FAQs About Buying a Home That's a Designated Historic Property

Got questions about buying, owning, or fixing up a historic home? Find answers here.

Homes listed on registers of historic places are subject to unique rules and regulations. Learn what limits you face as an owner of these homes, possible benefits of having your house registered as a historic property, and much more.

What are the pros and cons of registering a house as a historic property?

My wife and I recently bought a very old home outside Boston. She's eager to research its past and perhaps register it as a historic property. I'm worried that doing so will mean we have trouble painting the place the color we want it or adding a bedroom. Am I right to be concerned?

Answer

If you have a very old house that hasn't been greatly altered or that was associated with important historical events or activities (as in, “George Washington slept here”), you may indeed be able to register it as a historic property. This can be done on the federal National Register, on a state historic commission register, or on a municipal historic register.

You will, in order to register, need to submit an application and have your property evaluated.

Why do people choose to register property? One reason is prestige and networking opportunities. The National Register, for instance, allows you to display a bronze plaque, and it facilitates communication with other historic property owners. That might help if, for instance, you're planning to run a B&B or similar short-term rental.

Also, registering typically qualifies a property for grants, loans, and tax incentives.

Contrary to rumor, registering federally does not directly impose design restrictions on the renovation or remodeling of the building’s exterior or interior. However, municipal zoning bylaws or other ordinances may restrict what you can do with your home if it's in a town historic district or otherwise qualifies as a historic structure. (Your home may be subject to such bylaws whether it is registered as a historic building or not!)

Some historic districts impose relatively few restrictions on renovating a building in a historic district, while others are extensive and even onerous. Such regulations may extend to the color of outside paints, authentic fixtures and other hardware, use of appropriate materials like wood instead of plastic, or the style of window treatments.

Other ordinances may require a homeowner to give notice of the intention to tear down a home in a historic district, even if it’s to replace it with something equally authentic. And then the homeowner must wait, usually six months or a year, before beginning demolition.

Check online to see if your state regulates the renovation or remodeling of a house that's on its historic register. Then, to find out whether you are subject to local zoning bylaws or other ordinances that impose design standards on the renovation or remodeling of your home (regardless of whether it's registered on the National Register or with your state historic commission), check online or speak with your city or town clerk.

Nothing, of course, prevents you from making historically appropriate repairs or improvements to your home without registration, if you are so inclined, so long as you’re not prevented from doing so by a local zoning ordinance or other bylaw.

Can I build a new house in a historic district?

My husband likes buildings that have a historic flavor. I like modern conveniences: central air conditioning, hard wiring for electronic devices, and so forth. My husband would like to be in a historic district, which I suspect will come with requirements for conformity with existing style and architectural character. Can we build an entirely new house there, and have it look old, but actually be modern?

Answer

States and municipalities create historic districts that are worthy of restoration and preservation. But even the most congested historic districts, like the neighborhoods surrounding a picturesque New England town green, have vacant building lots.

Vacant lots are most often created when an existing structure decays beyond the economic utility of renovating it. Other vacant lots come into existence when existing house lots, containing an existing structure, can be further subdivided and the new lot sold.

Regardless of how a vacant lot becomes available, new construction in a historic district is typically possible, but governed by the same types of design guidelines that control renovating or remodeling of an existing building there.

Guidelines are often detailed and comprehensive, especially if the district contains well-preserved and consistent architecture. They tend to focus on exterior design issues like height and breadth, roof pitches, window treatments, color, use of materials, setbacks, impacts on street life, and general compatibility with the neighborhood.

However, the local historical commission or planning board that enforces design regulations will likely be less demanding about interior treatments. Of course, you’ll be legally required to meet modern code standards.

This is not an undertaking for anyone on a limited construction budget. Properly qualified professionals—architects, engineers, and contractors, preferably with prior experience with building or renovating historic structures—will be a necessity.

Once you’ve developed plans for your new home, a meeting or two with the local historical commission and the local planning or zoning board, accompanied by your experts, will offer the best assurance that your project won’t be rejected outright or end up costing far more than you'd planned on.

Most planning boards and historic commissions are eager to encourage new construction that will increase the economic viability and appeal of historic districts. You can usually count on their support.

Can I remodel a home that's designated as historic?

I bought a house that's a piece of local history, and am looking forward to restoring it as nearly as possible to its condition when first built. But will improving it require all sorts of regulatory approval?

Answer

Your options depend on the type of listing, for starters.

If your property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (which prior owners would have done—it doesn't happen top-down), this won't by itself limit what you can do if you remodel. It might actually qualify the house for grants, loans, and tax incentives if you’re willing to conform your work to historically authentic standards of design and workmanship.

In many states, renovations to existing structures that require funding, licenses, or permits (but not building or other local permits) from a state or federal agency must be reviewed by a state commission for impacts to historic and archaeological properties. A listing in the National Register does not necessarily require state review; at the same time, lack of listing does not eliminate the need for review. State review sometimes imposes restrictions on the scope of the proposed renovation, but this is usually left to a local agency or commission.

Localities often impose their own restrictions and limitations on the renovation of historically significant buildings. These are usually part of the local zoning bylaw or of a separate historical preservation bylaw. Either way, a local conservation or historic commission often must review renovations to structures with historic significance and issue permits for the proposed work.

Some localities have created special historic districts; within which, proposed renovations may be subject to review and regulation. Other localities rely on the National Register or a state register to designate structures as subject to regulation by a local commission or agency.

You can easily check at your town or city hall or visit the municipality’s website to see whether your house is on the National Register or registered with your state, or whether it's located within a historic district. The clerk will direct you to the zoning or other municipal regulations that may apply to your proposed remodeling.

If you learn that your house has historic significance, you’ll want to meet with the local historic commission or conservation commission to learn what restrictions on remodeling apply and what design ideas are recommended. Historic commissions maintain lists of recommended architects and contractors who have appeared before the commission, as well as preferred materials, hardware, paint colors, and other design elements.

Can I tear down an old house and build a new one?

Our house is so old that it's in danger of looking like the local haunted house. I'm worried that any remodeling will involve major upgrades to bring it up to code, not to mention the inevitable surprises and cost overruns. Can I legally just tear it down and start over?

Answer

Starting all over with a new, modern house avoids regulations governing the remodeling of an existing historic structure. It could, however, depending in particular on the age and historic significance of the home, trigger a different kind of regulation.

State or local regulations may require you to give notice to the appropriate agency or commission (most likely the local historic or conservation commission) of an intention to tear down the structure.

A waiting period will follow, typically six to 12 months from the date of the notice. This allows time for the commission, the locality, or even private individuals to react, perhaps by identifying a purchaser for the property who is prepared to restore or preserve it as a historic building.

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