An adobe in Santa Fe. A brownstone in Boston. A painted lady in San Francisco. A row house in Georgetown. If you love old homes and are intrigued by the idea of living in Historic Homes And Historic Districts, read on. There are pros and cons that you need to consider carefully before you make your move, but if preserving a part of history is your passion, the adjustments you need to make won’t feel like a sacrifice.
Historic Districts. Charleston established the first historic district in 1931. New Orleans followed in 1937. Many other cities have created their own historic preservation ordinances, and the federal government established the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. Historic districts are designed to preserve the character and integrity of an area deemed historically significant. Opinions are bound to vary on what constitutes historically significant. Victorians, sure, but Mid-Century Moderns? And when is a property (or wall, façade, or garden) “contributing” (to the character of the historic district) and when is it “non-contributing?” Enter the local historic preservation board/committee/commission. Property owners who decide to flout the rules and ask for forgiveness rather than permission may meet an expensive surprise.
Why Choose A Historic District Home? If you want to help preserve your community, you may be the perfect person to own a historic home. You may be limited in some choices for the property, including exterior color schemes, relocating doors or windows, adding an extension or changing the roofline. Working with an old house can be a challenge. It may be harder to find a contractor who understands the way the home was constructed, and any remodeling may take longer as you encounter the unexpected, like a load bearing wall with a faulty foundation or pipes in an inconvenient location. On the upside, your home may have outstanding architectural details, such as original hardwood floors and crown moldings, or a 1950s stone fireplace. One very practical question to consider is how a historic district designation will affect the home’s value. Fear not. It appears that a historic district is a financial plus.
But It’s MY Backyard. Santa Fe is one of the oldest cities in the U.S., and it boasts a strong tradition of historic preservation. Too strong, according to one homeowner, who decided to build a geodesic dome greenhouse in her backyard. Her landscape contractor told her that she didn’t need permits or approval, even though she knew her home was in the historic district and she’d followed the rules for an earlier renovation. A neighbor reported her to the city, she lost her request for a retroactive approval at the committee level, appealed to the City Council, and was told that she had to demolish the greenhouse. She was allowed to keep the fence she added, even though it doesn’t truly conform to the historic district style, but the greenhouse was worth about $10,000. Ouch.
If I Save One Wall, Does It Count? The pressure of development often results in questionable decisions by builders, homeowners and municipalities. Perhaps no place has been affected recently as much as San Francisco. With property values and rents at astronomical levels, it’s not surprising that people want to maximize the value of their land. In one case, a developer bought a 1908 home for $4.5 million, and received permission for limited remodeling. There were specific preservation requirements that the builder ignored, claiming the house had deteriorated past the point of preservation. They paid a $400,000 fine and carried on building. Sounds like a hefty fine, doesn’t it? But it didn’t add much to the cost of the replacement mansion, which is apparently worth $30.2 million.