In recent years, hordes of home buyers have been leaving the suburbs and flocking to urban historic districts throughout the nation. Not only do these home buyers want to own their very own piece of history—they also want to protect these charming old neighborhoods from destruction and modern development.
If you’re attracted the charm of vintage homes, you may be tempted to shop around for a picturesque property in your city’s historic town center. However, before you sign on the dotted line, it’s important to consider the countless costs and challenges associated with owning, remodeling and expanding a historic home.
Oftentimes, home buyers who purchase one of these quaint historic homes soon discover that restoring or simply maintaining the home is costly and frustrating. As a matter of fact, it could cost you more money to restore or add onto an old home than it would cost to buy a newer house in another part of town.
Why do historic home buyers face so many challenges when it comes to remodeling their homes? Because most historic districts have a mission to preserve the “historic character” of their neighborhood. While this is certainly a good thing, it means homeowners have to follow strict codes, covenants and restrictions and/or preservation association guidelines.
Plus, some historic districts receive support from the municipal or county government. That means homeowners could face complicated planning and zoning or building permit regulations. On the flip side, other historic districts simply rely on peer pressure. In some towns, historic district neighbors have been known to badger homeowners who make “poor choices” that do not preserve the character of their home and neighborhood.
The seven commandments
Historic district restrictions vary greatly from neighborhood to neighborhood and even from street to street. That’s why you should research the specific rules for each home address instead of just looking at the local district rules. You’ll find that most of the restrictions apply to any changes made to the exterior of the historic home.
Here are seven common rules and challenges you can expect to face when buying a home in historic district:
- Adding square footage: Making additions to your old home is a daunting process in any historic district. More often than not, additions are simply not allowed. In some rare cases, historic districts have allowed homeowners to build a second or third story onto their home—but these instances are few and far between, and the approval process can be grueling.
- Roofing: If a historic home needs a new roof, many historic districts require homeowners to replace the roof of their old home “in kind,” using the original materials. In some areas, homeowners have to buy extremely expensive roof materials, such as slate or wooden shingles, to preserve the home’s historic character. These roofing costs can add up quickly.
- Exterior painting: Luckily, painting is one area where historic homeowners have a little leeway. That’s because homeowners are generally not required to obtain a building permit to paint their historic home. Although historic districts may prefer that homeowners choose certain colors, it is difficult for them to enforce these paint preferences.
- Windows and shutters: When it comes time to replace shutters and windows, most historic districts require homeowners to replace them in kind. Depending on where you live, that may mean you have to purchase custom-made single-pan windows and functioning wooden shutters. Or it could mean you have to re-pane original wooden windows. These hard-to-find materials often come with a hefty price tag.
- Taxes: Some historic districts levy a special tax for property owners while others charge the same property taxes as surrounding neighborhoods. However, some historic home buyers enjoy tax incentives, grants and low-interest loans if they buy in a restoration-focused area.
- Energy bills: Many historic homeowners pay exorbitant heating and air conditioning bills. Because some historic districts require single-pane windows, many older homes lose a lot of heat and air, which means their energy bills are through the roof. Before you buy a historic home, ask to see a full year’s worth of energy bills. These bills could be expensive enough to push you way over-budget.
- Homeowner’s insurance: Insurance for a historic home can be surprisingly costly. Experts encourage historic homeowners to buy insurance with replacement cost coverage. Because it can be phenomenally expensive to replace a “priceless” historic home, many insurance companies will charge you a high rate while others simply won’t insure you at all.
Despite the countless restrictions, daunting challenges and hefty costs, many homeowners are extremely happy living in historic districts. Not only do they enjoy the historic charm of their home, but they also feel like they’re protecting and preserving a piece of the past. However, if the thought of owning a historic home appeals to you, make sure you do your homework before you make any major moves.