Why Buy a Historic House | Wisconsin Historical Society

General Information

Why Buy a Historic House?

Why Buy a Historic House | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeBeaver Dam map

Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. In this aer·i·alaerial map of Beaver Dam note the way in which the streets were organized in a compact manner. Source: WHS - Archives. View the original source document: WHI 11389

You can probably think of several reasons why you might want to buy, live in and restore a historic house. You might want to live in an older house simply because you appreciate its historic architectural design and craftsmanship. You might want to live in an old house because it evokes childhood memories of a fond family home. Or you might be drawn to the intangible quality that an old building imparts — something you can’t quite explain that pulls you in. But you may be surprised to learn there are several practical reasons for buying and restoring a historic house. Your efforts to rehabilitate and preserve a historic house can also contribute to the well-being of your community.   

Practical Reasons

Historic houses typically offer many aesthetically pleasing qualities, but they also offer some practical benefits. Consider the following practical reasons to buy, live in and restore a historic house:

  • Convenient location. One reason to live in a house in an older neighborhood is its proximity to amenities, including mass transit, sidewalks and parks. Older houses are often located in a city’s earliest residential neighborhoods, so they are within walking distance of the downtown core. If your community has invested in downtown revitalization efforts, you will also likely benefit from nearby cultural and entertainment options.
    EnlargeClay tile roof

    Clay tile roofs are one example of a roof material that has a life span of 100 years. Source: Phil Thomason.

  • Longevity. You may choose to buy a historic house due to its longevity. Historic buildings often last longer than new buildings. Houses constructed before World War II were generally built with old-growth lumber, which is stronger than lumber from new-growth forests. Old-growth wood is scarce and expensive today. Older houses were also constructed with interior plaster walls, load-bearing brick walls and architectural detailing such as terra cotta and cast concrete. Due to their high-quality construction, houses constructed before 1920 are often as energy efficient as new houses. With proper maintenance, your historic house could last indefinitely.
  • Higher property values. By following best practices for historic preservation — including maintenance, repair and rehabilitation — you (and your neighbors) will benefit from higher property values. Nationwide studies have consistently demonstrated that a historic designation increases the value of real estate in a neighborhood. The property owners in a historic district generally enjoy higher property values than those in adjacent areas with similar character. A neighborhood is the sum of its parts, and the value and character of each property contributes to that of the whole neighborhood. The deterioration of your (or a neighbor’s) historic house could also result in a decrease in property value.
  • Eligibility for tax credits. Your rehabilitation work on a historic house can be supported financially by the state tax-credit program. A 25% state tax credit is available for qualified rehabilitation projects on historic homes.

Community Benefits

EnlargeStone house

Robert M. Bashford House, 1855

Madison, Wisconsin. This historic house is located within downtown Madison. Source: WHS - State Historic Preservation Office. View the property record: AHI 16061

Your choice to buy, live in and preserve a historic house can also benefit your community in the following ways:

  • Helps to define your community and neighborhood. Cities and towns differentiate themselves, in part, through unique architectural and historic resources. The historic buildings and landscape of your community distinguish it from all other places. This individualism is important, because people are attracted to the visually unusual, different or outstanding features of an area. The quality and condition of the buildings and neighborhoods in your community will convey your community’s self-image. By preserving your historic house, you will help to perpetuate the charm, nostalgia and cohesive character of your neighborhood. 
  • Represents a commitment to sustainability. Your choice to restore an old house represents a commitment to community sustainability. The principle of sustainability means that a community should meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Historic preservation is the ultimate form of recycling — it promotes the continued use of existing houses rather than demolition and replacement with new construction. Historic buildings contain “embodied energy,” which is the total of the energy spent to build a structure. This energy includes raw material extraction; transportation, manufacture and distribution of building materials; and construction. This energy remains embodied in a building as long as it stands. Preserving historic buildings conserves this embodied energy and greatly reduces the need for new materials. The “greenest” house is one that already exists.
  • Protects your community’s investments. Your preservation efforts help to protect taxpayers’ investments in your community. When you choose to preserve your historic house, you are making a commitment to taxpayers’ investments — including your own investments — in your neighborhood’s infrastructure. It is far less costly for your community to use and maintain the existing infrastructure, such as roads and sidewalks, lights, water and sewer lines, schools and fire stations, than to expand infrastructure to new development on the edge of your city. New infrastructure projects are usually financed at the expense of existing neighborhoods. Countless studies have proved: the costs of sprawl surpass the corresponding tax revenue from new development.
  • Creates jobs in your community. Whether you undertake a large rehabilitation project or a small repair on your historic house, your project helps to create work and income in your community. Although new construction is often viewed as an indication of economic health, the rehabilitation of existing buildings actually creates thousands of construction jobs annually. In a typical new construction project, about half of the expenditures are for labor and half for materials. In a rehabilitation project, it is more typical that 60% to 70% of expenses will go toward labor costs. The money you spend on local labor for your rehabilitation project will stay in your community.