Your home is far from cookie cutter and that’s what you love most about it: you could gaze at its original hardwood floors and architectural details all day long. Its age only adds to the appeal—if walls could talk, they’d have decades of interesting stories to tell.
Despite your admiration for your historic home, you’re concerned that the current generation of buyers won’t appreciate it the same way you do and it’ll be hard to sell now that you’re ready to move on.
However, don’t believe the hype over all things new: according to 2019 research from the National Association of Realtors, 86% of recent buyers purchased a previously owned (rather than a brand new) home. And of those buyers who purchased an owned home, 21% did so because it had more charm and character.
Whether you’re selling an 1850s Greek Revival or a 1950s Midcentury Modern, it’s that unspoiled character of your historic house 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.
Just follow these 10 tips for selling a historical home, featuring the insights of a historic home restorer and seasoned real estate pro who sells classic homes out in Philly, the 12th oldest city in the U.S.
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 in the web, and get it sold.
That’s a solid strategy for selling most homes, but it’s not that cut and dried if you’re selling a historic house.
“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 you settle on an agent to represent you and your home, make sure he or she is the type of expert you need by asking a few questions such as:
- 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 westside last year…”).
Ask for numbers such as how many historic homes they’ve sold and what percentage of the homes they sell every year are historic, and see if it sounds like a good chunk of their business or just a one-off sale they did 10 years ago.
- What’s your strategy for preparing historic homes for the market?
With this question, you want to hear the agent walk through their pre-listing process. 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 take an inquisitive rather than a prescriptive approach to guide you through a tailored home prep strategy that honors your home’s character, style, and special characteristics. An agent who insists on a full walkthrough before scheduling any contractors, and who asks you lots of questions about the home you’ve come to know so well, is the type of agent you want to work with.
- How would you go about pricing my home?
Pricing a historic home in many cases requires extra legwork. It’s easy to find comparable sales for modern homes when there are a dozen properties of the same size, structure, and layout built within a three-mile radius 10 years ago. There may not be an ample amount of recently sold apples-to-apples homes to inform your historic home’s pricing strategy.
Here you want to find out if your 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.
When in doubt, connect with a concierge from HomeLight who can help to match you with an agent that has the relevant experience for your needs to give your historic home the best chance at selling fast and for more money.
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Tip #2: Don’t let renovations ruin your home’s historic character
Time takes its toll on old homes. As a historic homeowner, you know that when a house has been around as long as yours has, there’s always some restoration or renovation work that needs your attention.
Once you’ve made the decision to sell, you may be tempted to take money-saving shortcuts to fix any issues before listing or go overboard with remodeling because some style in interior design is trending.
Keep in mind that all those quirks and architectural characteristics that make your historic home unique will inspire the right buyer to make a competitive offer.
“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.”
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 has just got to go—especially in the kitchen and baths, or when stuff around the house no longer functions properly.
Follow these tips to better toe that fine line between preservation and necessary improvements:
Focus on the kitchen and baths
While most historic homeowners want the original hardwood floors left untouched, few are the sort of hardcore preservationists that would prefer the original plumbing or heating systems.
“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.”
(According to HomeLight’s Top Agent Insights survey for Q3 2019, buyers will be 50% more likely to make an offer on a home with stainless steel kitchen appliances and sellers will see a 41.5% ROI on their investment.)
Shop for items that reflect your historic home’s style
Modern amenities may sound great, but how do you keep them from sticking out like a sore thumb in your 1920s timbered Tudor Revival, or your 1890s turreted Queen Anne?
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.
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 the historic homes of the area and know how to perform work without compromising preservation.
If you don’t have any one in your network who fits the bill, ask your agent for a referral for the best historic home contractors in the area.
Tip #4: Protect your home’s historic charm with an easement (even after you sell)
Every historic homeowner who’s personally 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 your historic home.
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, 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.”
Tip #5: Stage with the modern buyer in mind
If you adore historic houses, chances are you’re keen on all types of antiques. But if all it would take is a fistful of price tags to turn your home into an antique store, then you may have a problem staging your house to sell.
