Historic Real Estate Advisory

Before buying an old home, learn everything you can about it

buying an old home: prepare
This unusual roof will require specific replacement slates and a competent craftsman to perform the work.

Many people buy an old house because they fall in love with it. They love the quality craftsmanship, quirky details, and rock-solid construction. But old houses have special requirements, so make sure that if you do fall for one, you’re ready to seriously commit financially and otherwise.

A word of advice: Before taking the plunge have a "whole house" inspection performed by a licensed professional familiar with old houses. Even if the house is well-priced or being sold "as is," you need to know what’s been done to it or what might be behind the walls. Don’t just take the seller’s word for these things. A whole house inspection will reveal the all-important condition of the roof, wiring, plumbing, and what the house looks like from underneath.

This kind of inspection will uncover previous uses of the property, the nature and quality of the work performed, possible re-configuration of the floor plan, age of the systems and -this is key-if there are health or environmental issues such as the presence of radon, mold, asbestos or a leaking underground oil tank. The last item will be confirmed by an expert in the field, but you’ll be the first to know of potential problems.

Whole house inspections are generally priced based on the square footage of the house and its age. The cost is typically borne by the buyer-but it’ll be the best money spent on what is likely to be your biggest investment.

Keep in mind:

  1. Old houses have special needs. Understanding the special nature of a building’s architecture and construction will help ensure that any work done respects its visual and structural integrity. In other words, don’t treat it like a new house by hiring architects, plumbers, roofers, etc who aren’t trained to work on historic buildings. Botching character-defining features or historic materials could cost you dearly.
  2. Check for mandated code requirements before you plan or make any alterations. Some owners, unaware of local guidelines, have rebuilt porches or repainted their houses only to be required to redo the project-at their expense. Local historic societies and city/county governments offer free advice. Take it!
  3. Do a house history. Find out who built your house, when, in what style, and how it may have been altered over time. This information will help buyers understand what they’re getting into and provide sellers with a useful marketing tool. If you hope to get your property listed in state and national registers, a house history is essential.
buying an old home: insection
Ornate architectural millwork is characteristic of the Queen Anne style popular in the late 19th century.

Your state office of historic resources may have a guidebook, archivist, or historian who can give you general direction. Local libraries and historical societies have books on architectural styles and old buildings in their areas. The style of a building provides clues to its date of construction.

After you’ve checked out what the books have to say about your house and its neighborhood, look at detailed maps of your area, local land tax books to trace the property back to the original owner, and deeds and other records to validate your findings. In the absence of written documentation you may want to bring in an architectural historian who can draw conclusions based on physical characteristics, construction techniques, materials, etc.

House histories are useful in guiding you to an appropriate treatment for your historic building. Is it best to renovate or restore? What do those terms mean? According to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties:

  • Preservation requires retention of the greatest amount of historic fabric, along with the building’s historic form, features, and detailing as they have evolved over time;
  • Rehabilitation acknowledges the need to alter or add to a historic building to meet continuing or new uses while retaining the building’s historic character;
  • Restoration allows for the depiction of a building at a particular time in its history by preserving materials from the period of significance and removing materials from other periods;
  • Reconstruction recreates a vanished or non-surviving building with new materials, primarily for interpretive purposes.
buying an old home: consulting
These exceptional pocket doors with art glass were carefully restored to working condition after a fire.

Falling in love with a house may mean that the two of you were meant to be. But love is sometimes blind. So be prepared for the long-term consequences of decisions you’ve got to make about an old house and the financial impact of those choices. Whether buying or selling, do it with eyes wide open.

Jeanne Bridgforth is a certified historic Realtor in Richmond, VA. She has been ranked in the top 5% for residential sales in North America. Jeanne is a Top Producer for Long & Foster, a Distinguished Achiever and a member of the company’s Founder’s Club. Her website is www.jeannebridgforth.com. Contact her with your questions or comments toll free at 1-877-553-7653 or 1-804-370-3121 or by sending her an email.