What to Consider When Eyeing a Charming Home in Historic Districts

What to Consider When Eyeing a Charming Home in Historic Districts

  • Alissa Christie
  • 11/30/23

If you're considering purchasing an older home in a historic district, you're likely attuned to the allure of bespoke craftsmanship, timeless design, and a distinctive neighborhood vibe. These attributes often intersect in landmark districts, revered pockets of real estate where the past resonates around every corner, along every block. Newburyport's downtown historic district is one of the most celebrated such examples in Massachusetts, stretching over two miles from Marlboro Street to Ashland Street along the Merrimack River and featuring over 2,500 historic structures.

But as with any high-end investment, buying a home in an iconic location is indeed very rewarding, but it also comes with its own set of ownership challenges. Let's explore the critical factors involved in such a purchase and what to consider when eyeing a charming home in a historic district.

The appeal of historic districts

First, let's acknowledge the magnetic charm of historic districts. Think cobblestone streets, charming Colonial, Federal Georgian, or Victorian homes, and a sense of community and continuity that many modern neighborhoods lack. Beyond the houses, the best-preserved districts represent a particular time and place — a capsule of the past that showcases what life was like then, even as the modern world forges ahead atop its weathered streets.

In addition, the mere exclusivity of owning a piece of history attracts those who appreciate what came before and preserve it for future generations.

What makes a home 'historic'?

In real estate, "historic" is not just a casual term to identify homes of a particular vintage or age. A historic home generally fits into one of the following categories:

  • Listed on or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places
  • Identified as contributing to a historic district or carrying historical value on its own accord
  • An exceptional example of a specific architectural style or time period
A local or national preservation body typically confers designation as a historic property and comes with its own set of perks and regulations.

The benefits of investing in history

In a world increasingly dominated by the contemporary, owning a historic home is an aesthetic and financial statement. These esteemed residences offer far more than the sum of their historic bricks and timeworn beams. The benefits of owning such a storied property are manifold, and they extend beyond mere curb appeal. Here's a closer look at the compelling advantages that make historic homes an invaluable asset in a high-end real estate portfolio.

Tax benefits

Historic home ownership may come with a substantial initial investment, but there are financial incentives that can lessen the monetary burden of restoring and maintaining historic homes and reduce the overall cost of ownership. For example, Massachusetts offers owners a 20% tax credit for historic structure rehabilitation, and Newburyport sponsors funding through its Community Preservation Act.

Preservation of value

Historic homes tend to retain or even increase in value over time, thanks partly to their limited supply and intrinsic character. The rich accruement of age adds a layer of desirability that contemporary homes can't match. This makes these properties not just homes but also durable assets that can provide financial stability.

Income potential

For the resourceful owner, a historic home could also be a lucrative investment beyond the basic rental home. With the proper zoning and permissions, some owners have turned parts of their historic homes into commercial venues for events like weddings, corporate retreats, or bed-and-breakfast establishments, further augmenting their investment's income potential.

Architectural significance

One of the most obvious benefits of owning a historic home is the unparalleled architectural detail and prestige it offers. From intricate woodwork and moldings to vintage fireplaces, every design element is a testament to the craftsmanship of a bygone era. These are features not easily replicated, which offer an authentic experience that, for many, is akin to living within a work of art. Even better if the architectural masterpiece is a landmark structure or a dwelling with a rich history or once famous residents.

Maintenance and upkeep

Owning a historic home is regularly likened to stewardship — preserving a piece of history for future generations. But even as a local or state preservation board may govern the house and land, any reasonable improvements and ongoing maintenance are your responsibility. And it can be an immense challenge to maintain the property in vintage condition.

Specialist skills required

The artistry that went into building historic homes was often highly specialized, with artisans and craftsmen dedicating years, if not decades, to perfecting their skills. Modern-day equivalents of these craftsmen are few and far between, and their services come at a premium. From intricate woodwork to antique plumbing fixtures to hand-painted tiles, each element needs a skilled hand for maintenance and repair.

Hard to procure materials

Many historic homes feature materials that were common at the time but have since become rare or obsolete. For instance, certain types of stone or wood may no longer be available or only sourced from specialized suppliers. If your goal is to ensure a period-accurate home, the cost and effort to procure such materials can be substantial and factored into your long-term maintenance plans.

Documentation and research

An underappreciated and often overlooked aspect of preserving the historical integrity of your home involves extensive research to understand the materials, techniques, and architectural nuances that are true to the home's era. Compiling documentation related to the house can help solve its historical lineage, including past blueprints, materials lists, and even historical photographs to guide your restoration and maintenance efforts.

Systems and infrastructure

Utility systems such as plumbing and electrical setups in historic homes can be particularly challenging. Not only are they often outdated, but they may also need to meet modern safety codes. Upgrading these systems without compromising the home's historic integrity can be a complicated task that requires the expertise of specialists. Fixing or updating these systems can require a sizable financial investment, as well.


When you own a historic home, any modification, repair, or addition is not solely your decision; it's often subject to regulatory approval. You may have to work with conservation architects and specialized contractors to ensure your home's historical integrity remains intact. Replacing windows, installing a new roof, or even repainting the façade may require a nod from your local historic preservation commission — for Newburyport real estate, that group is the Community Preservation Committee.

Understanding the original vision

Before you make any changes or undertake any preservation work, it's crucial to understand the original architectural concept that guided the construction of your home. What era does it belong to? Federal? Georgian? Colonial Revival? Understanding the style and its unique attributes forms the foundation upon which authentic preservation rests.

Navigating legal terrain

Historic homes often come under the purview of local, state, or federal preservation laws. In many instances, alterations, renovations, or even minor repairs must be vetted and approved by a designated historic preservation commission. Failing to secure necessary permissions could lead not only to hefty fines but could also compromise the historic status of your property.

Collaborating with experts

Authentic preservation requires a consultative approach. It often involves working with experts, including historians, conservation architects, and even archeologists. These professionals can help you make educated decisions that align with both the historical essence and structural integrity of your home.

Material integrity and craftsmanship

Unlike routine maintenance, which might allow for material substitutions, true preservation requires that you stick as closely as possible to the original materials used in the home. Whether it's a particular kind of marble, a specific wood finish, or even period-appropriate glass in your windows, maintaining material integrity is non-negotiable for authentic preservation. Craftsmanship also matters, and finding artisans skilled in historical techniques can be challenging and rewarding.

Are you ready to learn more about Newburyport real estate?

Purchasing a historic home in Newburyport's vaunted historic district offers a unique lifestyle that allows an owner to celebrate and preserve history while establishing a legacy of their own. But beyond the immediate aesthetic appeal lies the complexities of financial commitment and rewards and the ongoing stewardship and preservation of cherished Newburyport's real estate.

To ensure you identify the right property for your investment and preservation goals, contact Alissa Christie today to begin your historic district home search. Her experience and expertise in Newburyport real estate are invaluable as you navigate the area's historic homes and ensure your property search and acquisition are successful and deeply rewarding.

*Header photo courtesy of Alissa Christie

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I am dedicated to helping you navigate the process as seamlessly as possible doing everything I can to help you buy the right home at the right price, or get top dollar for what is probably your biggest financial investment.

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