real estate

Know rules when buying historic home

After decades of living in suburbia, Americans are back in town, buying homes in older neighborhoods and protecting them from development with the help of historic district designations.

"Obviously, the charm and history are attractive, but there's also a very strong lifestyle component to these historic neighborhoods," says John Randolph, an associate broker  Long & Foster, which represents homes in Old Town Alexandria, Va.

"What's old is new again. This is the revival of the town center in urban planning; the original town center."

However, if you fall in love with a vintage charmer in a historic district, be careful: Your plans to remodel or expand your new old home could turn into a frustrating and costly experience.

"If you are going to restore the home or add onto it, it's going to cost you more money than an equivalent home somewhere else in town because the guidelines you're going to have to follow are more expensive," says John Reynolds, an associate broker with First Team Real Estate in Long Beach, Calif., who also lives in the historic district of Cal Heights.

"I will have people come to my open houses and they'll be talking about the house and what they want to do and I say, 'Folks, you are in the wrong neighborhood. I can show you neighborhoods in Long Beach where you can do that, but this is not one of them.'"

Historic restrictions
Before buying a home in a historic district, inquire about the following areas where restrictions or extra expenses might apply.
Preserving character 

The goal of all historic districts is to preserve the character of their neighborhood, either through codes, covenants and restrictions; homeowner or preservation association guidelines; or both.

Most restrictions apply only to exterior changes to the house.

Some districts have municipal or county support for their restrictions, most often through the planning and zoning or building permit functions.

Other districts rely solely on community pressure.

"I find that having to live with their neighbors can be more fearsome," says Beth Reiter, director of historic preservation for the Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission, which oversees four historic districts in Savannah, Ga.

Historic district restrictions vary widely, and some exempt certain properties within their boundaries by age or other criteria.

For this reason, it's important to check individual addresses for restrictions rather than just looking at local district rules.


Historic districts, even those abutting each other, may differ in their restrictions or requirements.

Old Town Alexandria, for instance, seeks to preserve truly historic homes. Owners cannot make exterior changes to any home that is more than 100 years old without getting approval from the City Council and Board of Architectural Review.

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