So, you’re thinking about buying an old house. I don’t mean a 20 or 30-year old suburban tract house, I’m talking a real piece of American history. 100, 150, even 200 years old! Creaky wood floors, wavy glass windows, plaster walls, the works! All the historical goodies that excite some people and scare the pants off of others.
There’s a lot of things you need to know when buying any house, but there are a few things specific to an older, historic home that need to be added to your checklist. Before you sign on the dotted line, you definitely want answers to these questions below.
1. Are you in a historic district?
Maybe you are, maybe you aren’t, but it’s an important question. Historic districts come with some great benefits, like more stable property values in a bad market and bigger increases in value in a good market. You can read more about property values in historic districts in this post.
The other thing to check is that if you are in a historic district, there are likely a different set of rules for what you can change on the exterior of the house. Some districts regulate things as specific as paint colors and others have much less stringent regulations. The point is, you need to know what the regulations and processes are for your district (if you have one) and if you can live with those regulations.
2. Are there local tax credits for restoration?
Sometimes you can get very lucky and live in a city where they offer tax credits, grants, or other goodies to folks willing fix up and restore historic buildings. The biggest financial gains usually come if you are renovating a historic building for commercial purposes. For commercial projects, look into the Historic Federal Tax Credit which can pay up to 20% of the costs of your renovation.
Money for residential projects is often harder to find, but there are options out there on the local level if you look. Use these incentives to help you create a working budget for your project. If you’re looking for a plan to help walk you through your restoration, try my ebooklet Historic Restoration Plan.
3. What are your insurance options?
Who’s gonna write your homeowner’s insurance? Unfortunately, a lot of insurance companies don’t like insuring centuries old buildings, so your options will be more limited than if you were buying a young house. There are insurers who will write policies for historic homes, it will just take a bit more searching.
The easiest way I’ve found is by asking friends with an old house who their insurer is, or asking potential neighbors in your new neighborhood who they use. It may seem a little awkward to ask a stranger, but the information can save you thousands of dollars a year in insurance costs to find the right insurer for your old house.
4. Is there lead or asbestos?
It’s an old house, so chances are good that there is lead paint, and you might also have some asbestos. Check your seller’s disclosures closely to see what they know first. Then during your inspection period, speak with your home inspector about doing some testing to see what you’re potentially dealing with.
The dangers of lead paint and asbestos are relatively minimal compared to the hyper-fear the media and government continues to induce, but you still need to know if you have these hazards and where they are, so that you can plan accordingly. Abatement isn’t always necessary, but awareness is.
5. How are the mechanicals?
While old houses can age gracefully, their mechanicals do not. Plumbing, electrical, and HVAC all have specific lifespans that are shorter than your old house. Copper plumbing can last 80-100 years before having problems, electrical systems have improved greatly from knob & tube or cloth covered wiring, and your old boiler may be nearing its last boil.
These are expensive elements to replace, and while old mechanicals shouldn’t necessarily deter you from buying an old house you should know what you are getting into and how much it will cost. Do your due diligence.