BUYING AN HISTORIC HOUSE
Originally published in Haverhill Life magazine, June 2018
Some homeowners fall in love with the idea of owning an historic home, and for many it's a dream come true. To others, ownership can bring an added layer of oversight that they don't appreciate.
What qualifies a house as historic? To be considered for the National Register of Historic Places, a house or property must be designated as such by a federal, state or local historic preservation office. The age of a house is not the most significant criterion for historic consideration. Historic commissions consider several eligibility factors. They include:
- Association with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history;
- Association with the lives of people who were significant in our past;
- Embodiment of distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction or characteristics that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction;
- Likelihood of yielding information significant in history or prehistory.
A property must meet at least one of the above criteria to be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
The country's first locally designated historic district was established in 1931 in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1966, Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act, establishing preservation rules at the federal, state and local levels.
In some cases, tax benefits are available to help owners restore historic properties. You can obtain information on tax credits and grant money from your local historic preservation office.
Owners of designated historic homes have to be careful not to violate the historic commission rules. The commission can control almost any work performed on the outside of the house, including painting and work involving a driveway, a walkway, lighting, roofing, siding, steps or a deck. The basic rule is that anything you can see from the road or water can require special permission from the historic commission. Fines for failure to obey the commission's rules can be as high as $500 a day.
My office is in the historic district of downtown Haverhill, and before doing any work on the exterior of the building, representatives from the property have to consult the historic commission and obtain approval. Haverhill has three historic districts: downtown, Rocks Village and Bradford common. If you own a house in any one of these districts, you must obtain approval from the commission before doing any exterior work on it.
Owning a house in an historic district that is strictly managed can be a good or bad thing, depending on the homeowner's point of view. Some historic districts monitor everything and may prevent homeowners from doing repairs they want to do. For example, I have inspected houses in historic districts for folks who want to build a deck, paint the house a new color, or install vinyl siding, new windows or a fence. But they learned after the inspection that the historic commission will reject their project. On the other hand, some homeowners want to be in an historic district because they know that the neighborhood is carefully monitored and will remain as is.
Before buying a house in an historic district be sure to question the local historic commission to educate yourself on all of the district rules and regulations.