“Obviously, the charm and history are attractive, but there’s also a very strong lifestyle component to these historic neighborhoods,” says John Randolph, an associate broker Long & Foster, which represents homes in Old Town Alexandria, Va.
“What’s old is new again. This is the revival of the town center in urban planning; the original town center.”
However, if you fall in love with a vintage charmer in a historic district, be careful: Your plans to remodel or expand your new old home could turn into a frustrating and costly experience.
“If you are going to restore the home or add onto it, it’s going to cost you more money than an equivalent home somewhere else in town because the guidelines you’re going to have to follow are more expensive,” says John Reynolds, an associate broker in Long Beach, Calif., who also lives in the historic district of Cal Heights.
“I will have people come to my open houses and they’ll be talking about the house and what they want to do and I say, ‘Folks, you are in the wrong neighborhood. I can show you neighborhoods in Long Beach where you can do that, but this is not one of them.'”
The goal of all historic districts is to preserve the character of their neighborhood, either through codes, covenants and restrictions; homeowner or preservation association guidelines; or both.
Most restrictions apply only to exterior changes to the house.
Some districts have municipal or county support for their restrictions, most often through the planning and zoning or building permit functions.
Other districts rely solely on community pressure.
“I find that having to live with their neighbors can be more fearsome,” says Beth Reiter, director of historic preservation for the Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission, which oversees four historic districts in Savannah, Ga.
Historic district restrictions vary widely, and some exempt certain properties within their boundaries by age or other criteria.
For this reason, it’s important to check individual addresses for restrictions rather than just looking at local district rules advertisement. Historic districts, even those abutting each other, may differ in their restrictions or requirements. Old Town Alexandria, for instance, seeks to preserve truly historic homes. Owners cannot make exterior changes to any home that is more than 100 years old without getting approval from the City Council and Board of Architectural Review.
Meanwhile, Long Beach historic districts were formed to prevent overdevelopment in relatively new communities.
“The reason they were formed in Long Beach had very little to do with the historic value of the homes in the neighborhood,” says Reynolds. “It had to do with the City of Long Beach tearing down old homes back in the ’80s and building nine-unit apartment buildings on single-family residential lots and totally disrupting the culture of the neighborhood.”
Reynolds notes that in one Long Beach historic district, if a duplex burns down, the owner has to rebuild a single-family home.
If historic districts have a favorite foe, it would be the McMansion.
Reynolds says that even if a renegade homeowner managed to plop a 2,500-square-foot monstrosity down in a neighborhood of 800-square-foot bungalows, the homeowner would live to regret it.
“Where do you go for your 2,500-square-foot comparable within the same district?” he says. “It’s not there. The appraiser is going to look at it as nonconforming to the neighborhood and won’t appraise it for as much as they would if there were homes that conformed to it.”
Although regulations vary from one historic district to another, some rules are more commonplace than others. Here are several areas where restrictions and extra expenses might impact homeowner life in a historic district:
1. Additions. Adding square footage to a home in a historic district can be difficult, if not impossible.
“There have been instances where we have allowed additional stories, but generally probably not,” Reiter says.
When additions are approved, Reiter prefers they be slightly different rather than identical to the original structure.
“We don’t want to create a false sense of history,” she says.
2. Windows and shutters. Nothing says vintage about a home like its windows and shutters. For that reason, most historic districts require homeowners to replace them in kind.
In Old Town Alexandria, that means custom-made, single-pane windows and working wooden shutters.
The same holds true for windows in Savannah districts, but they now allow PVC shutters due to the heat and humidity.
In Long Beach, it’s ever so costly to re-pane the original wooden windows.