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Buying a Home in a Historic District

Historical districts vary a lot place to place, but generally, they’re older neighborhoods that are considered architecturally or historically important. Decisions on which districts are historic or aren’t are mostly made at the city or county level, though state and federal designations also exist. An architecturally important district might contain some of the only surviving original examples of a local architectural style, while a historic district may be protected due to its important role in a city’s development or an association with a specific event or persons. For a district to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the neighborhood must also be at least 50 years old.

There are considerable advantages, disadvantages, and considerations when deciding to move into an existing historic district or in establishing a new district. While the allure of being associated with your city’s history is strong, sacrificing some modern amenities and having more control exerted over your property is certainly not for everyone.

Regulations on how much a historic home has been modified vary, even sometimes on a street-by-street level. Most historic districts require registering any remodeling, so you might be able to find out the house’s history there – but your own remodel will likely need to be approved too. Almost all historic districts ban modifying the façade or street-facing exterior of the home. The types of limits you will face vary; you might need to buy historically appropriate windows, use a specific type of roofing or siding, or even keep the paint the same color. Sometimes decorations are restricted or can even be required if your district is part of a seasonal celebration.

These restrictions may seem oppressive, but if managed well, can actually be a significant benefit in the long run. Historical districts generally retain their cohesiveness and curb appeal, with appreciation rates that typically outperform regular communities. Most buyers are drawn to the neighborhood by its history and have a vested interest in participating in their maintenance and rehabilitation. And while there are very likely to be rules governing exterior renovations, you might be able to renovate for a modern interior – which, depending on your own needs and desires, may be a boon or a bane.

Historic homes, also, are more likely than modern homes to have historic room layouts. How Americans use homes has changed dramatically over the years. Many older homes might place less importance on the kitchen, have smaller rooms, or have fewer bathrooms. Very old homes even had the kitchen in a separate building from the main house for fire safety. The floor plan is more likely to be closed off than on a newly built home and to feature rooms modern houses of the same size might not bother with, like a separate den and formal living room or parlor.

Many historic homes also feature more narrow hallways and steeper stairs than their modern counterparts – an important consideration when it comes to moving furniture, for elderly housemates, or getting around with any kind of mobility impediment.

Finding appropriate materials and artisans to carry out a historically accurate renovation can also be challenging and extremely expensive. Houses built in America between 1930 and 1950 may have used asbestos as insulation, a very dangerous and expensive situation to deal with during renovations. Electrical systems may have been installed after the house was first built, creating some unsightly workarounds and potentially inadequate power supply systems. If moving into an old home, develop an inventory of all the electrical appliances that you are going to want to run with their power requirements, then compare that list to the capacity of your home as determined by an inspection by a licensed electrician.

Victorian House

Other concerns when considering living in a historic district include:

  • Utilities may be higher as you struggle to heat and cool a less energy efficient home.
  • Taxes – you might get a break for restoration work, but your tax rate may be higher.
  • Home insurance can be difficult to find or more expensive due to the relatively higher replacement costs.
  • Research the history of your district and your specific home. Your house might be on the National Registry for less than favorable historical conditions and while that might not stop you from purchasing the property, it might give future buyers pause when you go to resell down the road.

Purchasing a house in an architectural or historical district is a package deal… you are not only hopefully getting a wonderful home that will shelter and nurture your family for years to come, but you are also literally purchasing a slice of your city’s history and story. That linkage can be a wonderful, educational source of pride for your family, or may turn into a grudging obligation depending upon the circumstances of your situation. A knowledgeable Realtor with practical experience buying and selling homes in the immediate area is essential. They will be able to obtain accurate information regarding the history of the home, the neighborhood, and even the process by which a Historical Designation was earned. They can give you valuable insight regarding peculiarities of owning in the neighborhood as well as information regarding potential celebrations and tourism events that you may find yourself drawn into. And as always, take some time to walk the district and talk to your new potential neighbors to get a real feel for what it will take to immerse your family into the history of the region.


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