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From choosing renovations wisely to highlighting your property’s one-of-a-kind history, there are a number of important details to consider when selling a historical home.
Whether you’re selling an 1850s Greek Revival or a 1950s Mid-century Modern, it’s your home’s unspoiled character that’s going to help it sell for every penny it’s worth—despite any preservation restrictions that may come with the property. The key is to create a sales strategy as unique as your home, quirks, and all.
To walk through the dos and don’ts of selling your special slice of history, we’ve rounded up 10 top tips from a historic home restorer, and a seasoned real estate pro who sells classic homes out of Philly — the 12th oldest city in the U.S.
Their first piece of advice? Find the right expert to help you sell your historic home.
Tip #1: Find an agent who understands how to sell historic houses
If you’ve ever sold a modern home, you know the home prep drill: clean, declutter, repaint in neutral colors, price it right, list it on the web, and get it sold. A solid strategy for most homes, but this isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for historic homes.
“You need to find an agent who understands historic houses and the people who love them,” says Scott T. Hanson, historic home restorer, architectural historian, and author of Restoring Your Historic House: The Comprehensive Guide for Homeowners.
Nearly every aspect of a historic home sale process requires a specialized strategy. Before settling on an agent to represent your home, make sure he or she is the type of expert you need by asking a few preliminary questions:
What experience do you have selling historic houses?
Listen to see whether the agent sounds passionate about their past historic home sales and whether they can speak to several specific examples (“Oh, I sold this beautiful 1840 Victorian over on the west side last year…”).
Better yet, ask the agent for their stats. How many historic homes have they sold? What percentage of their yearly home sales are comprised of historic homes? You want an agent who’s done more than just a one-off sale 10 years ago. With firm numbers, you can tell if selling historic properties makes up a good chunk of their business.
What’s your strategy for preparing historic homes for the market?
With this question, you want to hear the agent’s pre-listing process. Look for an agent who asks questions about your home and insists on a home walkthrough before scheduling any contractors.
It’s a red flag if the agent says something like, “Well, just as I would prepare any home,” or starts rattling off real estate cliches about white paint and depersonalizing. (For example, neutral colors are often the right call for modern homes but put eggshell walls throughout a historic home with original dark-stained woodwork and it’ll look stark and heavy).
The ideal agent will carefully guide you through a tailored home prep strategy that honors your home’s character, style, and special characteristics.
How would you go about pricing my home?
Pricing a historic home requires extra legwork. It’s easy to find comparable sales for modern homes when there are a dozen nearby properties of the same size, structure, layout, and age. But with historic homes, there likely won’t be ample amounts of recently sold properties to use as comparisons for creating a pricing strategy.
Here you want to find out if the agent sounds confident in their ability to go beyond the traditional comparative market analysis, and if they understand how to value the unique features of a historic home. They may suggest after some preliminary research that you get a pre-listing home appraisal or expand the pool of comps by time frame or radius for a more accurate house pricing strategy.
Tip #2: Don’t let renovations ruin your home’s historic character
When preparing to sell your historic property, you may dabble with the idea of renovating. But doing so should be done with a careful hand. Resorting to the latest trending interior design styles can be a big mistake.
“Avoid ripping out intact historic features to install whatever the real estate blogs and home remodeling TV shows are describing as the ‘must-have’ features for this year,” advises Hanson. “Do not ‘open up the plan’ and install shiplap siding. You will turn off the people most likely to be attracted to your house.”
Focus on preserving the distinguishing features of your home that make it so charming, not covering them up. It’s all those quirks and architectural characteristics that make your historic home unique and will inspire the right buyer to make a competitive offer.
Tip #3: Make modern updates to improve key rooms
While you keep the original features of your historic home intact to preserve its value, sometimes the old just has to go — or, at least, be given a little TLC.
When renovating and repairing your historic property, these tips will help balance preservation with necessary improvements:
Work with contractors who understand preservation
Just as you’ll need to work with a real estate agent who has experience with historic properties, any contractor you hire to update or repair your home should be well versed in historic homes and know how to work without compromising preservation.
If you don’t have anyone in your network who fits the bill, ask your agent for a referral for the best historic home contractors in the area.
Focus on the kitchen and baths
If renovating an entire room, stick with the two that pack the biggest return on investment: the kitchen and bathrooms. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports that kitchen upgrades average a 52% project recovery rate, while bathrooms pull in a whopping 70%.
“Homes that go for the absolute premium in Philadelphia are homes that have historic character,” says top real estate agent Jeff Block, who has experience selling historic homes in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “At the same time, it also has to have some modern upgrades, like an updated kitchen with high-end, stainless-steel appliances and really gorgeous bathrooms.”
Shop for items that reflect your historic home’s style
The key is sourcing pieces that fit your home’s architectural style — by shopping at your local architectural salvage yard or salvage companies that ship nationally. You’ll find almost any salvaged and restored item your home might need, from restored antique appliances to rewired retro lighting.
Small refreshers that make a big difference
Things like power washing a home’s exterior, adding a fresh coat of paint to a wall (either inside or outside), and polishing its hardwood floors can give new life to an old home.
Other quick fixes like replacing old carpet, tearing down dated or worn wallpaper, and refreshing light fixtures, door, and cabinet handles throughout a home can bring in just the right touch of modernism.
Tip #4: Protect your home’s historic charm with an easement (even after you sell)
Every historic homeowner who’s tackled a restoration project is bound to have a few scars, say from tearing tar-glued linoleum off the original hardwood floors.
It isn’t easy to sell your historic home to just any buyer after you’ve poured your blood, sweat, and tears into carefully restoring it.
Luckily, there are steps you can take to protect those vintage characteristics you worked so hard to preserve even after you sell it: with a historic preservation easement.
“Historic preservation easements are a permanent restriction protecting a property from future alterations that would negatively impact the historic integrity and character of the property,” explains Hanson.
“They are typically recorded on the deed and the easement is held by an organization whose mission includes historic preservation. What aspects of the property are subject to the easement varies, depending on the wishes of the individual who creates the easement.”
An easement not only protects your home’s historic character, but there’s also potential for some significant tax benefits. However, placing an easement on the property may reduce its value or make it harder to sell. You’ll need to find a buyer who’s also invested in preserving your historic house.
“When you sell a home with that kind of easement, theoretically that reduces the value — because the seller received let’s say $15,000 in exchange for a maintenance obligation that will now pass on to the buyer,” explains Block.
“However, it’s usually not a big deal because the easement requirements typically cover maintenance and improvements that a buyer’s gonna want to do, anyway.”
Sellers who want to get the most money for their homes need more modern staging with transitional furniture, and lighter, contemporary sheers on the windows. That way, it’s easier to see the historic character that buyers will pay a premium for.
- Jeff Block Real Estate AgentCloseJeff Block Real Estate Agent at Compass Currently accepting new clients
- Years of Experience 22
- Transactions 2232
- Average Price Point $490k
- Townhomes 1145
Tip #5: Stage with the modern buyer in mind
“Today’s buyer wants the beautiful floors, the high ceilings, the intricate moldings. But historic homes that have period furniture and heavy historic window treatments tend to look like cluttered museums, which can be harder to sell,” advises Block.
You don’t need to go crazy de-antiquing your home if it’s heavy on retro décor and furnishings, you simply need to find a balance between vintage and contemporary style.
“Sellers who want to get the most money for their homes need more modern staging with transitional furniture, and lighter, contemporary sheers on the windows. That way, it’s easier to see the historic character that buyers will pay a premium for.”
Stage your home to show off its most darling vintage adornments, while demonstrating that the home (and its layout) is functional enough for the 21st century.
Here are three easy ways your historic home can put its best foot forward:
Ready your home’s exterior
Mow the lawn, repaint the shutters and trim the shrubs. Other ideas include planting flowers, laying down fresh mulch, and staging your front porch or backyard for entertaining.
Clean, clean, and clean some more
A sparkling house symbolizes a home that’s well cared for. Clean windows, carpets, baseboards, and spotless appliances can speak volumes.
Stage key rooms
Older homes weren’t designed with the open-concept theme that’s popular in many new homes today. To show the benefits of your historic home’s layout, help the buyer by painting a picture of what a room could be. With a little staging, a small room can easily be transformed into a home office, a craft room, or even a nursery.
Tip #6: Be ready to rattle off your home’s numbers
It’s a numbers game with old houses, and one of the first questions most buyers ask is, “when was the house built?”
