How-to Guide to Buying an Historic Home...

How-to Guide to Buying an Historic Home

The gracious gallery on this renovated Key West historic home provides outdoor living space. Walls were stripped to reveal the original Dade County Pine walls typical in Key West’s historic homes. The path to finding the house of your dreams is filled with windy roads, intersections, one-way streets, and roundabouts. There’s no single way to get there because each individual has got a completely different idea of what a dream home looks like.

For some it’s a modern custom-build on the lot of their choosing, but for the more discerning buyer, nothing beats the aesthetic beauty and charm of an historic home.

Owning an historic home comes with several key benefits. You’ll enjoy unequaled architecture that has weathered the test of time, and you may even qualify for tax credits or low-interest loans offered by local governments who wish to preserve and refurbish historic buildings. And above all else, you’ll enjoy the indescribable feeling of “home” that’s not always found in house designs of today, says Scott Forman, a luxury real estate broker in Key West, Florida, a city well known for its historic homes.

A step not to be taken lightly.

Making the decision to purchase a historic home is not one that ought to be made on the fly. Older homes are naturally more likely to have hidden problems, and so the inspection process is far more in depth. You’ll also want to bear in mind that any renovation work required on an older home will cost more than the standard rates.

“Of course, in Key West, which has more than 2,000 homes in its historic district, many of the homes have been renovated more than once and most problems have long been addressed,” Forman says.

But it’s always wise, prior to signing on the dotted line, to have your prospective home professionally inspected by an engineer who specializes in historic buildings. The extra cost of hiring a specialized inspector will pay for itself tenfold as issues with outdated electrical or plumbing systems can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars to rectify.

It’s not a bad idea to do a thorough inspection of the home yourself before you call in a pro. It could be that even with your untrained eye you can spot enough red flags to walk away from the deal before investing too much time and money. Plus, having your own private checklist on hand when the inspector arrives will better prepare you for asking pertinent questions.

Every inspection begins with the making of a list. Write down every element you plan to inspect so that you don’t forget anything. Start at the top and work your way down to the bottom. At the bare minimum your list should include: roof, chimney, interior and exterior walls, porches, windows and doors, foundation, fireplaces, attics and basements, and bathrooms.

Also, don’t forget to bring a digital camera and take photos of everything!
Begin your inspection from the outside. Major structural issues can often be noted by a sagging roofline or leaning chimney. Another red flag is a roof that is missing a lot of tiles or is heavily covered in moss and debris. A leaky roof can lead to rot in the rafters.

The same goes for the walls, both on the outside and the interior. While an older home can’t be expected to look perfect, large cracks and rot can mean serious issues with the framework.

As you go through the house, pay special attention to the basement and attic, as well as any area of the house where there could potentially be water damage. Again, this self-inspection is not meant to be the end-all be-all, but just a starting point to see if the house looks to be in good enough shape to move forward and call in a professional inspector.

A red flag worth surrendering the ship over.

The idea of this article is not to be negative, but instead to be practical. Purchasing an older home takes more foresight, that’s just the way it is.
Rule number one is to not let the charm of a particular house overshadow pragmatic decision making with regards to its condition. Purchasing an historic home that is in need of a major structural renovation may set you up for a protracted restoration period – and may exceed the budget you had in mind.

If you are buying a house in sore need of renovation, meet with a contractor who specializes in historic renovation before you make an offer, to get a good handle on what the restoration may cost.

Just because you own it doesn’t mean you can do anything you want to it.
If you’ve got grandiose plans of renovating or expanding your historical home, make sure that you check with the local bylaws ahead of time to ensure that there are not limitations to the changes you can make to the structure. Homeowners are rarely permitted to add extra square footage or an additional story to a home that is officially designated as “historic.”
In Key West,there is a Historic Architectural Review Commission (aka HARC) that oversees any renovations made to historic homes to ensure the preservation of the historic district. Most cities with sizable historic districts have similar planning boards. It can be helpful to spend time attending their meetings to get an idea of what is and is not allowed. Some areas allow no changes to the interiors of historic homes. Others, such as Key West, allow homeowners to make changes to the inside as long as the external historic integrity is preserved.

You’ll also get to know the local contractors at these meetings, and may have an opportunity to get acquainted with local residents who have faced some of the challenges you will face if you purchase an historic home.

You may also find other organizations in your community that support the restoration of local homes. For example in Key West, the Florida Keys Historical Society awards a Ceramic Star for its Historic Preservation of the Year Award to houses that have been renovated to their high standards. Key West’s Old Island Restoration Foundation (OIRF) provides grants for some restorations and your community may have a similar funding source.

There is considerably more to buying an historic home than your ordinary brick and mortar purchase, but the rewards of living in a home with a story may outweigh the extra time and expense.

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