[10 on Tuesday] How to Find a Historic House

Posted on: April 2nd, 2013 by Julia Rocchi 11 Comments

One way preservationists can express their love for old buildings: live in one. After all, older and historic homes bring with them craftsmanship, unique details, a sense of history, and -- for the handy among us -- an opportunity to restore a home to its former glory.

But finding and buying a historic home can be daunting if you’re not familiar with real estate, financing, historic building and district regulations, and inspection procedures. So, to set you on the right path, we’re kicking off a series on how to find, inspect, purchase, and rehabilitate your old-but-new-to-you property.

Let’s start at the very beginning with how (and where) to find your historic dream home.

1. Define “historic.” Every historic house is old, but not every old house is historic. Historic houses are usually designated as significant examples of the cultural or physical developments of that community, state, or the entire nation, either because of their architecture or association with an important historical figure or event. They might also be related by a common theme with other buildings, such as in an architectural movement.

2. Outline what you want (and what you can afford). Develop a wish list of characteristics, including style, number and size of rooms, type of yard, and preferred neighborhoods. Decide if you’d like a house that needs rehab, or one that’s already restored. And of course, figure out your budget -- what you can spend both on the house and also on repairs and alternation will help guide your search.

3. Find a knowledgeable real estate agent. An agent familiar with historic properties can be a great asset in your search. To find one, drive around historic neighborhoods and contact agents who are listing houses in the area. Ask other historic home owners whom they recommend. Gauge the agent’s familiarity with historic homes with a few short questions -- for example, if the house is in a historic district, ask what regulations apply there, and whether the house is listed on a national, state, and/or local register.

Historic home in Rhode Island. Credit: Ken Zirkel, flickr

4. Know the limitations of the Multiple Listing Service (MLS). Real estate agents often obtain info about houses for sale from the MLS, which provides basic, useful facts about properties. Just be aware that the MLS doesn’t use the same architectural terms as architects and architectural historians. For example, the term “colonial” could describe a Georgian, Federal, or Colonial Revival house -- or it could simply describe a modern home that incorporates features of any of these styles. One workaround is to combine the MLS’s style name with the date of construction; that might give you a clue about its true architectural style.

5. Check out real estate ads and websites. In addition to your local newspapers and real estate tabloids, check out national and regional publications (including shelter magazines) that carry ads for historic houses. Plus, the National Trust maintains a Historic Properties for Sale site, where you can search listings, connect with an agent, and more.

6. Contact your SHPO. Your state historic preservation office can likely give you a historic property list for your area which you can then compare to the MLS list or share with your agent. The office can also share copies of a specific property’s nomination form for the state or national register, which will give you more info about the appearance, style, and history of the house.

7. Contact other local organizations and agencies. Your community’s local historic societies, nonprofit preservation organizations, and local government preservation agencies can also lend a hand. Connect with staff at the city’s community development or planning department, too; they can provide lists of locally designated historic properties.

Historic home in Virginia. Credit: NCinDC, flickr

8. Examine the environment. You know what they say: location, location, location. One benefit of many older houses is their proximity to schools, shopping, houses of worship, and public transportation. Evaluate if the area or neighborhood meets your standards for safety, crime rates, and relative stability.

9. Know the pros of National Register designation. Listing a building (or district) on the National Register of Historic Places publicly recognizes the place’s importance to the nation’s culture, history, and/or architecture. It doesn’t interfere with your right to alter or sell the property. And if you plan to use the property to generate income -- for example, renting or housing a small business -- you might be eligible for rehabilitation tax credits.

Tip: State designation recognizes the site’s importance on a state level. State listing doesn’t restrict alterations or demolition of listed properties unless state funds are involved. Contact your SHPO for more information on national and state listings.

10. Understand local historic designation. As we’ve shared in previous toolkits on local historic districts, most legal power to protect historic places rests chiefly with local government. Their main tool, the preservation ordinance, often includes design guidelines and procedures for any proposed alterations to your home. This review process permits you to make changes to your home as long as they’re in line with the district’s architectural character, and ultimately protects your investment in the long term.

Next up: how to purchase your dream historic home once you find it. Until then, leave your questions in the comments!

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi is the associate director for digital content at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and walks around looking up at buildings.

10 on Tuesday, Real Estate, Tools

11 Responses

  1. TKraft Art & Interiors

    April 2, 2013

    GOOD read, I’m looking forward to future installments and some really in-depth comments that your readers will leave on this blog. I’m a steward of a 1760 and its a labor of love.

  2. Steve & Tiffany Real Estate Consultants

    April 9, 2013

    Great Article! I also just read the 2nd article in the series! I look forward to reading the series and blog posts on this! Great information on the MLS system and how agents classify homes and how that differs from how Historic homes are classified!

  3. Survey Service in Ireland

    April 10, 2013

    Property and land surveys can play an important role in finding the desired land. Land surveys are conducted for the development of a green field site, boundary surveys, planning applications and urban projects. Now a days, with the help of various advanced technologies such as latest GPS and other available optical technologies, land surveyors can fulfil its goal of providing high quality, individualized survey services to enable their clients to consistently succeed with their land development aspirations.

  4. Monday Market – Historic Homes | Downtown Orlando Living

    April 15, 2013

    [...]  If you love the charm of an older home and daydream about owning one check out this post:  How to Find a Historic House!   Or start searching for your new…I mean old…home [...]

  5. Chris

    April 18, 2013

    Define ‘old.’ Some historic houses are NOT very old at all. Buildings from the 1970s are making their way onto the National Register.

  6. Jane Kirschner

    April 18, 2013

    I love this blog! Having been involved with several Historic Preservation organizations here in Sarasota, for 37 years and having lived in a bayfront 1926 “Med Rev” wonderful home for 20 of them, I rue the unsaved treasures that I’ve had to watch being bulldozed here in Sarasota. So, for the east of folks like me, who are always searching for that restorable treasure, check out our Vintage Real Estate on our website: http://www.SarasotaHistoryAlive.com where you can find a one-stop shopping site for not only homes, but commercial vintage properties as well. keep up the good work!
    Jane K.

  7. Don McLean

    April 19, 2013

    We have been living in & working on our 1830’s vintage historic Pennsylvania Stone farmhouse, barn & outbuildings for the last 14 years. It’s a fine example of a relatively simple yet classic farm built by farmer craftsmen.

  8. Lois Varvel

    April 21, 2013

    Thanks for this series of “help.” One topic I hope you’ll address is insurance for historic homes…how muc?, what kind of coverage? and especially, SOURCES!

  9. PresNation

    April 22, 2013

    Hi Lois — your best, first stop about insurance for older homes is National Trust Insurance Services (http://nationaltrust-insurance.org/). It shares information for a variety of historic property types, including homes.

    Also, we adapted this toolkit from our now out-of-print Preservation Book titled, “Buyer’s Guide to Older and Historic Houses,” by Richard Wagner.

    Hope that helps!

    Julia Rocchi
    Managing Editor

  10. Violette

    April 25, 2013

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  11. Lisa Hassler - Historic Homes of Cape Cod

    April 26, 2013

    Thanks for this post. Here on Cape Cod, there are overlapping state, national and local historic districts. It is very helpful to work with an agent who knows the area and understands the differences in the designations.

    I would say that another benefit to working with a real estate agent that specializes in historic properties is that he/she will have previewed many homes in the area and will have first hand knowledge of those homes