Should I Buy a Home in a Historic District?

The goal of a historic district is to preserve the character of a neighborhood. This is usually done by restricting development and restricting the renovations that can be done to homes in that neighborhood.

I live in a historic district. As the city has grown taller around me, my neighborhood has remained the same despite being a quick 10 minute walk to downtown. Traffic in the city has increased but the roads turn into a quiet park-like setting as soon as I enter my neighborhood.

If you plan to buy a house in a historic district and make no changes to the home, this is an easy process. Just buy the house knowing that any exterior renovations will likely be restricted and require approval from the historic district commission.

Can I Renovate My Historic Home?

This is where it gets tricky. A historic district is usually managed by a department in the city. They will have a very long and confusing document about how your home can be renovated. Additionally, there is usually a historic district commission that will vote on your project.

In my case, I used an experienced architect to help with the process. He was able to draw the plans while knowing the historic restrictions. Additionally, he met with the city's historic district point person to assure that the changes were acceptable. When the commission finally voted, the point person had already given her stamp of approval, so any concerns were already addressed.

Things to Look For in Historic Homes

Many older homes have problems and antiquated floor plans. They might have old plumbing, electrical, and HVAC systems. Many don't have central air conditioning. Updating these systems is challenging and expensive. It can involve opening the walls. Understand what type of systems exist before buying a home.

Terrifying steep staircase

Octopus furnace

Historic homes often have floor plans suitable for a different era. They are carved up into small rooms. The staircases are often narrow and steep. In my house, I opened up the rooms to combine the kitchen, dining room, and living room into one space. Now it feels spacious. Although having an open floor plan comes with its own challenges.

If you hope to change your house this might be a challenge. In my area, it's possible to do an addition equal to 50% of the footprint that existed before 1945. Historical records are used to determine this footprint. Additionally, you might need to renovate instead of replace any windows. Certain types of siding might need to be used. Vinyl is often not allowed. Garages are also restricted. Sometimes historic garages cannot be torn down, even if it is unusable in its current format. Many times, an attached garage is not allowed.

Using a mixture of historic aerial photos and an examination of building materials I was able to prove that my dilapidated garage was built in the 1960s and received approval to tear it down. Otherwise, I would have been required to keep it intact.

Do research in your area and speak with current homeowners. Some new buyers are shocked to learn that they can't do whatever they'd like with their home.

Favorite Resources