The landscape of America is dotted with historic residences - Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, William Randolf Hearst's Castle and our own Mark Twain Homestead in Hartford, Connecticut. There are also hundreds of lesser-known buildings that are significant to their local history, many of which are still being used as private homes today.
But while’s it’s a fun idea to own and inhabit a piece of American history, historic residences like these present a unique set of benefits and challenges. If you’re considering buying a historic home, you should:
1. Thoroughly research the home. You can find historic homes in most states through the National Registry of Historic Places. Each state’s historical preservation office can provide you with useful information on the history of individual properties, as well as the pertinent rules and regulations governing ownership, renovation and tax incentives. For Connecticut properties, you can find information at the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.
2. Determine its historical designation. Getting a home officially sanctioned as historic can be a difficult process. A property must first meet specific criteria and be approved by the state preservation office. The definition of ‘historic’ even varies from state to state: a 100-year-old house in a ‘young’ state like Nevada may qualify, whereas a 150-year-old house in Massachusetts (a significantly ‘older’ state) may not. A property that qualifies may be eligible for financial incentives and/or tax breaks. Incentives vary by state, but most involve some sort of income tax credit on funds put towards historic home rehabilitation.
3. Make a conditional offer. It’s wise to make your initial offer contingent on two things: That you can secure adequate financing and that the house passes a thorough inspection. Many old houses contain structural defects invisible to the untrained eye, which, once discovered, can drastically reduce their purchase price.
4. Order a home inspection. This is arguably the most important step in buying a historic home as these homes may require extensive repairs and improvements to bring them up to modern-day building codes. This is especially true if they haven’t been used as day-to-day residences for many years. Likely trouble spots include sub-standard wiring, asbestos insulation, toxic lead-based paint, leaky or decaying roofs, damp basements, the presence of bugs and other pests and general neglect. Archaic heating, plumbing or electrical systems are important to note, too. Make sure that modern systems can be installed without damaging the home.
5. Finalize your offer. Consult with the seller about any concerns your inspection may have turned up and adjust your offer accordingly. If the seller agrees to make any repairs or improvements, make certain that these are included in the purchase agreement, along with a stipulation that any renovations be done in a manner that won’t hurt the home’s historical designation. Also, be sure to list in the agreement any items from the home (antique chandeliers, brass doorknobs, etc.) that you want included in the deal.
6. Renovate with care. If you’re planning to renovate a historic home, it’s a good idea to hire a contractor who specializes in rehabilitating historic properties. Ask for references and check them thoroughly. Remember, there may be restrictions on what you can and can’t do to a historic home. If the home is located in a designated historical district, you may be barred from replacing doors and windows, and some districts even place restrictions on what color you can paint the house.
7. Consider resale value. While well-maintained historic homes, or those with famous former owners, may command premium resale prices, some historic homes can be difficult to sell. The pool of potential buyers willing to accept the quirks, and possible added expense, of owning a historic home can be significantly lower. It’s important to keep this in mind and to carefully consider what you’re getting into before you buy.