Should You Buy a Historic Home? Be Prepared for Character, Charm, and Maybe a Ghost or Two

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Buying a historic home is a “labor of love,” says Teresa Cowart, a top agent with 17 years of experience in Savannah, Georgia. You’ll be buying a piece of history — an old home with historical or architectural significance — and can enjoy the charms that come with older buildings, but as Cowart points out, it can also mean expensive repairs, unexpected costs, and maybe a ghost or two. Let’s look at what a historic home actually is and what to consider if you decide to buy one.

Dreaming of Buying a Historic Home?

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What is a historic home?

A historic home is typically at least 50 years old and retains much of its original architecture and characteristics. While a historic home doesn’t have to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places to be considered historic, the register offers a criteria for evaluation that can be helpful in determining the historic value of a home. Some criteria include homes that:

  • Were associated with significant historical events
  • Were associated with the lives of significant people from the past
  • Embody the distinctive characteristics of a particular type of home, time period, construction method, architect or designer, or artistic style
  • May provide or have provided important information related to history or historical events

Identifying a historic home comes down to answering one (or all) of three questions — Is the property significant? Does it look much as it did when it was built? Was it built more than 50 years ago?

Being listed on the National Register of Historic Places doesn’t actually protect the home or require any preservation efforts. It’s simply a list of historic places with perceived historic significance through their age, architecture, and significance.

Historic homes are actually protected and regulated at the state level through each state’s State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). Each SHPO is tasked with managing historic places in a way that takes their state’s unique character, needs, and history into account. Individual cities and neighborhoods may also have their own standards for preservation and guidelines for renovations.

Benefits of buying a historic home

Historic homes offer a level of character that a new build simply can’t and owning one comes with distinct benefits, especially for those who will truly appreciate the history and significance of the home.

You own a piece of history… and sometimes the ghosts that come with it

Owning a historic home means you own a piece of the past. You’re preserving the place where people came before you — and laughed and cried and grew and died. There is a richness that’s difficult to capture in a new build. You can often visit the National Archives site to dig up more details about the home’s history.

But you may also have to deal with ghosts. Cowart says she’s seen unexplained things happen in the homes she’s been in. And while it’s mostly harmless, she also says “I’ve been in some other houses where it just feels very dark.”

There is a lot of character

Creaky floors, old-growth wood trim, and intricate details are hallmarks of historic houses. It seems like there’s always something new to discover when you tour a historic home for the first time. Built-ins give you a sense of the planning that went into designing the home and high ceilings create a sense of grandeur. And, historic neighborhoods are a reflection of the past and the time and care that the architect took to design each home.

It may be part of an old neighborhood

Historic homes are typically found in historic neighborhoods that grew up organically over time. So, while you likely won’t find a gated community, swimming pool, rec room, or tennis court, you will likely have tree-lined streets where neighbors wave to passersby as they sit on their front porches or gather for evening conversations.

Older communities offer their own kinds of amenities for residents and history buffs — for example, the Historic Landmark District in Savannah, Georgia is home to monuments, art museums, cobblestone streets, and the Georgia State Railroad Museum.

You may be eligible for a tax credit

In addition to a federal tax credit administered by the National Park Service (NPS), many individual states offer Historic Preservation Tax Credits to homeowners who invest in renovating their income-producing properties (non-owner occupied homes).

To qualify for the federal tax credit, the home must be registered as a historic property with the National Park Service and the rehabilitation of the home needs to meet the Secretary’s Standards for Rehabilitation as outlined by the NPS. With this program, homeowners may be eligible to claim a 20% credit on qualified rehabilitation expenses.

Individual states also offer versions of this program, with many allowing qualified homeowners to claim up to 25% of the costs of rehabilitation. Eligibility and percentages vary by state, and each state will have their own application process. If you decide to undergo renovations on a home that qualifies as a historic building or is part of a historic district, you may be eligible for this incentive.

Drawbacks of buying a historic home

For all of their advantages, historic homes do come with some drawbacks that can make owning one a challenge.

It’s hard to sneak around

This could also be an advantage if you have a teenager, but if you’re trying to sneak past a sleeping baby or creep downstairs for a midnight snack, the creaky floorboards may give you away. Older homes are known for the noises they make, so if you’re looking for silence, a historic home may not be right for you.

