Expert Tips for Historic Home Owners


Homes come in a variety of different styles, each with its own benefits and drawbacks. A sought-after type of home for its unique style are historic homes, which often exist in well-maintained neighborhoods full of old-world charm. But if this is the kind of style you’re interested in, you may be biting off more than you think: historical homes often come with a whole slew of regulations and laws about what homeowners can and cannot do on their property.

This week, we’re working together with eLocal’s Legal Resource Network to attack the issue of historical homes from two sides: the practical, and the legal.

Why We’re Asking:

Renovating a home is hard enough without having to deal with additional laws and restrictions based on aesthetics. We want to learn all the ins and out of renovation on classic homes, and help homeowners navigate the thin line between modernizing a historic home, and ruining it. We want to know how to keep that old-world charm without living in the dark ages.

So tell us, experts:

Home Expert Questions: What challenges face historic home owners?

Are there any updates you would recommend against in an historic home?
How can a home be modern without losing its old-world charm?
Can laws protecting historical landmarks affect your remodel options?

Legal Contributor Questions: What are the restrictions, rules, and regulations for historic property owners?

How do you make certain you are abiding by laws surrounding historical property?
How is a property listed in the National Register of Historic Places?

Knowing your limitations can really streamline the renovation process, so we look forward to hearing your advice!

Experts, post your answers in the comment field below!


  1. When it comes to historic properties, I am a purist! It’s important to respect the architectural integrity of any built environment when renovating. Imagine a circa 1970s avocado and harvest gold kitchen in a Victorian home! Fortunately, there are materials, fixtures and finishes on the market that fit within a broad range of architectural styles, making it easier to maintain the original character of the property. That being said, yesterday’s homes do not fit today’s lifestyles. We tend to want open, grander spaces than were built in the past. When renovations combine multiple spaces into one, be mindful to add period details that echo the original architecture. You don’t want to skimp on the details when renovating historic properties.

  2. I may be one of the few responders who not only has worked on historic homes, but lives in one. My wife Beverly and I live in a home built by a famous Texas Ranger in 1856. The challenges have been many, but the rewards have been worth the effort. Our biggest challenge was how to put in/update electricity, plumbing, heating and cooling in a home with stone walls 2 feet thick built up from solid rock. If anyone wants the details on how we approached this, let me know.
    Luckily our state and local historical commissions were very realistic and open to such options as energy saving windows as long as they looked correct.
    The biggest mistakes that people make in restoring historic homes are not making a thorough structural evaluation and not having a sequential plan of action. You must have a good roof and a substantial structure before you do anything else. You will save loads of time and money by sticking to a well thought-out sequential plan. Too many people put the cart before the horse and start doing all sorts of cutesie decorating before making the house structurally sound.
    Try to stick to original type materials–real wooden floors, solid wood doors, original style pulls and hinges, etc. Avoid using sheet rock if possible. Avoid wall to wall carpets–stick to area rugs. We have achieved a balance of modern and historic with the careful use of art. We have been featured in a number of design magazines for maintaining the “bones” of the historic home while giving it a modern flare. When entering our home, there is no doubt that we have respected its history while staying up on the modern art scene.
    Thanks, Pablo Solomon Artist & Designer

  3. I have decorated a few different historical homes, one on the interior and the other an exterior repaint. Interior walls on true historical homes usually have wallpaper treatments. I believe back in the day they didn’t have “finishes” available for making the walls smooth, for paint. The walls were typically lined with a heavy kraft paper, then wallpapered. I had to remove all these materials and added paintable woven wallpaper. This can now be painted multiple times, moving forward. The walls were very cracked and the woven wallpaper covered this well.

    Exteriors usually have to have the new colors approved by village officials and have to be “period” specific. Again, exterior siding probably has numerous coats of paint and cracking from age and wear. “XIM Peel Bond” is high-build exterior primer that will seal and fill large cracks, smoothing the surface and providing a good surface for a finish coat.
    SMS Painting and Decorating.

    FUN FACT: The owner of the historical house I worked on use to raise chickens in the basement. CRAZY. The detached garage also had a basement for small livestock.

  4. As a big part of our practice we inspect many historic homes. We have also done feasibility studies on many historic properties around renovations and upgrades. Some of the biggest challenges are around the mechanical systems. Since full gut renovations aren’t always an option, retrofitting heating and cooling into a property that doesn’t accommodate typical upgrades can be a challenge.

