Before You Buy A Historic House

By Scott Sidler • March 19, 2012

So, you’ve decided to buy a historic house. Congratulations! Purchasing a historic house is more than just owning a beautiful piece of history. It’s a labor of love that can require a lot of work and an extra serving of patience. Historic homes line the streets of almost every town from Maine to California, and there is no dearth of variety when it comes to an old house.

There are Craftsman Bungalows, Queen Annes, Colonial Revivals, Greek Revivals, and on and on. And while owning a historic home can be a romantic notion with wide-plank floors and stained-glass windows, there is often a lot of work to maintain, or in some cases, revive an old house. So, if you’re up to it, here are a few things to think about before you take the plunge into this unique form of homeownership.

  • Have a Cash Reserve – Historic houses are old and like anything old, they can be in good shape or bad shape depending on how they have been cared for over their life. It’s always wise to have an “Emergency Fund” when you buy a house because, let’s face it, things are going to wear out and break down. If you don’t have several thousand dollars in reserve after you close on your house, you’re asking for trouble. The home we live in now required all new plumbing, a new roof, and a whole new HVAC system thanks to the coldest Orlando winter in 15 years all in the first year we lived there. But we were prepared with adequate reserves, which brings us to our next point.
  • Get an Inspection – You should always get an inspection before you buy any house. It’s a huge investment and you want to make sure you know what you are purchasing. With a old house, you’ll want to not only have your local home inspector do a thorough inspection, but you’ll want to have a contractor who specializes in historic restorations and repairs. A specialist will help point out problem areas and potential solutions that are specific to historic houses in more detail than a home inspector will. Most home inspectors spend their time on newer houses since there are more of them around. But a restoration expert can tell you the dangers that may be lurking within like asbestos siding (health issues) or balloon framing (a fire hazard). Make sure to utilize the knowledge of both of these professionals before signing on the dotted line.
  • Research Your Historic Designation – Some old houses are listed on the National Register of Historic Places others are located within local historic districts. Both come with certain restrictions. And depending on your perception, these restrictions may be something you desire or something you detest. There are no restrictions on the federal level unless you are receiving funding from the government for your renovations. However, local districts have restrictions that can range from virtually non-existent to extremely strict. Make sure you know what you are getting into especially if you are planning a major restoration project with the property. In Orlando’s historic districts you’ll need to obtain a Certificate of Appropriateness for any exterior changes to the structure visible from the street.

After you’ve done all your homework and saved the cash, you’re ready to take the big step of buying a historic home of your very own. And speaking from the experiences of many of our clients it will completely change the way you think about houses. It’s almost like waking up and seeing things never visible to you before. And just like any good relationship it always has its bumps like the closet door that will work fine on Tuesday and then be seemingly glued shut on Wednesday. If you’re strong enough to handle the “quirks” of old house life, you’ll become the newest part of a the long history your home has endured so gracefully.

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8 thoughts on “Before You Buy A Historic House”

  1. Excellent, Scott. Too little is written advising potential buyers to check out historical designations. I live in a contributing Victorian in a designated historic district. Far too many buyers purchase homes in the district without a clue of the local and state restrictions. They tend to find out when they first hire a contractor to replace all their windows with vinyl-clad units, typically resulting in a protracted fight with the historic preservation commission. My experience is that real estate agents should play a more overt role in helping their customers understand the pros and cons of a historic home. If they did, I think we’ve have more historic homes cared for by committed owners.

    1. I agree with the above comment that Realtors have a responsibility to inform buyers about the requirements of owning property in a designated local and/or national historic district. Unfortunately many real estate agents are unaware or do not share this information.
      I am a Realtor who specializes in the sale of historic structures, own buildings in a local and national designated historic district as well as sit on the City Historic Preservation Board. I inform every buyer about the expectations and responsibilities of owning property within the historic district. The North East Florida Association of Realtors has a Historic District Disclosure form available that also provides buyers with a notice of the basic requirements.

  2. I’ve been reading tons of articles on your blog and I must say the information is fascinating.

    I’ve been an old house lover for years and every time one comes up for sale, for one reason or another we’re unable to purchase. The comment made “have a cash reserve” is often the case 😉 So many of the old homes in our area have been neglected and to restore them would take loads of money. For example, some have had plumbing and electrical updated but many haven’t. Also the exteriors on many are in bad shape…that alone can cost a fortune!

    So…I read blogs such as yours and live in an old home.. if only in my dreams 😉

    Thanks for very well-written info.

  3. So true about “waking up and seeing things not visible before”! They change the way you think, the way you see, and yourself too… and it’s a good change I believe…
    Thanks for your blog, it’s a pleasure to read!

  4. Thanks for writing this! We really want to buy an old home so this is all great information to think about before signing any papers.

    Do you know where the picture was taken of the Gothic Revival Tower? That is absolutely beautiful!

    1. I took the picture myself in Winter Park, FL outside Orlando. It is the second oldest house in the town built in 1876 by the town’s first Dr. It was a dream house for us to work on. Loads of history and some incredible details!

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