Buying a Historic Home: 4 Things You Need to Know

There’s something special about living in a historic home.

Historic homes come with a unique sense of charm, character, and, of course, a connection to the past — all traits that can be difficult to find in new construction.

And if your historic home is located in a neighborhood that’s designated as a historic district, you may enjoy even more perks. Historic neighborhoods are often beautifully planned and have the same kind of historic character you enjoy at home. Historic neighborhoods also tend to be full of homeowners who are committed to preserving the neighborhood’s sense of authenticity and originality. Those are factors that tend to improve your home’s value for the long-term.

However, deciding to invest in a historic home is a big decision.

The perks of all of that history and character come with potential pitfalls, though, from lead paint to renovation restrictions. So you need to do your research in advance.

Here are a few of the things you need to know before you make a purchase.

What makes a property historic

You may know for a fact that a certain home was built long ago. But the factors that go into officially designating a specific house or neighborhood as “historic” are a little more subjective than many realize.

The National Register of Historic Places is perhaps the most well-known historic designation.  You’ve likely noticed these properties’ distinctive bronze plaques. There are more than 95,000 properties listed in the National Register as of 2019, and they represent 1.8 million contributing resources, including buildings, sites, districts, structures, and objects.

However, the National Register, which is run by the National Parks Service, doesn’t go around proactively identifying historic properties. It simply moderates and approves applications for historic status.

Free download: The Top 4 Benefits of Historic Property Designation

If you own a historic home, you could apply to have it registered with the National Register of Historic Places — or you could purchase a home that has already been registered by previous owners.

However, states and local municipalities have their own historic designations and criteria that are completely independent of national designations.

That means that even if your property is not registered nationally, it could be registered locally — and vice versa.

It’s also worth noting that just because your historic home hasn’t officially been designated as “historic” by the government doesn’t mean that it’s exempt from laws and regulations that apply to historic properties, as we’ll discuss next.

Regulations may limit renovation options

The National Historic Register doesn’t impose many restrictions on what you can do with your property, especially if you haven’t used the historic designation to apply for loans or grants.

However, state and local regulations on historic properties are another matter.

Depending on where you live, you might face little to no restrictions on your property choices — or a very stringent set of codes to adhere to.

Here are a few of the aspects of your home’s exterior that might be regulated by local government in a historic district:

  • The color of outside paint
  • Type of fixtures and other hardware you can use
  • The type of materials you can use (for example, wood instead of plastic)
  • The style of windows and window treatments
  • The building’s height and breadth
  • The roof pitch
  • The building’s setback from street and its impact on street life


Making sure you’re in compliance with regulations like these during a renovation often requires the help of experts. You’ll need to find architects and contractors who have experience working with historic homes — and that can add significant expense to the project.

Finally, if you were to decide that your historic property is beyond repair, or that renovations cost more than the property itself, demolishing the property will also require jumping through a few hoops. According to this NOLO article, sometimes a historic homeowner will find themselves waiting from six months to an entire year for the appropriate permissions to demolish the house.

Necessary renovations may be expensive

First of all, it’s worth mentioning that home renovations can be expensive no matter the home’s age. In some cases, homes built centuries ago have fared better than homes with just a few decades of history.

Think about it: If a historic home has lasted this long already, it’s probably because it was built up to high standards of structural quality. (Of course, all of that depends on the work and upkeep that have been done on the property so far.)

That said, you should have a clear understanding of what updates will be necessary to a historic home before you buy.

Don’t miss: The Top 4 Benefits of Historic Property Designation

Older homes can be notoriously drafty because as homes age, they shift, which can cause gaps in insulation or window casings, allowing outside air to seep through.

Plus, although older homes were often designed with some energy efficiency tactics in mind (porches with awnings, thicker walls, and strategically placed mature trees), they aren’t all updated with the latest, most energy-efficient infrastructure, such as insulated doors and windows. Older homes may also need extensive updates in things like heating systems or wiring systems, for example, which can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars.

You should definitely invest in a home inspection, preferably from an inspector familiar with historic homes, before you make any big decisions. A specialized inspector should know how to check for issues common with historic homes, such as lead paint, asbestos, or unsafe wiring.

Modern amenities may be elusive

Of course, most of the regulations that apply to historic homes apply to the exterior of the building. That means you’ll still probably have plenty of flexibility when it comes to redesigning the interior of the home.

However, that doesn’t mean that interior redesigns, renovations, or upgrades will be easy — or cheap.

Making major changes to things like floor plans, plumbing, heating, and cooling systems can be expensive and difficult. Any new construction will likely be required to adhere to modern safety and energy efficiency codes.

Plus, too many modern changes could devalue your home. Historic homes tend to attract a specific group of buyers who are interested in preservation. Removing some of the building’s historic features might reduce the sense of authenticity that can be attractive to those buyers down the road.

How to get a historic home without the headaches

Although rare, it is possible to find a new construction home that also has the charm and character of a historic home.

It’s possible to find a new construction home that also has the charm and character of a historic home. Click To Tweet

For one, there are occasionally vacant lots in historic districts that allow new construction. Of course, to build a new home in a historic district, you’ll have to take special care to hire a construction staff who are experts in historic buildings to make sure that the new construction meets all regulations.

However, there are also occasionally new construction developments in historic areas that put a great deal of effort into respecting the historic character of the neighborhood while also taking advantage of all of the latest amenities that newer construction has to offer.

One example of these types of developments is Upper East River in beautiful, historic Savannah, Georgia. Upper East River offers a variety of historic, luxury home styles, and is located in the new live-work-play neighborhood of Eastern Wharf. Homeowners will enjoy river views and walkable access to plenty of dining and entertainment options, plus the convenience of two-car garages and easy access to the rest of the city.

To learn more about Upper East River Homes, please contact us.

Share this post

Upper East River
Neighborhood Guide

Download this 18-page guide and get the inside story on downtown Savannah’s newest – and last – riverside neighborhood.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
Guide to Upper East River in Savannah, GA

© 2024, Patrick Malloy Communities, All Rights Reserved.

Read the Property Report before signing any documents. No federal agency has judged the merits or value of this property. This print ad is not an advertisement or solicitation to purchase or sell property in states where prohibited by law. Site plan and descriptions are subject to change without notice. Renderings are for illustration purposes only, not intended to portray exact layouts, dimensions, or details.