    We look at owning a historical property like we look at owning a home on the water. The privilege to own such a property comes with inherent cost and risks. This needs to be accepted going in. Municipalities and historic societies can sometimes dictate what and how you perform certain renovations and upgrades. It’s is best to do the research and due diligence ahead of time.

  5. The challenges with old homes are the electric, which has insulation on it that breaks off, and usually the plumbing, which is galvanized. Galvanized plumbing gives you two problems: drains plug easily, and there are threaded joints which rot, leading to pipe leaks. In a lot of cases the electric can be replaced and plumbing upgraded by the right people. Windows and insulation would be your next problem. Mostly you will find no insulation, and poor window seals. I have a lawyer friend who has a building which is old and protected by history, but he was able to get through the system and update windows and portions of his building. It is a challenge when you take on an old home. If you can do some of the work, that saves you money. Also if the structural has no problems, it is always a plus as well.

  6. Historic homes need much more attention than modern homes do, due to the older construction materials and techniques. Recently my company saw the real damage that termites could do to a famous historic home, right here in Brooklyn, New York. The property was worth millions in historic value, but due to severe termite damage it had to be completely demolished. Older homes tend to be framed with wood, which attracts termites. I would recommend that you do a yearly termite inspection if you have a historic home you would like to see increase in value. Termites are a problem you cannot ignore.

  7. One of the best decisions an owner of older home can make is to find a reliable contractor who is well versed in the ever-changing market of products that can make the job easier. One of the biggest challenges is finding the space in historic homes for an air conditioning upgrade. An experienced HVAC contractor who knows all of the options can save the owner money and space with the right products.

  8. The first rule of remodeling in my book is, do no harm. That means to you and your family and also to your home. Older homes are wonderful things but keep some cautions in mind. Lead paint, asbestos in some building and HVAC insulations, older plumbing, and wiring are all concerns when remodeling. Older homes were also built to perform a certain way and as we change them to improve them, we can at times make things worse not taking into account things like, air flow and moisture.

    Most preservationists don’t want to change windows in older homes, for aesthetic reasons and in some areas there are ordinances against it. This is just fine by me, for efficiency reasons it’s not the first concern, even though some consider windows first for savings. Drafty they may be, but the house as a whole can be improved to reduce drafts as well as improve insulation, as many are at best poorly insulated. This means air sealing in the attic, and tightening up the walls.

    Historic Homes or well loved old ones can use a holistic approach to improvement. Consider how a home performs and how it benefits its occupants as well as how it will be preserved. Home Performance will keep you and your home healthy and happy.

  9. I think the first distinction a homeowner and especially a home buyer should know, is this an old home, or a historic home. I would contact the local AIA chapter to assist if you can’t determine this yourself. There are rules and regulations, steps homeowners have to take to have their home on the registry and what you are allowed to do if your home is on this registry. I think there are pros and cons with this listing and some people with a home that might qualify opt not to pursue this kind of registration.
    If you are updating in an older home, use older style materials and not pre-finished flooring for instance. I’m working with a client in an old home that is quite historic but not on the national or city register. They have found the original plans for the home at our local university. They found that after a fire in the 1930’s the roof was removed and the dormers were never replaced with the new roof. Since they already needed a new roof they re-framed the roof to include the original dormers. When it came to replacing the hardwood floors, they worked with a mill to have quarter sawn oak milled as wide plank and in 16-22 foot lengths. They also had plasterers come in and re-plaster walls with Italian marble plaster.
    What I’m describing is not typical for most projects but it does highlight the added costs to replicate older building materials and styles. The infrastructure of the home and the entire heating and plumbing systems were removed and replaced with modern energy savings systems. Complicating matters, but this isn’t uncommon, was that the home had not had the upkeep and care it should have for decades.
    When remodeling old homes, keeping a focus on the materials and style in the period of the home costs more. It’s a lot like owning a wooden boat: you really need to love it because it takes ongoing work.

  10. A little advice I would give is to pick the contractor very carefully. It is very hard and sometimes impossible to replace historical characteristics to a home. Yes, things can be re-built, but it will never be the exact same one with some of the character shown over the years; it will be a duplicate. A duplicate is never worth as much as the original. The first edition of a book is worth more than a copy that has been made 100 years later.

    With that being said, check references, and walk properties that the contractor has worked on. Trust me: if that contractor did a great job, his or her clients would be willing to show you some of the work that he or she did. Also, make sure they have insurance. Nobody plans for accidents, but that’s why they’re called accidents.

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