I’m Thinking of Buying a Historic House: What Should I Know?

Waverley Oaks – Category 1 Landmark For many potential Palo Alto homebuyers, some of the homes they may be considering are listed as h...

Palo Alto
Waverley Oaks – Category 1 Landmark
For many potential Palo Alto homebuyers, some of the homes they may be considering are listed as historic.
What should these buyer’s consider?
The City of Palo Alto has several historic categories, so the first step is to find out which one applies to the property under consideration.  Category 1 and 2 homes are considered “significant structures,” while Category designations of 3 and 4 are considered “contributing structures.”  Category 1 and 2 structures are subject to review by the City’s Historic Resources Board for exterior changes only;  the City does not have purview over interior modifications.  
The City has a Historic Inventory that lists all historic or potentially historic structures within the City’s boundaries.  City staff at the Development Office, located on the corner of Hamilton and Bryant, will be able to assist in determining which Category designation applies to a particular property.  Homebuyers can also call our office at (650) 328-1818 and speak with me and I can determine the properties designation.
Does historic designation limit my ability to remodel the structure?
The City of Palo Alto, like most local municipalities, have adopted the National Park Service Standards for Rehabilitation as a standard for reviewing historic structures. http://www.nps.gov/hps/tps/standguide/rehab/rehab_standards.htm
These Standards were written knowing that changes to historic buildings are often necessary to accommodate more contemporary uses or lifestyles. They offer guidelines to help assist in making these changes without destroying the key defining features of the historic residence.  These Standards don’t prohibit change;  they try and guide sensitive solutions so alterations are compatible with the historic structure.
If homebuyers are considering purchasing a property with an idea toward modifying it and plan to work with an architect, that architect should be well-versed with the Standards and how they apply.
Our office offers homebuyers a free one-hour consultation to assist in examining your options or highlighting issues before purchase.
Are there any advantages to buying a historic house?
I never view historic designation as a negative; in fact, historic designation has allowed me to leverage the historic nature to gain zoning exemptions or leniency that would not be afforded a newer property.  For instance, older homes often don’t meet requirements for height or setback making adding additions sometimes awkward or difficult.  Historic designations have allowed us to have more lenient height and setback requirements for newer additions, adding square footage where otherwise it would have been prohibited.
Historic buildings are also afforded leniency from strict interpretations of modern building and energy requirements.  California has a special provision of the building code that applies to historic buildings that allow engineers some flexibility when trying to bring an older building up to code.  I never see historic designation as a negative;  in contrast it often allows architects and engineers a great deal of flexibility when developing solutions.
What else should I consider?
Many people love the look of older homes and the charming neighborhoods where they exist, but I find that most people are less than enthusiastic about the dark interiors and compartmentalized floor plans.  Many people want to live in homes that have more open floor plans, especially when it comes to the kitchen and family room that have become the heart of the house for today’s modern family.
Nearly all of our clients with older homes have a desire to have more light and a more open floor plan.  We have been able to successfully renovate scores of historic homes to accommodate a more open living environment while preserving key historic features.
When considering the purchase of an older home, you may also want to read my blog post titled “Five Things to Look For When Buying an Old House.” www.cawarchitectsblog.com.

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