Don't let your old house become a statistic

By: Shannon Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Old House Musings, Old House History, Historic Preservation

For every old house I look at while house hunting, I come across another old house that is literally falling apart. Grand homes from the early 1800s, that had withstood well over a century of the elements, several owners and an untold number of stories within their walls were finally giving way to disrepair and neglect. It was just a matter of time before the demolition crews came in and tore down what had once been someone’s home.

The Fountain House of Doylestown, PA was built in 1758. It now houses an attorney's office and a Starbucks.

I recently came across a letter to the editor in a New Jersey newspaper, where the writer was talking about the various things that could be done to save historic properties. All too often we wait for “the town” or “the community” or some other entity to take the reins, but why can’t it start with the homeowner who simply wants to make a difference by preserving a part of that community’s history?

It made me brainstorm on the points I can keep in mind when looking for my next historic home. Here are a few that came to mind:

  1. Have faith in home renovation. The renovation I choose might not put the home on a National Register of Historic Places. It might not perfectly preserve the property. But it can save the property by making it much more appealing to those who might want to purchase it when I’m ready to sell it. That effort put into home renovation can mean the difference between a loving family calling it home, or a wrecking ball calling it progress.
  2. Restore the exterior, renovate the interior. I have developed a bit of a purist streak in the last few years, in that I love to see homes restored inside and out. But sometimes that simply isn’t possible. A good compromise lies in restoring the exterior and grounds to their original condition, and renovating the interior to reflect modern conveniences.
  3. Go after any designation that might extend the life of the property. Again, maybe the house won’t get on the National Register, but it might be recognized by the city as a historic property. It might have the support of the historical society in that community. Any sort of designation that says this property is worth saving is enough to turn an old house into a shiny new gem the neighborhood is proud to have.
  4. Sell wisely. There is no law that states I have to sell a property to someone who will quickly tear it down. Unless imminent domain comes through and takes over the whole block, there is nothing that says I have to let the house go to someone who will not take good care of it. Therefore, every sale of a historic property should be through a real estate agent or attorney who understands the need for preservation and will help me sell it with an eye toward the future of an old house, not the future of a new real estate development.
  5. Remember estate planning. Finally, there are wishes that can linger long after I am gone. Good estate planning can ensure that a historic property ends up in the right hands. Though it can be tough to think about such things, it is absolutely necessary if you have a home that you cherish. It was standing long before you showed up, and with the proper planning, it can stand for a very long time after you’re gone.

Perhaps it is the romantic in me, but every time I see an old house falling into disrepair, I start to think about ways I could save it. Maybe the methods might not be perfect, but the fact that the house goes on to see another decade or another century means something good was preserved, and that’s enough for me.