“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.
“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.”
You don’t need to go crazy de-antiquing your home if heavy on retro décor and furnishings, you simply need to find a balance between vintage and contemporary style.
It’s about staging your home to feel less like grandma’s house. For example, let’s say those historic-style living room drapes are staying with the house—you can counterbalance that with a modern, minimalist sofa.
By minimizing the era-appropriate décor, you’ll help buyers see past your possessions so they can focus on the historic character of your house.
As a bonus, you won’t have to worry about strangers damaging your antiques when buyers and brokers drop by for showings.
Tip #6: Be ready to rattle off your home’s numbers
“What year was it built?”
That’s the first question most people ask about historic houses, but it’s not the only number you’ll need to know as you sell yours.
Potential buyers will want to know:
- The year that you (or any past owners) made additions, alterations, renovations, or improvements.
Be ready to show and talk about when the house was rewired, when you put in a new roof, when you installed the new HVAC—that way, the new owners can plan for when those big dollar projects may need attention again.“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 homeowners insurance agent.
In case your buyer has trouble finding one willing to insure a historic home at a reasonable rate, they’ll be happy knowing who you’ve worked with in the past.
“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
A home’s history isn’t just its past series of renovations and updates. It’s also who built the home, who lived there before, and what the property means to the community. The type of buyer interested in your historic home will love these types of details.
“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.
You’ve got a lot of options to help you research your home’s history:
- Do a little detective work around your own house.
You might be surprised by what you find buried in the garden or tucked in the rafters that’ll give you details on the age of the house and insight into the people who called it home.
- Check public records.
You’ll learn a lot by searching property records and census data, and newspaper archives. You might come up with original property deeds, building permits, or even vintage photos of your home.You don’t need to have a whole history book of information, but having a couple of paragraphs on the history can go a long way towards attracting buyers.
- 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 may not be able to back up these stories with documentation, but buyers will appreciate knowing what people were saying about the house back in the day.
Just make sure your historical research you present as hard truth is fact-based and accurate, or you could wind up with unhappy 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.”
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 review of alterations, or prevent 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 located 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
Your home’s interesting history and vintage architecture will only help your old house sell if buyers know about it. So all of those original features need to take center stage in your marketing materials—whether your house is fully restored or in need of some TLC.
“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.”
Your home’s status as historical should also impact where you market it for sale. Agents savvy in historic home selling know that they need to widen their buyer pool net beyond the MLS:
- To find the best buyer, consider placing your historic home listing on specialty real estate websites, like Circa and the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s residential real estate listings.
- You should also ask your agent to highlight your historic house listing on social media, such as by submitting the listing to Facebook groups dedicated to historic homes currently on the market.
Tip #10: Prepare for repair requests, then negotiate on what’s reasonable vs. not
It took a lot of time and effort, but you got the work done and you’ve finally accepted a great offer on your historic house. The finish line is almost in sight, and then wham: your buyer sends you their home inspection report—and a multi-page repair request list.
That seemingly endless list contains all levels of fixes your buyer wants done before closing on the home—from the easy and affordable, to the complex and expensive.
So how do you sort out which ones are doable and which ones are a definite “no” without tanking the sale? Keep in mind a couple of things:
1. You can check for issues upfront with a seller’s inspection
When you sell your historic home, go ahead and get a pre-listing inspection before you put your house on the market. You’ll need to pay for it but the inspector will bring to light any issues that the buyer’s inspector will catch after the house is under contract anyway.
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.
2. 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.”
How to have a happy historic home sale
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. According to U.S. General Services records, there’s over 90,000 properties recognized by The National Register as a “historic place” thanks to their significance in American history, architecture, art, archeology, engineering, or culture.
Old houses come with oodles of charm, scads of character, and a whole host of quirks that require a buyer who’s ready to take on the challenge of homeownership.
“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.
Finding a buyer who won’t demand expensive fixes to flaws that simply come with the historic home territory isn’t easy. However, it’s definitely doable—if you do the legwork and hire an experienced agent who understands how to sell historic homes.
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