National Register of Historic Places Restrictions and Benefits

By: JoVon Sotak , Contributing Writer
In: Historic Preservation

After the previous post How to Find Out if Your Home is Just Really Old or Historical, one OHW reader brought up an important question:

I know people that have old houses and would shy away from the ‘historic’ designation-fearing that it may prohibit them from adding on to the house at a later date. I wonder if this true?

The answer brings up a really good point about historic designation and highlights the need for better understanding of both the restrictions and the benefits. (I’ll cover the process of getting a property designated for as a historic place in the national register more deeply in a future blog post).

First, having your home listed on the National Register doesn’t place any restrictions on you when it comes to renovating, modifying or selling your home. The exception is if you’ve applied for and accepted federal monies, such as Heritage Preservation Services grants. If you have, then you have to have proposed changes approved by the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation.

However, this is where knowing a bit about the process helps. Although the federal government doesn’t place any restrictions on your renovations, your State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and local government or authorities may have its own laws governing the changes you make to your designated home. The SHPO passes on your application paperwork to the National Park Services for listing on the National Register, so you don’t end up on the Register without your SHPO knowing about it, which means they have a say or two about how historic properties in the state are treated.

So why place your home on the National Register?

Perhaps the biggest (or maybe most noble) reason is the preservation of a historical resource. Houses are designated for at least one of the following reasons:

  • American history, which means that a significant person lived or died in your home or an important activity or event took place
  • Architecture
  • Archaeology
  • Engineering
  • Cultural significance

Even though your home might qualify in more than one area, your application highlights the best case you have for historic preservation. Once designated, your home will be properly documented for posterity as an important part of history.

Other reasons for having your house designated include:

  • Listing your home in the National Registry Archive which provides information for researchers and historian
  • Opportunities for incentives such as federal tax credits, federal preservation grants, and preservation easements
  • Access to alternative fire and life safety codes under the International Building Code
  • Protection from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation if your property is affected by a federal project
  • Tax and funding benefits through your SHPO and local agencies
  • Access to renovation and preservation information from the National Park Services
  • A swanky plaque that you can purchase that lets everyone know your house is special
If you currently own an old home (older than 50 years old) and you’re not sure if there’s anything historic about it, take these steps: