Will Buying a Historic Home Come With Lots of Legal Restrictions?

For a prospective homebuyer who is interested in preservation, might the government oversight be more restrictive than is appropriate?

Question

I live in New England, I love old homes, and want to buy and restore one. I’d like to be in a registered historic district, because I think the chances are higher that my neighbors will care as much as I do about old homes and will invest the time and energy needed to make those homes as beautiful and valuable as possible. But every time I drive through the center of the kind of New England town I’d like to live in, all I see are white colonials. I want my new home to reflect my own family’s ideas about how a home should look and work. If I buy a house in a historic district, will I be forced to conform my home renovations to a very narrow idea about historical authenticity? What can I do to avoid this?

Answer

The state commissions that create historic districts, and the local regulations (zoning bylaws and historic preservation ordinances) that impose design standards on the renovation of historic structures, whether in a historic district or not, sometimes focus on particular design styles or eras as the basis for their regulatory policies.

For instance, in New England, there’s a tendency for the regulators to see colonial architecture and design details as the standard for the preservation of historic structures. Preserving and protecting a 1930’s Art Deco garage, no matter how authentic, simply evokes the wrong history in the eyes of these commission members.

However, painstaking research into local architectural history (after all, not every colonial home was painted white) may persuade a local commission or trust to take a more expansive view of what is actually historically significant.

Specifically, you may need to contact your state’s historic commission or private organizations like your state’s historic society. In addition, many historic preservation societies specialize in particular styles of architecture or historic eras; your home may be of great interest to them, and they will bring a very special competence to an assessment of the possibilities for your home.

Most state and local authorities prefer to see historic structures restored rather than deteriorate to the point where they can’t be rehabilitated and must be torn down. A thoughtfully conceived and historically accurate renovation plan will usually carry the day with a local regulatory authority that cares deeply about the ongoing restoration and preservation of the history of its town or city.

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