Whether you're a homebuyer who's fallen in love with a historic house or a real estate investor looking at remodeling one, a historic home renovation is no easy task to undertake. Here, we'll walk you through the challenges you might encounter when renovating an older house so you'll know what you're getting yourself into.
What makes a house a historic home?
A historic house is one that's deemed "architecturally significant" by the National Register of Historic Places, which is where historic homes are listed. Generally, to qualify for this distinction, a house must not only uphold a certain architectural style but also capture a specific time period. Another way for a home to land on the National Register of Historic Places is to have been owned by, or associated with, a famous person from history.
What are the pros and cons of buying a historic house?
Historic homes look different than most properties, and that alone could be a draw. Also, you may qualify for tax incentives if you choose to own or invest in one. On the other hand, as is the case with all older homes, historic homes typically require a lot of work, and remodeling them isn't all that simple. That's because there are certain restrictions that could come into play, which we'll discuss below. Also, the insurance on a historic property could be expensive.
What restrictions are there when renovating a historic home?
Renovating a historic house could prove challenging because you'll often face restrictions on what you can and cannot do. The reason? The purpose of designating a house as a historic home is to help ensure that its preservation is upheld. As such, any project that takes away from that will most likely not fly.
Here are some issues you might encounter:
- As a general rule, you can't add square footage when renovating a historic house, so if you're hoping to build an addition to open up extra living space, that option is most likely off the table.
- Replacing living room, family room, or dining room windows or shutters may prove costly and difficult. These features are often what define historic houses and make them unique, so you'll need to find replacements that uphold the original architectural style of those rooms.
- if you need to replace the roof on your historic house, you'll face restrictions there, too. The materials you use must be the same materials as your original roof, and if they're dated, they can be expensive and hard to find.
- You may face restrictions if you're hoping to paint certain parts of your house a different color. This could prove problematic if you’re buying a historic house with the hopes of restoring it and then selling it. If your home features unusual colors that won’t appeal to a range of buyers, you may find that altering it isn’t as feasible as you’d like.
To determine what specific restrictions apply to your house, you'll need to contact your state's historic preservation office and get all the details surrounding your property. Be sure to do so before starting a remodeling project to avoid problems.
How do you restore a historic home?
Historic homes tend to come with unique features that you, as an owner or investor, should make every effort to preserve. At the same time, because these homes are older, they're often subject to wear and tear. As such, historic home remodeling should focus on restoration and preservation.
Once you've figured out what restrictions you're subject to with regard to your home, you can map out a list of your home's features you're looking to preserve but bring back to life. For example, the original wood floor that runs throughout your interior shouldn't be ripped out and replaced, even if it's worn; rather, it can be buffed to remove scratches and stained to restore shine.
Keep in mind that it's OK to make certain parts of your home more modern, as long as your remodeling project doesn't take away from the historical features that make your home unique. For example, you can replace a nonworking oven with a modern one that does work, but in doing so, you should make every effort to preserve the layout of your kitchen. Similarly, if your master bathroom needs an overhaul, you might replace fixtures rather than rip out the classic clawfoot tub that came with it.
If you're going to hire a general contractor to restore your home, make sure he or she has experience working not only with older homes but historic ones. The right contractor may be able to offer some guidance on renovating your home while preserving its look and integrity. And if you’re an investor, be sure to get quotes so you spend your money efficiently.
How can you make an older house more energy efficient?
Historic houses are older by nature, and so energy efficiency tends to be an issue. If your goal is to make your home more comfortable while lowering your electricity, heating, and cooling costs, start by replacing older light bulbs with LEDs. Of course, the challenge may be finding newer bulbs to fit your existing fixtures, but if that's doable, you can make a significant change without altering your home's appearance.
Next, replace older toilets with ones that use less water. The same holds true for showerheads that use more water than necessary.
Additionally, try replacing your windows if they're drafty, which older windows tend to be. Granted, this may be a challenge because you'll need to find windows similar to the ones you have now. As such, you may need to pay a premium for custom windows that fit into your home's current casings.
Updating your home's doors is another way to better insulate your property and avoid drafts that make heating difficult in particular. Again, you'll have the challenge of potential restrictions, and even if one doesn't exist, you may not want to mess with a key feature of your home's exterior. If replacing your door isn't an option, try recaulking around it and weatherstripping to seal air leaks.
Finally, look at adding insulation in your home's attic or crawl space. That's another good way to retain heat or cool air without changing the look of your home.
Know what you're getting into
Renovating a historic house isn't for the faint of heart. Then again, neither is buying one. If you're willing to take on the responsibility of owning a historic house, be prepared to face your share of challenges in the course of making it modern enough to enjoy. The good news? If you strike that ideal balance, you'll come away with a home that looks like no other -- one that's comfortable, unique, and, in some cases, a very profitable sell.