Legal and Practical Advice on Historic Homes

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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 Home Expert 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, legal network members:

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 Network 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!

Legal Resources, post your answers in the comment field below!

3 COMMENTS

  1. Home Expert Questions:

    What challenges face historic home owners?

    A: The main challenges with historic homes arise primarily from the fact that they are old structures. That means they may have hazardous materials (like asbestos and lead-based paint), structural problems (like termite damage and foundation settling) and failing major systems (like plumbing, electrical and HVAC).

    Are there any updates you would recommend against in an historic
    home?

    A: Major changes to the exterior of a historic home should be avoided, because they could render the structure too altered to be considered “historic” for purposes of designations and tax benefits. Also, you always should think twice before tearing out original fixtures and finishes, because they may no longer be manufactured. Reusing original materials is always preferred.

    How can a home be modern without losing its old-world charm?

    A: Absolutely, but it always will be a balance between old and new. Some modern conveniences, like air conditioning, microwave ovens and alarm systems, can be added in relatively unobtrusive ways to minimize their impact on the historic look and feel of a home. There are also many companies that manufacture fixtures and finishes from historic designs that appear vintage to 99% of people.

    Can laws protecting historical landmarks affect your remodel
    options?

    A: Yes, if the home is designated as a landmark or is part of a designated neighborhood. In most cases, those laws would prohibit many exterior changes, including additions to the home or demolitions of other buildings on the property, such as detached garages. It is always smart to visit your city’s historic preservation office and find out what laws and regulations impact your home before you begin any remodeling work, because you could be subject to harsh penalties for doing illegal renovations.

    Legal Expert Questions

    What are the restrictions, rules, and regulations for historic
    property owners?

    A: It depends on where you live, but there are federal, state and local laws that could impact your property. If your home is not on the federal or state register of historic places, a vast majority of legal requirements would be local (i.e. county and city). Most of the local ordinances impact the exterior appearance of houses, but some also restrict elements of interior changes to a home. There also could be a historic easement or other restrictions on your home placed there by a previous owner, so you should also review your deed carefully for those. Of course, if you have any questions or concerns about historic laws, regulations or restrictions affecting your home, do some research and then consult with your attorney.

    How do you make certain you are abiding by laws surrounding
    historical property?

    A: Probably the best place to start is with a visit to your city’s or county’s historic preservation office. The staff usually can be quite helpful in determining whether your house is covered by any laws, regulations or rules of a historic nature. Some cities also have resources online regarding historic preservation laws. If you need definitive answers on specific questions about what laws might apply, there is no substitute for seeking the advice of a knowledgeable attorney.

    How is a property listed in the National Register of Historic
    Places?

    It is a lengthy, multi-step nomination process that usually begins with your state’s historic preservation office, which has forms, research materials and other necessary information. After passing reviews and obtaining approvals at the state level, the nomination eventually goes to the National Park Service in Washington, D.C. for final approval of the property being listed. You can get more detailed information about the process at http://www.nps.gov.

  2. I’m not a legal expert, but here’s a homeowner perspective.

    In San Diego, historic districts are defined geographically, and if you’re
    in one, you can apply for a huge reduction in your property taxes in
    exchange for maintaining the historical integrity of the home. It’s called
    the Mills Act – you’ll find info online. Then any construction permits you
    apply for must be approved by the Historical Resources Board and, of
    course, must be appropriate – all the way down to the exterior paint color.
    The board will also tell you what improvements they want you to make, and
    you generally get ten years to work on the list (and extensions are
    possible).

    After my home was approved for the Mills Act tax break, my taxable value
    was reduced to around $70,000 (from around $200,000). It changes every year.

    The trick, then, was to find people who could do the work. In particular, I
    had a hard time finding someone to make all wood double-hung sash windows
    at a price I could afford. I ended up marrying a talented woodworker, so
    problem solved.

    The Historical Resources Board was very helpful, both in explaining
    everything and guiding me toward resources. Also, the improvements they
    required were all exterior, so I had a lot more creative license on
    renovating the interior. The Mills Act tax break is, for now, permanent
    and transfers to the new owner with sale of the house.

  3. What are the restrictions, rules, and regulations for historic property owners?

    Most historic homes are designated historic by a local historic board. In West Palm Beach, FL where our company has renovated four historic homes in the past year and a half, this historic board takes precedence over the construction division (code compliance and permitting). This means that changes cannot be made to a historic home (even if the construction division approves) without the boards approval first. This board is in place to preserve the integrity of these historic areas and they are very strict in regards to the types of changes that can be made to the properties.

    Many historic properties do not abide by today’s building codes and standards. It is not necessary to bring certain aspects of the property “up to code” because building codes have changed significantly in the last 100 years. However, certain aspects of historic property building practices are considered “dangerous”. For example, knob and tube electrical wiring is something that was a regular practice in the early 1900’s when most of these houses were built. If a homeowner is purchasing a historic home with a FHA loan, the knob and tube wiring will not pass through the FHA inspection. This is a situation where the historic board and the local construction office must be contacted prior to replacing the electric.

    How do you make certain you are abiding by laws surrounding historical property?

    Before making changes to or purchasing a historic home it would be a good idea to pay your local historic board a visit and have them explain their rules and regulations for modifying a the home(s). Every county and city is different so the best case scenario is to check with your local governing body and have them connect you with the historic board that preserves the area. This board is put in place to protect the integrity of the area’s history, however, they also understand that these homes are old and need to be kept in good condition. They are generally easy to work with and are happy to help.

    How is a property listed in the National Register of Historic Places?

    In order to list a property in the National Register of Historic Places start at the State Historic Preservation Office. In order to be considered there are several evaluation criteria that the home must meet such as significance in American History, age, architecture, engineering, design, and integrity of location. As the owner you must gather as must information as possible on your home, it’s history, and the area that you live in. After successful nomination, the listing status is determined by The National Park Service in Washington, D.C.

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