Ask A Realtor: Can I Buy A Historic Home? Part 2


Last week, I introduced this topic with a few stories about my personal experiences. If you missed it, you can catch up here:

Ask A Realtor: Can I Buy A Historic Home? Part 1

Otherwise, read on!

What Should I Consider First?

1. Good Bones. When I look at historic homes for myself (or another buyer), I consider the structure of the house before anything else. Obviously, I’m looking for structural concerns—type and condition of the foundation, for instance—but I’m talking mainly about style here. Last week (see “But Jim Did It…”), I mentioned a beautiful Victorian house that a fellow agent had to steer her clients away from, for instance.

Don’t get me wrong here—the house was gorgeous in its online photos, and the woodwork was to die for. I’d also never dispute its value and the worth in renovating something like it—but it would have been the wrong house for these specific clients, who weren’t interested in investing another 100K beyond their purchase price to get the job done.

When you’re looking at historic properties to purchase, do some research about different styles, because these houses can’t just be categorized under the title of “Old House.” For a fun introduction to the variety we're talking about, take a look here. 

Being familiar with old house styles makes a difference, because the feasibility of that purchase for each specific buyer will depend a lot on the style. Victorian homes, for instance, resemble small castles in their many roof peaks and irregularities (often including turrets, like this one had), and that can be expensive if they require roof repairs. For this style in particular, even with a newer roof, you would want to consider things like whether your finances allowed you to set aside an amount each year toward potential roof repairs down the line.

The “bones” of your house will also affect changes you’d like to make on the interior. Many old houses aren’t as open as we like them to be in modern times, and that may be one thing you appreciate as part of the historic feel to a property. But will your family be comfortable living in the house as it is? A few years down the road, might you want to combine some smaller rooms, or open up some common spaces? Is there enough storage and closet space for your daily modern life, or will you need to create more? Look carefully at the structure of each house to see if you will have those options, just in case.

2. Lot Size. Yawn. Yes, discovering and renovating a historic home has all the “feels” of a romance, but you do need to factor in less-inspiring details like this one. Particularly in a city or town, lot size can complicate your renovations because of code restrictions about percentage of the lot that can be built, for instance. Will you want to add on to the house in some way, and will lot size codes interfere with that? Does the house have a garage? Is the lot big enough for you to add a garage, if that’s important to you (and in the snowy Midwest, most people won’t compromise on a garage)? Most importantly, will the city say your lot is big enough for you to add a garage, and what about access to that garage? It gets complicated.

Keep in mind that here in the Midwest, unless you’re specifically looking for old farmhouses, most historic properties tend to cluster in urban areas. Urban spread began later in history, around the 1970s, and you’ll find that most “older” local properties comfortably beyond a city center have that ‘70s or ‘80s vibe (read: split-level). If you seek a historic property, you’ll likely end up in a city like Minneapolis/St. Paul, or a smaller town like Stillwater/Hudson/White Bear Lake—so you want to pay close attention to city codes about lot size when planning a purchase of that kind.

Part 3: Anything Else I Need To Know?

Part 1: But Jim Did It...

Posted by L. Lathrop for Jim Burns