Key Factors to Consider Before Buying a Historic House | Wisconsin Historical Society

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Key Factors to Consider Before Buying a Historic House

Key Factors to Consider Before Buying a Historic House | Wisconsin Historical Society

If you choose to buy a historic house, it will be a major decision for you and your family. Not everyone’s lifestyle is suited to maintaining a historic house. It is easy to find a really great house and become so emotional about it that reason goes out the door. Even if the historic house you love does not need a major rehabilitation, you should anticipate that the house will require regular and sometimes specialized maintenance.

Consider Three Key Purchasing Points

If you are trying to make a decision about purchasing a historic house, consider these three key points in your decision:

  • Time. You should be realistic about your priorities. As the owner of a historic house, you will spend quite a few weekends each year working on your house. If leisure time every weekend is a high priority to you and your family, owning a historic house may not be the best choice for you.
  • Cost. When you are considering the cost of maintaining a historic house, use this rule of thumb: You should have enough income to be able to spend between 15% and 20% of your annual mortgage payments for yearly maintenance. Mortgage lenders do not consider this expense when they qualify a buyer for a new mortgage, but you should.
  • Maintenance. Many owners of old houses do their own maintenance and repairs. While being handy with house projects is not a requirement for historic house ownership, it is extremely helpful.

Determine the Extent of Rehabilitation Need You Can Accept

If you decide your lifestyle is suited to owning a historic house, your next purchasing consideration will be the extent of rehabilitation need you are willing to accept. Every historic house will fall into one of these four categories of rehabilitation need:

  • Complete ground-up rehabilitation. A historic house could require a complete ground-up rehabilitation if it has been abandoned, neglected for decades, separated into individual apartments or covered with synthetic siding. If you are willing to accept this level of rehabilitation, you may be able to buy a house very cheaply. However, the work will take a lot of skill and money. Your willingness to do much of the work yourself will provide substantial financial resources for your rehabilitation.
  • Deferred maintenance and updating issues. A historic house with deferred maintenance issues could cost you some money up front. You might be able to move in immediately, but usually this is not the case. The deferred maintenance issues you might encounter include severely deteriorating paint, a failing roof, a sagging porch, old electrical wiring, old plumbing, an outdated kitchen, outdated bathrooms, worn and stained carpeting, damaged wood floors and missing architectural features due to insensitive remodeling.
  • Maintained but worn. A historic house that has been cared for and maintained well over the years will still appear used and worn. A house in this category can be a good buy. Often families have grown up in these houses for generations. These homes will likely pass inspections and are perfectly livable. These types of houses might have cosmetic issues such as worn finishes, outdated paint, outdated wallpaper and historically insensitive remodeling. In some cases you will encounter functional kitchens and bathrooms that need updating. You should plan to pay for the cosmetic and update changes or do them yourself.
  • Completely rehabilitated. A completely rehabilitated historic house will be more energy efficient and have new wiring, plumbing, attic insulation, roofing, heating and often central air conditioning. Kitchens and bathrooms will be new, and finishes throughout the house will look as good as new. The house will have fresh paint inside and out. The original windows will be restored with storm windows installed. These houses sell for a premium, but they will need only regular maintenance for the foreseeable future.

Consider Additional Factors

Once you have decided on the historic house condition you can accept, you can start looking for your new house. When you are looking at a historic house, consider the following additional factors.

1. Look at the neighborhood. You may love the house you are considering, but you should also like the neighborhood and lot. If you don't like the neighborhood or how the house is situated on its lot, there is no reason to even look at the inside of the house. It is very easy to focus on the house and forget its context.

2. Look over the exterior. Evaluate the exterior of the house and consider these points:

  • When you stand in front of the house, at the street, are elements like porches, turrets, and bay windows sagging, or do they seem to be solid?
  • Does the house have replacement siding? If it does, it will almost always be a red flag. House owners install artificial siding when they perceive that maintaining the original character is not desirable. Replacement siding does not make maintenance issues go away, and it can make them worse. Appraisers with experience valuing historic houses tend to reduce the value of houses with replacement siding.
  • Does the house have its original wood or steel casement windows? If so, this is a bonus. Original windows can be made as (or more) energy efficient than replacement windows. They also add character and are a major architectural feature of any historic house. If the windows have been replaced, they will likely need to be replaced every 12 to 15 years.
  • Does the house have storm windows? If so, this is a positive. Check to see if they are aluminum or wooden storms. Wooden storm windows are more energy efficient than aluminum. If the house has wooden storm windows, can you also find wooden screens somewhere on the property?
  • How does the exterior paint look? Is the paint peeling everywhere? If so, this is a cost you'll have to figure into your ongoing maintenance budget. A small amount of yearly paint maintenance is normal for any historic house.

3. Look over the interior. Evaluate the interior of the house and consider these points:

  • As you enter the house, does it appear to be well cared for? If not, this is a sign the house and property may have more than deferred maintenance needs.
  • When you walk into the house, do you feel like the floors are tilting or sagging? A bit of settling is normal for any historic house. If the sagging or tilting seems excessive, the house may have a structural issue that will have to be addressed.
  • Look at the finishes throughout the house. Is the woodwork painted or natural? Most Wisconsin houses built between 1880 and 1925 had natural woodwork. If the floors are carpeted, they may be concealing original hardwood floors underneath.

4. Evaluate the utilities. Evaluate the house’s utilities by doing the following:

  • Check the water pressure of every sink, tub, shower and faucet. If the pressure is good in most fixtures but low in just one or two, the water pressure is probably fine but some old pipes are constricted. If the water is trickling out in most of the fixtures, you may have to replace the water service entering the basement from the street as well as all the plumbing.
  • Visit the basement. Does the basement smell musty? Are there signs of water getting into the basement? Look at the foundation for cracks or bowing. If these conditions exist, you may have to spend some money to repair the foundation, get rid of mold or stop water from getting into the basement.
  • Look over mechanical systems. Do the furnace and water heater appear old, dirty or rusted? Does the wiring and plumbing look cobbled together? These issues can be a red flag that you will need to spend a lot of money to update the heating and electrical wiring.