If you are like me, it’s easy to romanticize the idea of buying an old home and bringing it back to life. While the notion is admirable, it’s important to go into the purchase with open eyes. The biggest difference when buying a historical home is that sometimes you are required to preserve the original structure. Any repairs made to the exterior of the home will require approval by the Historic District Commissions office while the interior of the home doesn’t require approval. Before starting to plan any renovations, check to make sure your home isn’t one of the ones with these set requirements.
The Historic District Commissions is appointed by the mayor. This group includes district residents and professionals in the areas of architecture, landscape architecture, law, real estate, and history.
Applying for Renovation Approval
Registered historic properties require homeowners to apply for a “Certificate of Appropriateness” before starting any repairs to the exterior of the structure. The application can be found at your city planning office and can be downloaded online. This form outlines everything that the Historic Commission will need to approve the application.
Once the application is submitted, the homeowner will present their case at the monthly Historic Commissions meeting. If the project is approved, the homeowner will receive a their certificate. Similar to building permits, this certificate should be visible from the exterior while the work is in progress. If the project is rejected, the homeowner does have the opportunity to appeal to the state to overturn the decision.
While this may seem daunting to some, it is important to note that most renovation projects require permits from the city. Similar information must be compiled when applying for city permits, so there are often only a few additional steps to complete. The Commissions will be checking the design and materials to ensure it is historically accurate.
Improvements that do require approval:
- Installing any new structures including a fence, shed, garage, gate, etc
- New construction or additions
- Installation of signs or awnings
- Site improvements including a new driveway, walkway, AC, mechanical updates that affect the exterior
- Replacement windows/doors
- Demolition of structure
Improvements that do not require approval:
- Landscaping: Adding a garden or removing a tree
- Paint: Most districts do not require paint color approval but some do ( check with the Commissions in your area)
Exceptions to the Approval Process
There are instances where the Historic Commission must approve a repair that does not align with the original design of the structure. This usually occurs when a repair must meet current building codes or requirements for insurance coverage. When Historic Commission requirements and building codes go head to head; safety will always win. An example of this would be with height requirements on a porch railing and handrails for exterior steps. In these instances, the homeowner would meet building code with a period-appropriate design and approval from the committee.
Why You Should Consider Owning a Historical Home
When speaking with close friends who own historic homes, they all agree that the rewards of owning a unique home far outweigh the additional steps required to preserve the home. Along with owning a one of a kind property, they expressed the sense of community among other historic homeowners. Historic districts are often located in neighborhoods that are culturally rich and have very active members within the community and they typically include homeowners who are passionate about preserving the history of the area.
Understanding the process for preserving a historic home prior to purchasing the property is hugely beneficial. As a licensed Realtor, I would recommend the buyer request a list of exterior maintenance complete by the current homeowner. Because of the application process, this should not be difficult to provide. Along with the repairs made, ask for contractors who complete the work and recommendations on where to find materials. There are often salvage shops that offer materials that fit your home and can be used for future repairs. This will save the new homeowner money and potential headaches down the line.
I also recommend walking around the neighborhood and talking to neighbors. It is not uncommon for a Historic District to have a neighborhood organization that leads community and preservation initiatives. I would connect with this organization and the Historic Commission to gather as much information as possible. They will be a valuable resource for any questions you may have. Completing this due diligence will allow you to make an educated decision on whether owning a historic home is right for you.