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

A homeowner wonders whether registering the property will only lead to stifling limitations on making improvements.

Question

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 just 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 has not been greatly altered and/or that was associated with important historical events or activities (for example, “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, after you submit an application and have your property evaluated.

Why do people choose to register their property? One reason is prestige and networking opportunities – the National Register, for instance, allows you to display a bronze plaque, and facilitates communication with other historic property owners. Also, registering typically qualifies a property for grants, loans, and tax incentives.

Contrary to rumor, registering 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 is 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 the renovation of a building in a historic district, while others are quite extensive and may feel onerous. Such regulations may extend to the color of outside paints, authentic fixtures and other hardware, the 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 their intention to tear down a home in a historic district – even if it’s to replace it with something equally authentic – and to then wait, usually six months or a year, before beginning demolition.

To ensure that registration of your home as a historic building doesn't impose limitations on what you can do when you remodel it, check online to see if your state regulates the renovation or remodeling of a house that is on its historic register. 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 is 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 and your wife 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.

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