What to Know When Buying a Heritage Home

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Fallen in love with a charming, older home with years’ worth of character? While most of us relish the idea of owning a piece of history, if the real estate in question comes with an official “Heritage Home” designation, there are some caveats that would-be buyers should be aware of.

Designer Designations

There are various types of heritage designation, and reasons for being recognized as such. A building might be designated because it’s a rare example of a particular architectural style, has a direct association with a person or organization with cultural significance, or simply because it’s an old home that’s retained most of its original features.

There are municipal, provincial, and federal levels of designation but, typically, residential homes are registered by a local heritage committee. During the designation process, a “Description of Heritage Attributes” will be created that outlines the specific attributes that should be protected for the future.

This Old House

The first thing to keep in mind when buying a heritage home is that they are almost always old houses. And, depending on when the building last changed hands, the wiring, plumbing, and HVAC systems may require upgrades.

If the building is a century old or more, the foundation will likely be made up of stacked stones. Before finished a basement in a home like that, you’ll want to install waterproofing and a modern weeping tile system to avoid water damage.

Heritage designations are also relatively new, so the home may have undergone significant renovations and additions prior to being designated historic. This can lead to potential problems where the newer materials meet the original ones, or multiple roof peaks and valleys that can potentially lead to water damage.

Having a home inspection to discover any is usually a good idea with any home purchase, but with a historic home it’s essential. Interview a few different inspectors to find one who’s familiar with homes built in the same era as the one you’re looking at. Ideally, the inspector will also be familiar with heritage renovation restrictions so you can get a clear picture of potential renovation costs.

The Dos and Don’ts of Buying a Heritage Home

Once a home is designated Heritage, you’ll require approval by the local heritage committee before you can undertake any major renovations. General maintenance and repairs – such as repainting exterior windows or replacing roofing shingles – are generally exempt from the approval process.

Related read: 6 Home Renovations That Will Decrease the Value of Your Home

In most cases, heritage designations only apply to the exterior features of a home –windows, doors, porches, columns, and so on. On the interior, historic staircases are the feature most likely to be designated as heritage elements, though sometimes intricate coffered ceilings or even walls with old wallpaper or murals can be cited. Regardless, you’ll still be able to modernize any plumbing, wire, or other mechanical systems.

“You’re not going to be limited in being able to update kitchens and bathrooms or things like that,” says Marian deWever, broker of record for Home & Company Real Estate, in Stratford, Ont. “The approach of our local heritage committee is always practical; common sense prevails.” Even if the interior is protected, it’s possible to upgrade plumbing and wiring without damaging the walls.

On the other hand, if you need to repair one of the designated components, you’ll have to apply to the committee and get approval for any replacement materials. This adds extra time and effort for a contractor to do the work, and may mean paying a premium to source acceptable materials.

“There’s a lot of extra work involved, so the quote might be twice as much [as replacing comparable windows in a non-designated home],” says William Bickley, owner of Best Windows, Doors, and Siding in Stratford, Ont.

Whenever he’s hired to replace the windows in one of the many heritage homes in town, Bickley says he tries to salvage as much of the original trimwork as possible. When he can’t, he relies on a local millwork shop that specializes in replicating historic trim patterns and designs.

Bickley also warns, “If you do it wrong, [the heritage committee] can make you tear the whole thing down.”
Most municipalities offer Heritage Property Tax Relief programs to help offset these additional costs, and there are also government grants and loans to help owners restore their historic properties.

Resale Value

“There’s a perception that heritage designation can be limiting, but that’s because some people don’t have enough information to make an informed decision,” says deWever. “We don’t find it to be a limiting thing in any way. Buyers looking at a heritage home are likely attracted to the property for those heritage elements.”

When the time comes for you to sell your heritage home, having the “Description of Heritage Attributes” report on hand, along with details about any renovation work you undertook as the owner will help dispel any myths and concerns.


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