Getting a Historic Designation for Your Home

Have a home with history? Getting a historic designation highlights your home’s special story.

Historic designations are available at the national, state, and local levels. Image: Duncan Walker/Photodisc/Getty Images

A historic designation for your home takes a lot of time and research, but the payoff can be grand: getting official recognition of your home’s architectural style or its ties to events or people who were important in the past.

The good news about getting a historic designation for your home is that it’s easier than doing it for your entire neighborhood. But you may be better off taking the extra time to designate the neighborhood because studies suggest home values rise when an entire neighborhood is declared historic.

Want to get your home designated as historic? Consider these issues:

Know what “historic” means

Is the house a unique architectural style? Did someone famous live there? Did an important event occur there?

Historic generally means at least 50 years old, but age alone doesn’t make a home historic. Does your home still look historically accurate? Did significant events or important people live there? Having historical significance helps earn your home a historic designation.

Some newer structures qualify if they’re associated with major events, such as the Memphis, Tenn., motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, says Christopher Eck, a historic preservation specialist with the U.S. General Services Administration in Atlanta.

Choose the historic designation you want

The National Register of Historic Places, administered by the National Park Service, is prestigious and imposes no restrictions on what you can do with the house.

If you want stricter rules about what can and can’t be done to the house—and you don’t mind having to answer to the local preservation board—consider a local designation.

State historic designations offer a third option. They can mirror the National Register or be slightly more strict, but are typically not as restrictive as local historic designations.

Set aside time for research

If you want to tackle the historical research required to get a designation, plan to spend at least five hours a week for two months working on the project.

You’ll need to document the home’s architecture and why that’s unique, take photos, research the deed and who owned the property, and why the home is historic. Local and state historic preservation officials are good sources of information and research assistance.

Costs vary. If you hire a preservation consultant, it could cost several thousand dollars. If you do it yourself, you’ll save the fee. Photo processing will be your main expense.

Property insurance

Regardless of which designation you want to get, be sure to check with your insurance agent. You’ll pay more for the policy’s replacement portion because the cost to rebuild an old home is much higher.

Replacing older features such as leaded glass, heart of pine floors, solid wood doors, double-hung windows, and unique architectural style means more expensive materials and hiring craftsmen familiar with them, according to insurance experts.

Rebuilding a pre-1945 home can cost at least 20% more than a newer home, said Scott Spencer, Chubb Personal Insurance’s worldwide appraisal and loss prevention manager in New Jersey.

Chubb is a preferred insurance partner for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Other companies that specialize in historic home insurance coverage include Clyde B. Foss Agency, based in Moultonboro, N.H., MiddleOak, in Middletown, Conn., and the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co., in Novato, Calif.

Refinance or sell

Once you’ve got your designation, be sure you get credit for it when refinancing or selling your home. Not all appraisers are familiar with historic properties. Try to deal with a bank that handles a lot of historic properties. They’re more likely to use appraisers who know the historic housing market.

Seek neighborhood designation

If you’re seeking historic designation with an eye toward raising your property’s value, you may want to seek designation of the surrounding neighborhood.

While it’s easier to get a historic designation for your home than for your whole neighborhood, creating a historic district that covers a wider area will likely do more to increase your individual property value, says Eck.

That’s because the designation of your home depends in part on the context of the neighborhood. So if your next-door neighbor tears down an equally historic but undesignated home, the context of the neighborhood has changed, Eck says.

From an appraisal viewpoint, the market value of each home in a block of equally historic and similar homes is enhanced if none of them has been demolished or remodeled, says appraiser Anthony Reynolds of LaCrosse, Kan.

A stand-alone historic home in a non-historic neighborhood may not be appraised as accurately as if it were in a designated district that’s better known to appraisers who specialize in historic valuations, he says.

Getting a stand-alone historic designation may give your home cachet, but it might not add value. In real estate, location trumps history.