Historic Districts

  By Karen Catuogno, Broker/Owner, Abbott Properties LLC  

If you’ve driven through an older neighborhood and noticed all of the houses have something in common that makes you go “wow”, chances are you have come across a Historic District.

Historic Districts are groups of buildings or properties recognized as historically or architecturally significant and linked together in some fashion. Think Greenwich Village in New York, the French Quarter in New Orleans or Ocean Road in Narragansett RI. 

Historic districts are tangible links to our past.  The buildings and neighborhoods bring meaning to history and to peoples’ lives.  When you can see and touch something, it is more real.  In the less than 100 years since the idea for historic districts was born, there are now more than 2300 historic districts in the United States.  They are an important part of the American real estate fabric.

Is a historic district home right for you? If you are considering a home in a historic district, be aware of what it means. If you are looking, it’s probably because you want to be a part of that special feeling.  There’s a certain prestige and pride associated with owning a home in a historic district.  You become a part of a large, like-minded group of people interested in keeping history alive.  But there are some constraints.

So what are the pros and cons?

Two of the biggest benefits of historic district home ownership are value and aesthetics, two factors intertwined.  Property values in local historic districts appreciate significantly more than value in the market as a whole and even in terms of other neighborhoods in the same town.  That boundary line makes a big different.

And you will be protected from your neighbors’ bad taste, something you can’t protect against under the building code. Being assured that a sliding glass door and deck will never be installed across the street in that pristine Second Empire neighborhood gives you peace of mind and value stability.

The quality of design is better. The local economy is also positively impacted because of tourism, resulting in a more stable tax base. Plus there are the social and psychological benefits of living in an attractive and walkable neighborhood where the existing resources continue to have a purpose and use.

But what if you need to make a repair or wish to build an addition?  The purpose of a historic district is not to make change impossible.  It’s to make sure that the change is appropriate.  Repairs and changes are permitted, but there’s a process which takes extra time. There will likely be materials and construction requirements which may cost you more out of pocket dollars.

Take that pristine Second Empire neighborhood you live in.  Neighbor’s house is in dire need new siding and your neighbor loves the ease and cost of that “in stock” vinyl siding.  Before a building permit issues, your neighbor must first go to the local governing agency, probably the Historic District Commission, to have the proposed change reviewed. A hearing date will be scheduled.  Residents of the neighborhood like you have the right to appear and voice an opinion.

The Commission will apply standards to determine if the change is appropriate to the aesthetic of the district. If that vinyl siding doesn’t meet the “appropriateness” standard, it won’t be allowed. Neighbor will then have to buy that custom wood replica of the original, plus pay for a specialist to install.   And that addition?  It will be reviewed and allowed if the design and materials “fit” the district.  Think architect costs, not Bob the Builder. 

The cost of that “wow” will likely mean more time to secure permissions and more out of pocket dollars for repairs, additions and other improvements. 

Like any other decision in deciding to buy real estate, do your research up front and make an informed decision.  Rules and laws vary from state to state, and even from town to town, so know the rules and regulations that apply to the specific Historic District that interests you.  

Lastly, consider hiring a realtor with expertise is historic districts who can help your with questions.  The agents at Abbott Properties can provide helpful guidance in navigating those Historic District questions.

If you do buy, enjoy your “wow”! 

Government Rules and Your Property” is a series that explores how federal, state and local laws and regulations affect your property. Karen currently services as a Member of the Historic District Commission in Narragansett RI

Karen Catuogno is a commercial and residential broker licensed in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. She maintains, develops and grow business at the agency as it relates to sales and listings. She also works to recruit agents, coaches in talent development and leads the agency’s marketing program. Karen is a retired attorney.

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