic home. It might also be smart to hire an expert to help with the project as well.

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