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Interested in buying a house that preserves your town’s history and culture? Learn the upsides and downsides from historic property experts.6min read

When purchasing a historic home, buyers should be aware of unique parameters and responsibilities that come with living in a timeless residence.

Are you considering buying a home built before your time? Here are some pros and cons of living in a house full of character but often filled with features (and appliances) from yesteryear.

What qualifies a house as a historic property?

In the U.S., the National Register of Historic Places determines the validity of a historic property based on age and integrity, and it ensures preservation throughout its ownership. Properties are deemed eligible for historic status based on the National Register Criteria for Evaluation.  

Generally, these homes must be considered crucial to the culture of a town and have some affiliation with historic events in the area. Additionally, a home must be at least 50 years old in the U.S. to be validated by the National Register of Historic Places. There are, however, a few state historic incentive programs that are not tied to the National Register. More details associated with the process are available through the National Park Service.

The Pros

Great location

Living in a historic home has its perks. Unlike a new build, a historic home has a story that started long before you moved in. 

“Oftentimes, [historic homes] are in the heart of small towns. They’re usually in a community that at some point had many people move away but, as we know, people [nowadays] are moving back into small towns,” says Sandra Shurling, who owns RE/MAX Lake Country in Georgia and has spent more than 12 years helping clients buy and sell homes around Greensboro, a quaint, rural part of the state known for its historic appeal. 

Unique architecture

“Historic homes are beautiful and have so much charm. They have the heavy wood doors and the wavy glass. You know, you don’t find that just anywhere anymore,” says Shurling, who has also served on the board of the Walton Country Historical Society that’s dedicated to building preservation.

Reflective of the time period in which they were built, historic homes typically have no shortage of nooks and crannies, intricate built-ins, unique architecture and original wood features – often unparalleled to the qualities seen in modern homes.

“One of my favorite things about historic homes is the heart pine floors and the plaster walls. Plaster walls have the best insulation you’ll ever get in a house,” Shurling explains. “Your children can be in the next room, but because you’ve got the lath work with the hair coating and plaster attached to it, it is a very thick insulator and blocks noise.”

Financial incentives

The investment into a historic property could be less steep with some of the financial incentives associated with owning or renovating a historic home. These benefits are often reflected through tax credits.

There are numerous options, like the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentive for income-producing properties, such as a bed and breakfast, or grants available from local governments or private philanthropic preservation organizations for owner-occupied homes. In addition to the federal tax credit, state tax credits are the most common way to receive the financial benefits of owning and preserving a residential historic home.

“Over 35 U.S. states have enacted state tax credit programs for historic structures,” says David Curtis, an Acquisitions Associate with Clocktower Tax Credits in Massachusetts who specializes in monetizing tax credits for historic properties.

“Local governments try to incentivize people to buy and preserve historic homes instead of turning to newer construction or modifying homes in ways which destroy the historic charm and value,” he says.

“State tax credits offset renovation costs to preserve the historic character of a home,” Curtis explains. “For historic homes, there’s oftentimes an expensive rehab process, and a historic tax credit helps counterbalance those costs and make the overall investment closer to what someone would have paid buying a newer property that needs less work.”

In most of these 35 participating states, and when abiding by local regulations, people renovating a historic home could expect a 15%-30% tax credit back on that property for renovation costs. Some state incentives work as direct grants to the homeowners, while other states issue tax credits that offset the homeowners taxes, or can be sold to a third-party for money to directly help offset costs.

“These state tax credits for historic properties level the playing field for prospective homebuyers asking themselves, ‘Do I want to rehab an older house, or do I want to look elsewhere and build a brand new one?’” Curtis says.

The Cons

Regulations on creativity

There are also downsides to consider when buying a historic home, many of which revolve around an owner’s willingness to upkeep an old residence and navigate local regulations along the way.

The National Register of Historic Places works with states and towns to implement strict rules and regulations regarding what an owner can and cannot do to maintain or renovate their home. These limitations will vary by town, and the purpose is often to preserve the traditional feel and integrity of the structure.

“Buying in historic districts is almost like buying in a resort community because you have to ask, ‘What are the covenants? And what are the restrictions?’ In a historic district, you have to know what the local historic society allows and does not allow, and what they have to approve of,” Shurling shares.

“For example, they can dictate your house’s color. You [often] cannot even paint the exterior of your home without their permission and approval of the town.”

This means that buyers who are hoping to make sizable modern renovations to the shape and style of a historic home may consider looking elsewhere.

“[Many people] want the historic look on the exterior and want to be right there in the heart of the small town, but they want the interior to look like a brand-new, modern home,” Shurling warns.

If you get the go-ahead from the town on certain renovations, especially when it’s time for upgrades or unavoidable maintenance, Shurling advises maintaining the flow of the house and trying to preserve character as much as possible in the process.

“You really do need to go into it with a patient mindset and know that you can’t do everything you want to do all at once,” she explains. “It’s something that’s going to happen gradually… You have to get to know the house before you start tearing out walls and other things. You have to understand why they built it the way they built it because some of these [older] houses, for example, will do things like heat and cool themselves.”

Maintenance costs

While tax credits can help with renovations, historic homes will still require regular upkeep throughout their lifespan.

Construction methods, and the materials used for these older structures, have changed significantly over time. And, having endured decades of normal wear and tear, historic homes will likely need ongoing maintenance and repair.

“The number one thing that I always do when I go into a historic home is look to see if it’s still on a fuse, or if it’s been upgraded to a circuit breaker. That will tell you a lot about the maintenance of the house,” Shurling says.

“If you open up the electrical panel box and see it has switches, which is probably what you’re used to seeing, then it has newer wiring. If you have a fuse box, you’ll open it up to see little round glass bulbs,” she explains. “So, if you have a fuse box as opposed to a breaker box, then the home has older wiring, and wiring is going to be something you’ll immediately want to update. Rewiring is going to be one of your bigger expenses in a historic home.”

Other aspects requiring maintenance or upgrading, especially when a house is nearing 100 years of age, may include the foundation, chimney, furnace, HVAC system, and the sealing of windows and doors.

Based on your commitment to upkeep and desire for character, a historic home may or may not be right for you. Check in with local guidelines to ensure the historic property you have your eye on is the best fit for you and your family’s needs.

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