Pros and cons of historic districts

By: Shannon Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses

When thinking about buying an historic home, there are two big options: Do you buy in a historic district, or do you go on your own and buy a home that is not in a protected area? I've done both, and there are pros and cons to each. Understanding the benefits and limitations of historic districts can help you make the choice on where your forever home should be.

Historic district advantages

An historic home is considered "architecturally significant" if it meets any of the following criteria:

  1. It must capture the essence of the time period in which it was built
  2. Display a signature architectural style
  3. Be associated with famous historical figures
  4. Be part of a designated historic district

Obviously you can have a home that meets the first three criteria but is not part of a historic district. However, the historic district offers several protections you can't get anywhere else. Homes in that district are usually beholden to certain rules that ensure the old houses will be kept to a certain standard of care and restoration. In other words, no one is going to raze that Victorian next door and build a modern eyesore.

Because of this certainty, home values in historic districts tend to be higher than in areas that don't have that designation--a good thing if you choose to part with your old house.

The houses are not the only thing wonderful about historic districts. Remember that many of these homes were built at a time when neighbors actually knew each other, when residents wandered down the street for an evening stroll and said hello to those around them. That old-fashioned atmosphere is often recreated in quaint historical areas, especially when homeowners begin discussing their latest restoration attempts.

Besides that, heading to the neighbor's house is a beautiful walk. The neighborhood is likely filled with mature landscaping, beautiful old trees, and perhaps even original sidewalks.

Speaking of neighbors, you actually have a say in what they do when living in the district. Since any major changes usually have to be approved by a review board, everyone works hard to stay true to the area's look and feel.

Historic district disadvantages

Why wouldn't you want to live in a place like this? Sometimes the very things that make the historic district wonderful turn out to be burdensome.

Some review boards can be very strict and veto anything that isn't as true to the original as possible, which means higher costs for materials, or the inability to do anything to the house at all--especially to the exterior--that might be questionable to anyone on the board. That means a handful of people hold a great deal of power over your choices.

Certain things might be entirely prohibited. For example, if you aren't allowed to replace the windows with modern replicas, you might have to suffer through many harsh seasons. And what happens if one of those original windows breaks? In some areas, it must be replaced with something of like kind and quality, which might mean spending thousands of dollars more on a hand-made wood window.

This leads to another big question: Can you add on to the house? Many historic districts don't allow structural changes, which means that as your family grows, the house doesn't. That can lead to some seriously cramped quarters or even necessitate a move.

Finally, though there can be significant tax breaks for those who live in historic homes, some cities levy higher taxes on residents of historic districts. Given that, you could actually wind up paying more than your neighbor a few streets over who didn't get any tax credits at all.

Whether you choose to live in a historic district or buy an old house without those protections, the goal is to create a beautiful home that reflects not only the historical significance, but your own needs and wants as well.