Many people love old homes. They love to live in a piece of local history and they enjoy restoring their home as nearly as possible to its condition when it was first built. Television programs and trade magazines offer instructions about how to restore slate roofs or where to find period brass hardware or historically authentic paints. Historically accurate renovations can add to the structural soundness of your home while enhancing its aesthetic appeal – not to mention increasing its resale value. Of course, like almost anything that involves substantial changes to a built structure, improving a historically significant home requires regulatory approval.
Some properties have been listed by prior owners on the National Register of Historic Places, a federally maintained list of buildings of national historic interest. Listing on the National Register doesn't by itself limit what you can do if you remodel the building. However, it might qualify the building 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 buildings 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. The regulations are usually part of the local zoning bylaw or of a separate historical preservation bylaw. Either way, a local conservation or historic commission is often tasked with reviewing renovations to a structure with historic significance and issuing permits for the proposed work.
Some localities have created special historic districts; in which case, proposed renovations of any structure within the district may be subject to review and regulation. Other localities rely on the National Register or a state register to designate structures that are subject to regulation by a local commission or agency.
You can easily check at your town hall or city hall or visit the municipality’s website to see if your building is on the National Register or registered with your state, or whether your home is 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 building 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.
CAUTION! Tearing down an old house, regardless of its historic value, and starting all over with a new, modern house avoids regulations governing the remodeling of an existing historic structure, but it triggers a different kind of regulation. State or local regulations typically require that the homeowner give notice to the appropriate agency or commission (usually the local historic or conservation commission) of an intention to tear down the structure. A waiting period ensues, typically 6 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 and/or preserve it as a historic building.