By Mary Ellen Slayter
December 9, 2007
"People are attracted to historic charm, the town-center lifestyle," said John Randolph, assistant manager for Long & Foster's office in a suburban historic district, Old Town Alexandria in Virginia. But the historic district rules can be frustrating.
"You have to adapt to the house," he said. "If you're fixated on a luxury master bathroom" and the house doesn't already have one, you need to look elsewhere.
Those older, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods often have relatively little parking, and the houses aren't likely to have garages.
"People are amazed that you can spend a million and a half for a property in which you have to scramble for parking," Randolph said.
Here are some key questions to ask before buying in a historic neighborhood:
*Is the property covered by a historic district? This may seem obvious, but it isn't always. For example, Washington has 26 historic districts in all. The home's seller should disclose to a buyer if a house is in a historic district; read the listing and your contract carefully, and check the address against historic district boundaries. Local government offices can provide this information.
Also, a particular house may not be governed by all the rules, depending on when it was built. Inquire about your address, not just the block. Pay attention to the designation of the specific property, not necessarily the district, said Daniel Metcalf, an agent in Long & Foster's suburban Bethesda, Md., office.
*What's the process for proposed renovations? Who decides what is allowed? It's often an arm of the local government's planning and zoning office.
If a homeowner disagrees with a decision, it usually can be appealed.
Historic districts also frequently have historic preservation societies. These non-profit groups have no enforcement powers but can provide guidance. They're also the most likely source of opposition to a proposed project. Find out who runs the group and whether interactions with the rest of the homeowners are cordial.
*What do the guidelines cover? In many cases, only exterior changes are restricted. "You can't pop the roof," Metcalf said.
Windows are often a point of contention, said Nancy Metzger, who chairs the Capitol Hill Restoration Society's Historic Preservation Committee. "People don't see that as part of the historic fabric of the house because they look through them." Nonetheless, there are often rules covering windows.
*What are the penalties for running afoul of the rules? Penalties usually are assessed because work was performed without the required permit. Homeowners can be fined or required to restore the property to its previous condition.
*What are the tax repercussions? Some historic districts are also special taxing districts. In other cases, historic district owners get tax benefits, especially for restoration work. Many of these programs come with associated easements, which limit future changes to the property.
*Can you afford the cost of ownership? Every house requires upkeep, but a home in a historic district has special challenges. Repairs and replacements are often custom jobs, and the materials required can cost significantly more than current standards.
Roof replacement is a big consideration in Old Town, said Randolph, who has been selling real estate in suburban Old Town Alexandria for 28 years. Asphalt shingles, even if they are on the house now, are no longer acceptable: Homeowners must install wood shingles, standing-seam metal or slate. One of Randolph's clients is replacing the roof on one of his properties, a former single-family house divided into five one-bedroom apartments, for $50,000 to $70,000.
The age of these houses, and the fact that you're often restricted in upgrading the windows and doors, also means they are often hard to heat and cool. Energy efficiency is a problem, Metcalf said. "If you looked at it with an infrared camera, it would be bright red."
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