Other numbers potential buyers will want to know include:
The year you (or past owners) made additions, alterations, renovations, or improvements
Buyers will usually want to know when you put on a new roof and when you installed the new HVAC. Also, be ready to talk about if your house’s electrical has been rewired, and if its plumbing has been updated.
Replacing cast iron plumbing and revamping the electrical wiring through a house isn’t cheap. The costs of rewiring alone can average anywhere from $4,130-$7,700. If the plumbing or electrical have never been updated, a buyer will need to consider if they’re willing to take on that financial responsibility.
“Disclosures need to be thorough on historic homes — because you need to know when any updates were done,” advises Block. “That way, the buyers know what they’re getting into when making an offer, and they’ll be more reasonable when asking for repairs or credits after their inspection.”
Average utility costs
“A seller isn’t required to share any estimate for annual upkeep costs for their historic home,” says Block. “But more and more buyers are asking for average utility costs, as they’re concerned with heating and cooling costs for drafty historic homes.”
Contact information for your homeowner’s insurance agent
In case your buyer has trouble finding an insurance company willing to insure a historic home at a reasonable rate, they’ll be happy knowing who you’ve worked with in the past.
Providing potential buyers with a list of important numbers, dates, and any relevant service contacts can improve your chances of a rewarding sale and leave a sustaining positive influence on the property.
“Part of loving a historic house is learning to maintain it properly, with appropriate methods and materials,” says Hanson. “The more useful information about a house’s quirks that a seller can pass to a buyer, the better — for the house and buyer.”
Tip #7: Highlight your home’s history, not its fables
Buyers interested in historic homes love hearing about their history. Who lived there before? What qualifies the home as a historic property? And best of all — is there an interesting backstory?
“I definitely highlight the history when selling historic homes — especially those built in the Colonial period by a well-known local merchant or financier in Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War period,” says Block.
When sharing your home’s history, always ensure the information is as fact based and accurate as possible. Telling a false fable is one easy way to turn off potential buyers.
“Any history presented should be based on research, not opinions and guesses,” says Hanson. “If information is based on oral history, that should be stated in the document. Old house people will not be happy to discover later that information they were given was inaccurate.”
Luckily, there are plenty of ways to help you research your property’s history:
Check public records
Search property records, census data, newspaper archives or check with your local library for historic documents. You might come up with original property deeds, building permits, or even vintage photos of your home.
Go to your local historical society
If you have an active chapter in your area, they’ve probably already gathered data on your historic home.
Pay a visit to your local senior living facility
Elderly local residents may have titillating stories to share about your historic house that you won’t find in any record books.
You never know what you may find hiding within the walls or crevices of an old house. Perhaps a collection of old photographs, a secret journal, or maybe even a long-buried treasure.
Tip #8: Know and disclose your home’s historic restrictions
An easement isn’t the only way that renovation restrictions can be placed on a historic house. Local historic preservation ordinances may also place restrictions, require a review of alterations, or prevent the demolition of historic properties. These restrictions have the potential to hurt your home sale prospects.
“When a house is actually registered with the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, then the homeowner cannot make any changes to the exterior of the property that are not approved by the historic commission,” says Block.
“There are people who will pay more for a home on the historic register, while other buyers actually devalue a home because they want the ability to make changes, like replacing windows, without having to go to the historic commission.”
Even if your house isn’t on the national, state, or city historic register, there may be restrictions placed on exterior renovations if your home is in a historic district — but not always.
“Potential homeowners should always check whether a local historic district ordinance might apply to the house in question and what that ordinance requires of owners,” says Hanson. “Ordinances are typically found within the zoning code and are generally accessible on a town or city’s website.”
You’ll also need to note that the home is listed on a historic register or subject to historic preservation ordinances in your seller’s disclosure.
Tip #9: Incorporate your home’s history into your marketing plan
All those original features need to take center stage when marketing your house — whether your house is fully restored or in need of some care. But your home’s interesting history and vintage architecture will only help your property sell if buyers know about it.
“Point out the original flooring, describe the details of the fireplace mantels, or even note the specifics of the building materials,” advises Block. “For example, we highlight fireplaces made from the Pennsylvania Bluestone that was popular during the Revolutionary War period.”
Once you’ve worked with your agent to compile a list of the most noteworthy features of your home — and written a knock-out property description — it’s time to let the world know your home is for sale.
Here are three ways to spread the word:
To reach a large pool of buyers
Agents savvy in historic home selling know they need to widen their buyer pool net beyond the MLS. Consider placing your historic home listing on specialty real estate websites like:
- The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s residential real estate listings
- Historic For Sale.com
- Preservation Directory.com
- Historic Properties
- Antique Homes Magazine
To use the powers of social media
Your agent can also highlight your historic home on social media by submitting listings to Facebook groups that specialize in listing historic homes available on the market. A few popular groups are:
- For the love of old houses
- Circa old houses
- Historical homes of America
- Vintage houses for sale — pre-1940’s
- Cheap old houses (for houses under $100K)
To look for local opportunities
Many cities and states have websites that specialize in listing historic homes for sale. To find local opportunities, try running a quick Google search of “historic homes for sale” in your city, county, or state, to see what listing options are available.
Tip #10: Prepare for repair requests, then negotiate on what’s reasonable vs. not
“One of the featured homeowners in Restoring Your Historic House said, ‘Every house is a burden, the trick is to find a burden you can love,’” recalls Hanson.
Say the right buyer fell in love with your historic home and you’ve officially accepted a superb offer. Congrats! The finish line is almost in sight, but then WHAM. Your buyer sends you their home inspection report… and a multi-page repair request list.
It’s a long list of fixes your buyer wants done before closing on the home — from easy and affordable, to complex and expensive.
So, how do you sort out which ones are doable and which ones are a definite “no” without tanking the sale?
There are a few things you can do here:
You can check for issues upfront with a seller’s inspection
Get a pre-listing inspection before putting your house on the market. This will give you a leg-up on repairs and avoid lengthy negotiations during the selling process. A pre-listing inspection will cost you around $250-$500, but it will also uncover any issues before the house goes under contract.
This can be invaluable when you’re dealing with an older home that may have code violations, and the results of the pre-listing inspection will guide you toward making any necessary repairs that would impact your historic home’s safety, function, or value.
If you don’t have the upfront funds to make repairs, then you’ll be able to disclose what you know to buyers ahead of time and adjust your pricing strategy to reflect any issues.
Follow your agent’s guidance on repair negotiations
It’ll take the expertise of your agent to help you negotiate a reasonable compromise with your buyer. That’s why it’s so important to hire one who understands the historic home sale process.
A savvy agent will know that it’s reasonable to fix little things like the loose finial on the banister or give a credit to offset the buyer replacing the rotting beams on the original front porch.
They’ll also know that it’s not reasonable to expect a seller to spend big bucks fixing major problems (like that pesky knob-and-tube wiring — popular from the 1900s to 1940s) that are standard on many historic homes — even if those same issues would be a mandatory must-fix on more modern homes.
Just because it’s unreasonable, doesn’t mean buyers won’t make those requests. And sometimes they’re asking because they have no choice.
“There are some things that are grandfathered in with historic houses, electrical issues like knob and tube wiring being the main one,” says Block.
“However, recent changes in the insurance industry have made it a lot more expensive to insure things like old wiring, so buyers may expect sellers to remedy issues that may technically be grandfathered in.”
Find the right expert to help sell your historic home
Almost every city has its fair share of historic homes, known for their preserved architectural details specific to the era in which they were built.
As the above-mentioned websites and Facebook groups demonstrate, there are hundreds of thousands of people who value the rich history and unique craftsmanship that comes with a historic home.
The right buyer for your historic property is out there, and the right real estate agent can help you prepare, market, and sell your home to that buyer. The key is to find an agent who cherishes the distinctly exceptional aspects of your vintage property as much as you do, and who knows how to cast a wide enough net to bring in a pool of interested buyers.
HomeLight’s agent matching platform takes just two minutes to match clients with the best real estate agents who can guide you through the process. Our matching platform takes into account an agent’s specialties, certifications, and relevant experience, so you get the right agent for your unique selling situation.
Editor’s note: This updated story first appeared on HomeLight.com on Sept. 30, 2019, and was written by HomeLight contributing writer Christine Bartsch. Some of the original information has been retained for this post.
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