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Being at Home in History

If you fall in love with a vintage home in an historic district, no matter how rare and precious it may be, be sure to do your research before committing.Old historic house new jersey

Restrictions in historic districts – and across neighboring districts - vary broadly; some even exempt certain properties. For this reason, it’s important to investigate the exact address to know where you stand if you buy. In many instances, the restrictions affect primarily the outside of the home, but these can still limit your ability to realize your dreams. While some state and local governments offer incentives for preserving structures, your vision for restoring and modernizing an historic dream home could cost you more than you might anticipate.

Here are some factors to consider:

  • Whether your plan is to build up, out or both, additions are rarely allowed; such changes are often viewed as creating a false history.
  • Homeowners replacing windows, shutters, and roofing are often required to replace them in kind, which can be expensive when you need wooden windows in an odd size or slate or wooden roofing shingles. While these materials were once commonplace, they are now often the premium option.
  • Using original materials, eg, single pane windows, can increase your energy bills. Ask to see the current bills to get a realistic picture for these expenses.
  • Homeowners insurance on an historic home can also be more expensive because of the inherent cost of rebuilding with original materials.
  • A traditional mortgage may not apply, especially if the home needs a lot of work. Instead, either a 203K rehab mortgage or a Fannie Mae renovation loan may be a better option.


There are steps you can take to improve your chances of a happy outcome:

  • Check with your State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), local planning agency, or community historical society to fully understand restrictions.
  • Have a thorough inspection done. Structural damage is a reason to walk away. Removing materials such as asbestos, lead pipes and lead paint, old wiring to bring it up to code can be done, but will leave an unexpected ding in your budget.
  • Make sure the appraiser knows the neighborhood well; the nuances within an historic district are so important that the difference of a block or two can significantly impact a home’s value.
  • Check for a pre-existing historic preservation easement. This is a legal tool that places restrictions on what can happen to the property and requires future owners to adhere to them. If an easement exists, find out what it entails and who holds it before you buy.
  • Choose a realtor with experience who can guide you through the process. Not all historic homes are listed publicly; your realtor’s connections may open up opportunity.

Once you have purchased the home, be prepared both financially and emotionally for hidden surprises. Earlier generations may have made repairs and additions with varying levels of skill. Walls and ceilings may hold some big surprises that reveal themselves only after construction has begun. There are steps you can take to make your renovation life more survivable.

  • Hire contractors who have experience working on restorations of older homes. They will be more likely to know how to fix what is there and find appropriate solutions, rather than rip out and replace.
  • Tap into online old home communities. Others with the same passion for history and architecture can be a fantastic resource of information and contacts.
  • If you live in the home while renovating, set aside one room to be construction free – no dust, no tools, just sanctuary. It will help you deal with the havoc in all the other rooms.

Despite the challenges of purchasing an historic home, the benefits are so rewarding. Older homes are often more sturdily constructed than new, and incorporate an artistry and craftsmanship that would be prohibitively more expensive to recreate today. Homes in historic districts tend to retain their value or increase in value, while affording a particular lifestyle that is not found in today’s developments and gated communities. When an historic home does come on the market, it will often sell faster and at a higher price.

Whether your tastes are Revolutionary, Victorian, Craftsman, or Mid-Century Modern, owning an architecturally or historically significant home is a rare experience – a privilege that many can only envy. If you do your research, and set your expectations (and your budget) correctly, your home and the surrounding neighborhood will be a daily joy, and an investment built to withstand the test of time.


Published October 25, 2017 in New Jersey Living