Joining the Century Club: Tips for Historic Homeowners

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Let me start out with a confession. I have never purchased a new home. The first place I bought was a Victorian-era triple-decker in Boston. For the past half-dozen years, I’ve lived in a vintage 1910 Arts & Crafts-style home, which is located in the largest legally-protected district of Victorian, Edwardian, and Arts & Crafts homes east of the Mississippi. In between, there were a few others built in the 20s and 30s. The solidity, workmanship, and architectural individuality of older homes make me feel cozy, secure, and lucky to live surrounded by such beauty. That is, most of the time. Now and then I wonder if I was crazy to buy an old house in the first place!

Are you thinking of buying an historic home? Let me share some “This Old House” wisdom I’ve gained with the help of many knowledgeable real estate, building trade, and insurance professionals, and by exchanging tips with my passionate, historic home-loving neighbors.

Tip Number One: Know What You’re Getting Into

We have a saying around here: “It’s always something.” Your historic home is going to throw you some curveballs—though I would argue not as frequently as some newer homes that weren’t built as solidly. The key is to get as clear a picture of what issues you are potentially facing before you purchase your home. And that starts with a thorough home inspection.

Ideally, you should schedule a home inspection through a company that has proven expertise with historic homes. An inspector who is experienced in the historic home category is better able to ferret out problems and put them in the proper perspective for you. An antique light switch that functions intermittently, for example, could amount to a minor repair. But it could also point to crumbling wiring that poses a danger. You might be looking at a major overhaul of the home’s electrical system. You should also take into account that some historic homes were built long before contemporary building codes were put in place. It’s important to be aware of those features of your home that aren’t up to current code. Should any of those systems fail, you will be required to bring them up to code and that can turn out to be expensive

If the home you have your heart set on needs a lot of work, does that mean you should pass on it? Not necessarily. But understanding the breadth and the expenses associated with fixing any problems the home presents is really important. Having that information in hand offers two benefits. First, you get to ask yourself, “Am I up for this?” knowing full well what “this” is. And it puts you in a stronger position when negotiating a purchase.

Tip Number Two: Understand Local Preservation Standards

Some older homes are surrounded by newer homes that grew up around them over the years. But some of the more charming (and valuable) ones are located in official historic districts where there are regulations that limit what you can and can’t do to your property. Rules vary, but, in general, they’re intended to preserve the architectural integrity of the neighborhood. Most restrictions apply only to the exterior of your home and sometimes only to the parts of your home that are visible from the street. Building a patio or even installing a pool in your backyard, for example, might not fall within the purview of local regulations. But replacing windows, painting your home, installing a new roof, or even replacing a rotted handrail on your front porch most likely will. If you’re hoping to make upgrades to your historic home, consider the limitations you may face when you try to make them. Expenses can be higher when you’re required to make repairs up to historic standards. Most districts, for example, won’t permit you to replace a crumbling wrought iron fence with a less expensive wooden one.

Many historic districts require homeowners to apply for a permit from a neighborhood preservation committee before making any exterior changes. To be granted a permit, you’ll probably have to submit a detailed plan, including a list of materials that will be used to complete your project. Hiring a contractor who thoroughly understands local restrictions and cheerfully helps you apply for a permit can be a lifesaver. One of the best ways to find such an ally is to talk to your neighbors

Tip Number 3: Buy the Right Homeowners Insurance Policy

Homeowners insurance isn’t a one-size-fits-all product. You’re probably familiar with some of the ways you can customize your policy, such as selecting your deductible, setting the upper limits of coverage, purchasing jewelry or electronics riders, and adding specialized coverage like flood insurance. But before choosing the best homeowners insurance for an historic home, you should look carefully at one other choice you can make. You can select either Actual Cash Value (ACV) or Replacement Cost Value (RCV) coverage

ACV coverage costs less because it typically pays you less in the event of a loss. For example, if your home is burglarized and your five-year-old Macbook is stolen, and ACV policy will only reimburse you for the going rate for a five-year-old Macbook—in other words, what it might cost to buy a used computer on eBay or at a second-hand shop. That won’t be enough to cover a new Macbook with similar features. RCV coverage, on the other hand,  would allow you to walk into the Apple store and buy a brand-new rig.

Let’s look at another example that underscores the importance of having RCV coverage on your historic home. If your gorgeous mahogany fireplace mantle is damaged in a fire, only RCV coverage would pay out enough to have a skilled woodworker craft a similarly fancy mahogany mantle. That’s why, for historic homeowners, RCV coverage is highly recommended by insurance professionals and realtors. Remember that the value of your home is intrinsically linked to the old-world craftsmanship it took to build it. In addition, if you live in a protected district and your home is damaged by a fire, you will be required to have your home’s exterior restored to its original specifications. Say that fire damages your Spanish-style clay roof. ACV coverage might pay to have it replaced with a modern asphalt shingled roof. But that won’t satisfy the historic commission in your neighborhood. Sadly, some historic homeowners have been forced to sell their homes because they can’t afford to have their homes repaired up to preservation standards.

My Top Three Reasons to Choose an Historic Home

Up to this point, we’ve focused on some of the risks you may take on when buying an historic home. In closing, I’d like to share some of the rewards with you. The first is financial. Particularly if your home is located in a protected district, it will likely retain its value better than a newly-constructed home that’s similarly priced. The second is societal. As an historic homeowner, you’re contributing to the preservation of architectural history—a gift you’re giving your community. The third, fourth, and fifth are personal. The time you invest in caring for and restoring an old house creates a deeper bond between you and your home and gives you a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment. Joining the century club connects you to like-minded neighbors who will commiserate with you about your challenges, celebrate your achievements, and be generous with their advice. Finally, you’ll be surrounded by beauty and history every day, which, in my experience makes waking up in the morning an unparalleled delight.

About The Author: Susan Doktor is a journalist and business strategist who lives in Toledo, Ohio’s historic Old West End. She writes on a wide range of topics, including real estate, the mortgage industry, insurance, and home improvement topics. Follow her on Twitter @branddoktor.
Photo by Jessica Furtney on Unsplash