How to protect your old house after you're gone

By: Shannon Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Preservation

Imagine pouring your heart and soul, blood and tears, and almost all of your hard-earned savings into a beautiful home. You spend countless hours staring at photographs, trying to find one more clue to that old porch or ornate molding or old fireplace. You then hire one expert after another, entrusting them to bring the home back to its original beauty. You finally finish the home and it's a masterpiece -- a true work of art, a perfect throwback to the past.

And a few years after you pass away, the home is turned into a modern travesty.

This is the unfortunate fate of far too many old houses. This blog post made the rounds a few years ago and launched an avalanche of broken hearts, but this is just one example of the beautiful homes that eventually lose their antique edge, usually thanks to overzealous renovations by new owners who don't see the beauty in an old house.

Fortunately, there is something you can do to protect your hard work. It's called a preservation easement.

How a preservation easement works

A historic preservation easement is a legal way to ensure that your old house stays just as it was originally intended. It works by restricting what future owners can do to a home. Those owners are well aware of the preservation easement when they buy the house, so by signing on the dotted line they are agreeing to uphold the rules of the easement. To ensure this happens, the easement is seen to by an easement holder.

The easement holder is usually a preservation organization, a government agency involved in preservation, or even a local historical society. That holder ensures, usually through yearly visits, that the easement has not been violated. What constitutes a violation depends upon the easement language and rules.

For example, an easement might specifically address the original windows in the house, the use of wood siding, architectural elements, the size of the porch, certain woodworking features, and other points that make the house truly one-of-a-kind. The easement also discusses exactly how the house should be maintained and treated. The goal is to ensure that the hard work of restoration cannot be overridden on a whim, and that every effort must be made to protect the integrity of the historical elements.

Anyone can record a preservation easement. How strongly it is enforced depends upon the easement holder. An example is an easement with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which requires that a home be on the National Register of Historic Places. If your home is not on the Register, you can turn to organizations like your local historic society for help with enforcing the preservation easement.

Keep in mind that this is a very brief overview of preservation easements. As with any legal document that holds significant weight, an attorney must be involved in order to ensure the easement is done correctly. For more in-depth information on preservation easements, visit the National Trust for Historic Preservation.