Owning a historic home these days is more a matter of reverence for history than investing to make money. Consider, for example, the case of Kentucky attorneys Sandra Freeburger and Merritt S. Deitz Jr.
Shortly before their marriage in the mid-1980s, Freeburger and Deitz paid about $90,000 for a home built in the early 1850s in the Western Kentucky town of Henderson on the Ohio River, where they practiced law together.
Before The RemodelingThe house, a one-story brick Greek Revival structure sitting on a 1.25-acre lot, qualified for registration as a national historic site. That was because the Kentucky Heritage Council, which registers historic homes for the U.S. Department of Interior’s National Park Service, determined that the architecture had been imported upriver from Natchez, Miss., where the style was popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Since that time, the couple has put some $100,000 more into the property, including constructing an adjacent building in the same style architecture that now houses their law practice. This addition didn’t come easily; all plans had to be approved by both state and federal authorities, who required that the addition have a cornerstone bearing the date — 1992, so there wouldn’t be any mistake that it was not part of the original construction.
After The RemodelingWas the effort worthwhile? Was the property’s value enhanced? “One would think so,” says Freeburger, “but for us, it was a labor of love. And we would encourage other people to do it because it’s important to preserve older homes.”
That’s certainly true, but real estate agents specializing in historic homes say it’s a sentiment that few homebuyers share these days. Two reasons exist for the reluctance today to buy older homes that have historic value. The first is that two-income families of the 1990s have little time or inclination to do the extensive renovation and repairs that older homes often require. And second, qualifying for registration with the National Park Service as an historic home requires working through a maze of bureaucratic red tape.
Says Prudence Fish, historic Homes specialist with Lexington, Mass.-based Carlson Real Estate, “Today’s families don’t buy houses that need work. If they say they want to do work, they’re talking about wallpapering a bathroom. If they want an antique house, they believe these will be high-maintenance homes — and they don’t have time for that work.”
Moreover, qualifying as a national historic landmark is no easy task. The first hurdle to leap is approval by a state historical commission, and each state has different standards. For example, what might qualify as an historic home in New Mexico, which joined the Union in 1912, wouldn’t even get a nod in New Hampshire, where historic means at least 200 or more years old. Then the application has to go through the National Park Service’s Historic Landmarks Program, which uses another set of criteria. Then an application goes to an advisory board, which reviews nominations and solicits comments from opponents as well as supporters. And almost every nomination attracts opponents, since designation as an historic landmark usually affects adjacent property values and uses, as well. Then after completing all of these tests, the application goes to the director of the National Parks Service for that office’s OK, and ultimately the U.S. Secretary of Interior, who makes the final determination.
After going through this laborious process (Deitz, a former federal bankruptcy judge, says it “was easier than I thought it would be”), is there a payoff?
The GardenYes, says Carlson Real Estate’s Prudence Fish. “A vintage home, if it’s in top condition, can command a premium price.” But she cautions that people don’t buy “antique” homes as an investment. “If people want to invest, they won’t look at an antique house. They buy because they’re smitten with older homes. Older homes don’t make much sense as a speculative investment. If you do it right, it’s going to cost you money.”
Another factor limiting the market for historic home these days is that some of the tax incentives offered in the past through the Department of Housing and Urban Development have expired, Fish says. She says that interest in historic homes peaked during the bicentennial celebrations of the middle 1970s, and has waned since then. Even so, she says interest still exists in the New England area, where vintage homes are a drawing card for tourism as well as history buffs. Over the past several years, she says her company has sold more than 100 antique houses, one of which she says she’s sold five times. Like Deitz and Freeburger, Fish believes it’s important to preserve historic homes even if there’s no direct investment payoff. “It’s important,” she says, “because our past housing environment is what makes us special today.”
You can get more information, including nomination forms an evaluation criteria, through the National Park Service. Or if you’re interested in finding real estate agents specializing in historic homes in specific markets, try the Lycos search engine and type in “historic homes.”