Selling Those Old Houses

June 1, 2001

You’re unlikely to sell a national treasure such as the Ipswich House during your real estate career. But there are plenty of historic homes throughout the country, so there’s a chance one might end up in your listing inventory someday.

If you do list a historic property or represent a buyer interested in one, expect to spend time learning about the intricacies of this exciting but complicated market niche, say historic property specialists.

Properties in locally designated historic districts are subject to zoning restrictions that aim to preserve the historical integrity of an area. That typically means constraints on what owners can do to upgrade their property, says Ann Duff, an associate with McEnearny Associates, Alexandria, Va. Duff’s principal market is the historic district of Alexandria, the Colonial port town across the Potomac from Washington, D.C., about six miles downstream from Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington.

In general, designations are made by local preservation boards, whose officials are typically appointed by local lawmakers.

Some local historic properties are also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, administered by the National Park Service. But restrictions, more often than not, come from the local preservation board, not the federal government.

The federal government puts restrictions only on those properties that have received federal preservation grants or tax advantages, says Paul Lusignan, a historian for the National Register of Historic Places. And that’s not many properties. Only a tiny percentage of the 72,000 properties and historic areas listed on the National Register have received federal assistance, says Lusignan.

If a property is subject to restrictions, be prepared to tell your clients about it up front. “Some people think it’s great that there are local rules on what you can and can’t do with your windows,” says Duff, “but others say, ‘What do you mean I can’t paint my windows yellow?’”

Restrictions tend to be concentrated on exteriors, leaving owners relatively free to do what they want on the interiors. “I’ve had beautiful surprises,” says Duff. “Some of the historic houses have strikingly modern interiors.”

Exterior restrictions vary by area, but most localities require preservation of the original look and in some cases of the original material. That means no vinyl siding or metal window frames, and if there are certain architectural details such as window arches, those details must stay. Exterior colors are also restricted.

There are also likely to be restrictions on the size of additions. In other words, “a new room can’t eat up your backyard,” says Duff.

The cost of renovating such a home can be high, but exactly how high depends on where you live, says Denice Reich, associate broker with RE/MAX Alliance in Denver.

Owners wanting to make exterior changes must typically present plans for approval to the local preservation board. “Different areas have widely varying rules and differ on the degree of enforcement,” Reich says.

As you’re learning about your local preservation rules, don’t forget to learn about what makes a house worth preserving, too. “It’s a whole different animal to show a historic home,” says Duff. “You need to attract attention by knowing what makes the house unique. Remember the windows, the fireplace mantel, and the brickwork. The warps and bumps of the woodwork add to its charm.”

To learn more about historic houses, a good starting place is your local library, which typically maintains a special collection focusing on local history, says Duff. The library is also a good source of general information on architectural styles, applicable federal tax laws, and preservation trends. (Also see for our growing database of architectural styles.)

That kind of general information is also being provided in a national education program launched last year by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and ERA Franchise Systems Inc., Parsippany, N.J.

The program provides a good grounding in basic preservation issues that gives practitioners a boost in their market, says Kary Reeves, manager of product development at ERA. You don’t have to be with ERA to take the course. Almost 250 practitioners took the class in 2000, about 10 percent of whom weren’t with ERA. The cost is $139. More information is available online at


Knowing which agency or committee determines which houses are historic can be tricky. Here’s a summary of who does what.

Local preservation boards.These committees are typically appointed by local government to set criteria for designating historically significant local properties and neighborhoods. Designation criteria often, but don’t necessarily, overlap with those of the federal government.

State historic preservation offices.These state bodies act as agents of the National Park Service, which has custody of the National Register of Historic Places. SHPOs recommend properties and areas for listing on the National Register, but decisions are made by the Park Service. SHPOs also recommend properties and areas for listing as a National Historic Landmark, which exclusively have national significance.

DO your own historic digging

Inspired to become a house historian? At the exhibition, you can pick up a copy of House Detective: Finding History in Your Home. The six-page booklet, developed by the cocurators of “Within These Walls . . .,” gives you the scoop on how they pieced together the history of their 240-year-old house from Ipswich, Mass., and how you can do the same thing with homes in your area. Here are some of their tips:

  1. Start with the physical details of the house. Note the materials used and how pieces were joined together.
  2. Conduct a search at the county courthouse or wherever deed records are kept in your community.
  3. Fill information gaps by searching other public records, such as mortgage documents and wills.
  4. Tap library resources to learn about the community’s past.
  5. Check out old city and county property maps.
  6. Look at neighbors’ old photos. They may have the house in the background.

Can’t make it to the exhibition? House Detective was made available to state and local associations of REALTORS® as part of American Home Week, April 22--28. Contact your state or local association for details on obtaining a copy.

Robert Freedman

Robert Freedman is the former director of multimedia communications at NAR.

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