Historic houses are considered historic or architecturally significant by the National Register of Historic Places or by a local historic board if they exemplify a signature architectural style, capture the essence of a given time period, are associated with famous people from the past, or are located within a historical neighborhood.
If you’re looking to buy a historic house, or you already own one and are hoping to restore it in a period-correct way, there are several restrictions you need to keep in mind.
In general, many of them are about preserving your home’s original finishes, instead of replacing them, and not adding any anachronistic elements in order to keep the home’s historic character (though careful replacements may be allowed).
Most restrictions are only concerned with the home’s exterior. The interior is an area you almost always have full reign over. Many folks are annoyed by the restrictions, which can sometimes be burdensome, but without these restrictions that cut and charming historic neighborhood would be so cute, charming, or historic for very long.
5 Restrictions You Need to Know
Before we get into the restrictions everyone should know that asking for forgiveness rather than permission from local building officials about making changes to your historic house is a dangerous game.
I have seen many homeowners do a project without getting permission only to have the historic preservation board or code inspectors require the Changes to be reverse at the owners expense. I’ve even seen daily fine of $250 levied until the owner returned the building back to it’s original state.
Best advice, is get the the permit and get the approval before making any changes to the exterior of a historic home. Trust me on this one!
It may be tempting to add footage to your historic home by adding extra stories and additional rooms or wings, but this is often not permitted. These additions can often ruin the home’s historic character and give a false sense of the house’s history.
If adding footage to your historic house is allowed, it’s often best to place the additions at the rear of the house so the front façade is not changed. It can also be possible to have an addition at the side of the house. An addition at the side of the house or of an upper floor should be compatible with the rest of the house, but not identical so as not to create a false sense of history.
It should also be set back from the front façade to make sure that the addition doesn’t overwhelm the original structure. Any addition should be smaller in mass and scale than the original structure and have a smaller visual impact.
2. Windows and Shutters
A house’s windows and shutters are an essential part of their historic character and should be kept original if at all possible. Historic windows can last indefinitely if given a little bit of regular maintenance. Read more about replacement windows and the myth that they are better.
Replacing historic windows and shutters can be expensive, as they may need to be custom-made with period-appropriate materials. Like I mentioned, it’s often best to try and repair the windows or shutters rather than replace them.
Removing a historic house’s original windows can ruin its historic character, but cleaning and repairing historic windows can take a lot of work. To help your historic windows perform better, they should be properly weatherstripped, maintained, and painted.
Often, homeowners are required to replace their windows with a historically accurate window, which usually means that plastic and composite materials aren’t allowed. This can also require finding a replacement window with the same lite pattern as the original window (12-over-12 or 6-over-6 pane pattern windows are particularly common on historic houses).
The material of the shutters, their size, their style, and even the color of the shutters can be regulated, which can make replacing them difficult. And we all know the tragedy of mis-matched shutters!
If a historic home’s roof needs to be repaired or replaced, it will usually need to be replaced in kind, as a roof can provide part of a home’s architectural character. This can mean finding expensive material that matches the original material and using the same roofing technique that the original roof was created with. Historically in the US, clay tiles, slate, wood shingles, asphalt shingles, and metal have been popular roofing choices.
Most historic districts won’t regulate to heavily on simply replacing shingles, but for major changes like removing a clay tile roof and switching to a metal or shingle roof they will likely have some restrictions.
4. Paint Color
In some cases, your paint color choice may be restricted. You may be required to paint your house in its original color or in a color that is appropriate to the historic district or the house’s original time period.
I’ve created a resource page with dozens of historic paint palettes that should help you if you are faced with this.
Taxes for historic houses can vary depending on where the house is located. In some cases, historic districts will have higher tax rates. However, sometimes grants, loans, and tax incentive programs are available to owners of historic properties, which can help reduce the cost of restoring or maintaining your home.
Caring for a historic house is a challenging, but rewarding experience. These houses are an important part of history and need to be treated with care and respect. Any repairs or replacements should be done in a way that preserves the home’s historic character.
With so many regulations and potentially costly bills, taxes, and maintenance you may wonder why anyone would choose a historic home.
In my opinion when you add up the character of these homes, the walk ability of these historic neighborhoods, the fact that historic homes hold their value better in down markets and appreciate in value faster in up markets than non-historic homes it’s a net win to me. By all accounts owning a historic home is a win, but historic houses need owners who are dedicated to preserving their history. The question is, “Are you one of those people?”
Founder & Senior Editor
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.