Home Design

Guide to Preserving Your Historic Home

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Many of us live in old homes and, while not all of them are historic, there are quite a few that are. In fact, since 1976, over 42,000 homes have been declared to be historic homes by the National Park Service. With such a large number of homes with some sort of historical significance, we decided to take a look at how to go about obtaining historic status for your home and how to preserve it’s historical integrity while still making sure it meets all of your needs for the modern world.

The Importance of Preservation

On a cultural level, historic buildings have played an important role in establishing the identity of America, the states in which we live, and/or our cities and towns. These buildings that helped to lay the foundation for our regional identity are worth preserving so as to protect that history and knowledge. These types of places also serve to promote tourism and bring money into your region.

On a more personal level, you can get money and a little extra protection for your home. The money comes in the form of both a 20 percent tax break if you’re home also generates income for you (i.e. if you charge for tours or your home is part of a local history tour) and your local design review board will also help you raise money for any renovations you’re making in the sake of preserving your home. Additionally, any government construction projects must be careful to not damage or encroach upon your home if it has the historic designation, protecting it from any new highways that may be built for instance.

Is My Home Historic or Just Old?

Before you start the process of having your home be designated as a historic site, you’ll want to make sure that your home is, in fact, historic and not just old. Besides typically needing to be at least 50 years old, your home also needs to meet one of a number of criteria, such as:


  • It could have played an important role in the history of the nation, your state, or local community. This typically means that either an important event took place in your home or a historically significant person lived there before you did.
  • Your home could have been designed by a famous architect or have been important to the development of your community.
  • Or perhaps your home was the first of its’ kind in the nation, your state, or your town.

How Do I Get a Historic Designation For My Home?

There are three different designations you can obtain for your historic home: federal, state, and local. Before you get started on the process, it’s important to know the difference between them.

  • Federal designations include the National Historic Landmarks Program (NHL) and a listing on the National Register for Historic Places, both of which are maintained by the National Park Service. NHL’s are typically places which have played an important role in the history of the nation or serve as an exceptional example of a particular engineering method/technique or building type. The Register is the official list of such structures. All sites designated as NHLs are placed on the Register.
  • Each state has their own State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) which handles historic designations at the state level. The criteria for historic designation at the state level are different depending on the state, so you’ll need to contact your local SHPO to find out if your home meets the qualifications.
  • At the local level, communities can enact a preservation ordinance so as to designate properties as being important to the local history or culture. This ordinance also includes a design review board, a private nonprofit group which will assist in the process of renovating and rehabbing the home while still maintaining the building’s historical or cultural significance. They will also help raise any funds necessary for such preservation assistance.

Both the NHL and the National Register will prevent federal work from threatening a historic site or building in any way (for instance, when the government is building a new highway both services will ensure the site will not be negatively impacted). They can also help make the owners of the property eligible for federal and local funds to be used for preserving and rehabbing the home so that that money doesn’t have to come directly out of your pocket.

In order for a home to be protected as an NHL, it must be nominated to the State Historic Preservation Office by either the homeowner, a local historical society, or the general public. Assuming everything goes according to plan, the following process, which can last two to three years, will see the SHPO approving the nomination, sending it to the National Register Review Board, who will in turn send it off to the National Register Review Board, who will review the nomination and then pass it along to the National Park Service if it’s approved. The Secretary of the Interior will then either approve or deny the nomination.

Should I Rehab or Restore My Home?

The first step to rehabbing or restoring your historic home is to do your research and figure out what makes the home historic in the first place. Whether your home was declared to be historic because of a famous person living there, a historic event taking place in the home, a feature that was first seen in your home, or whatever else, you want to make sure to preserve the integrity of that uniqueness.

After you figure out what makes your home unique, you’ll want to figure out whether you want to restore or rehab your home. Restoring your home means that you are doing your best to return your home to its original appearance, or at least the way it would have appeared when whatever historic event occurred in your home took place. Meanwhile, rehabbing your home means that you plan on modernizing the features of your home and making it functional for modern life while still striving to preserve its historic features.

Next, you’ll want to take a look at what changes have been made to your home over the years and evaluate whether or not they are important enough to the historical integrity of your home to keep or whether or not any new features blend well with the design of the home you’re attempting to either restore or rehab.

On the flip side of the coin, take care to make it clear that any additions you decide to add are just that: additions. You also don’t want to make any additions that would give the impression the home is from a different period than the one for which it was initially declared to be historic. Just as over-modernizing these sorts of features will compromise the historical integrity of the home, so too will the reverse.


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