What Are the Challenges of Buying a Historic Home?

by James SheaApril 2, 2019

Home is where the heart is, so the saying goes. For many, that means a personal connection with a home and community. That often entails buying a home in a historic neighborhood. Buyers want to be located in a historic part of the city and have a home with unique features like carved moldings, custom fireplaces, and vaulted ceilings.

In some older cities, homes can date back to the 17th century, but often, historic homes were built in the late 19th or early 20th century. Historic homes are registered with the National Register of Historic Place, and they are deemed historic or “architecturally significant” if they exemplify a certain architectural style, demonstrate the essence of a certain period in history or are associated with a famous person.

Historic DIstrict Sign

Located in a Historic District

When you consider the purchase of a historic property, you first need to determine if the home is located in a historic district. The United States has 2,300 local historic districts, and those districts place specific regulations on modifications to the property. Before you buy, you need to determine the rules that govern the district. Often times, a historic review board must approve any renovations to the property. The goal is to preserve the community’s historic feel. You don’t want someone adding modern elements to the façade of a historic home.

There is much debate about whether buying a home in a historic district is a good financial investment. Some find the regulations burdensome, but others believe there is strong demand for historic properties that have been well preserved.

“I think buyers see a property in a historic district as a negative because it restricts what they can do,” says Paul Whaley, of Boston’s Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage. “Investors don’t like it either as it takes longer for approvals. In general, I think it depresses the value of a property.”

However, some studies have proved otherwise. In 2011, a study was done of historic districts in Connecticut, and it concluded that property values increased 4% to 19% annually. A different study of properties in New York City found that values between 1980 and 2000 increase more significantly for properties in historic districts on a per square foot basis.

An Emotional Investment

For many, buying a historic property is an emotional purchase. Historic homes are unique and often have a great story. People feel an emotional connection to the property and the historic community. That is not necessarily a negative, but it’s important to acknowledge that the emotional connection exists. You want to fully realize any potential problems without making an unwise decision. Step back and give some distance when making a decision that has such an emotional investment; it will minimize the chance for buyer’s remorse after purchasing.

Expensive to Maintain

Historic homes by their very nature are old and generally more expensive to maintain than newer construction. Unless they have been updated, the sewer, wiring, and electrical systems can be a nightmare to maintain. Plus, there is always the chance that significant water damage has happened over a long period of time. To conduct maintenance in these areas,  you often need to hire a specialized contractor, especially if changes must be approved by a historic review board. That means living in a historic home can be an involved commitment and require a significant amount of financial resources.

Possible Lead Paint and Asbestos

Lead paint and asbestos used to be common building materials in the United States, but they are now banned. When they are discovered in a historic home, you are often required to hire specialists to mitigate the problem. Lead paint and asbestos are both highly toxic substances, and you do not want them causing health problems to you or your family. You want to have them disposed of properly.

Historic Cape May House

Mature Landscaping

Historic homes have been around for generations, and that often means the landscaping has been highly refined. Trees and shrubs are probably mature and well established. This might be an attribute that you desire, but it is something you need to be aware of when purchasing a historic home. You might have less ability to make major modifications to the landscaping.

Possible Tax Incentives

If you purchase a historic home, you might be eligible for tax credits for making modification and improvements. The federal government encourages people to purchase and rehabilitate historic structures and offers the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives program. The program has helped preserve 44,341 historic properties since 1976, and has seen $96.87 billion worth of private investment. States and local communities also offer historic preservation tax credits. For example, Georgia offers a tax credit for 25 percent of qualified rehabilitation costs.

Financing and Insurance Can be a Challenge

Lending institutions often shy away from financing some historic properties, because they can be viewed as a higher risk. Lenders will often charge higher interest rates and fees when providing a mortgage for a historic property given the increased risk. As well, many historic homes do not qualify for a Federal Housing Administration loan guarantee. It’s a good idea to do your research before you make an offer on a historic home. You don’t want to get into the process and realize it will cost a lot more than you anticipated.

The same can also apply to homeowners insurance. Insurance companies want to limit their exposure, and they don’t want to have to pay to repair a historic home to its original condition. Unique architectural elements can be expensive to replace. Many times, insurance companies will want to have someone personally inspect the property before the policy is written. You will probably need to find an insurance company that specializes in covering historic properties, especially if the home is over 100 years old.

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About The Author
James Shea
James Shea is an award-winning journalist and author. He owns Media Lab, a content marketing and search engine optimization company is Richmond, Virginia.

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