Updates may be difficult

If you want to update the look of the home or the systems that it uses, getting approval may be difficult depending on the local building codes or the neighborhood the home is in. If the home is considered to be historic or is part of a historic district or neighborhood, you may need to get approval from the right organizations before you make any changes to ensure they don’t deviate from the home’s original style.

Individual neighborhoods may have their own guidelines for renovations and updates. Olde Towne Portsmouth, Virginia, for instance, has detailed information about how to approach any changes to the structure. A good place to start is by visiting the neighborhood’s website.

You may not qualify for certain types of financing

Lenders don’t necessarily care how old a home is, but certain loans, like FHA loans or VA loans, have requirements for the condition of the home. Often, historic homes that haven’t been updated, and do not meet the minimum property standards set by HUD or the VA, won’t qualify for certains types of loans. Some red flags in older homes that might bring up concerns in an appraisal include:

  • Foundation issues and structural damage
  • Non-operational appliances
  • Roof damage or age
  • Inadequate insulation or an “unsafe attic”
  • Improper drainage and grading
  • Disturbed lead paint
  • Inadequate heating or cooling systems
  • Damaged plumbing and electrical systems
  • Evidence of termites and termite damage
You need to make sure that you know what you’re buying and how much it’s going to cost you. I would take your contractor with you after you get the inspection report and have them give you the numbers. And then you need to talk to your lender to make sure there’s no red flags with it.
  • Teresa Cowart
    Teresa Cowart Real Estate Agent
    Teresa Cowart
    Teresa Cowart Real Estate Agent at RE/MAX Accent
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    • Years of Experience 19
    • Transactions 2626
    • Average Price Point $261k
    • Single Family Homes 2231

What to know when considering a historic home

You should expect the unexpected

Cowart recommends having an inspection and then taking a contractor to the home once you have the inspection report, saying “You need to make sure that you know what you’re buying and how much it’s going to cost you. I would take your contractor with you after you get the inspection report and have them give you the numbers. And then you need to talk to your lender to make sure there’s no red flags with it.”

Even if you have an inspection and bring a contractor into the home before you buy it, historic homes can be unpredictable and you may run into unexpected problems and hidden costs. “Maybe [the house] has lead based paint,” says Cowart. “Maybe it has asbestos, maybe it has faulty wiring or plumbing that has to be updated. You never know.”

You should also be prepared for things to take longer than expected because, Cowart says, “none of that stuff is going to take place in a timely fashion.”

You may need approval for renovations

In some areas, exterior renovations to a historic home have to be approved by the local historical society. If you are going to renovate the property, it’s important to contact your State Historic Preservation Office to ensure that you’re aware of what is permitted and what isn’t.

Historic districts seek to maintain the historic integrity of the structures, though there is a lot more leeway for interior renovations than exterior renovations. However, interior renovations can require updating key systems such as wiring and plumbing, potentially making them more costly than expected.

You may have to adjust the layout

Old homes often have smaller kitchens and closets than we’re used to today. To make a historic home work for you, you can make it work in the existing space, or you can renovate and adjust the layout to one that works better for your lifestyle. But keep in mind that renovations can take significant time and money to complete and depending on the structure, may not be possible at all.

You can benefit from working with a historic home specialist

Historic homes are unique and come with their own quirks and character, so working with a historic home specialist who knows how historic homes differ from newer homes, and can help make you aware of the challenges you could face, will help you know exactly what you’re buying.

Historic home renovation grants

To preserve historic buildings, the National Park Service offers Historic Preservation Fund Grant Programs. Other private and state run organizations may also offer grants for preserving historic buildings, so it’s worth looking into before beginning a renovation project. Most programs require homes to be registered with the National Park Service and may give priority to projects on properties that are considered National Historic Landmarks.

For more information, contact your local State Historic Preservation Officer using this directory.

Is buying a historic home worth it?

With considerations like old wiring, possible ghosts, and sloping floors — Cowart says “walking through them is sometimes just like being on a roller coaster because of floor slope” — it is easy to wonder whether buying a historic home is worth the extra time and effort. It’s important to partner with a top agent who is familiar with historic homes and neighborhoods to ensure you’re doing your homework and know what you’re getting into.

Cowart thinks that tackling a historic home is “a labor of love, and I love that they’re doing it.” Historic home ownership definitely isn’t for everyone, but for some, the rewards of owning a unique piece of history outweighs any quirks or troubles that the home will bring.

Header Image Source: (Roger Starnes Sr / Unsplash)