Historic District Homes as Rentals

7 Replies

We just wend under contract for a duplex in a historic district. How difficult is it to own a property that has to meet historic guidelines, and what are the biggest parameters that must be met when making updates to the property? Do these apply to both indoor and outdoor remodels? Paint color? 

Not looking to change much on this property, as the previous owners did a lot of renovations recently. Just wondering how tricky it is to work with historic districts. Also, any things to watch for on homes 100+ years old? This property was built in 1915: beautiful, but definitely aged. Thanks!

Hi Cassandra,


We own properties in several different historic areas and you need to be aware that they do vary.  Even within a specific historic district there can be different zones which have different requirements.  There is probably a local Historical Area Review Board (HARB) or similar body that governs the requirements and reviews permits that may potentially impact elements that have historical value.  I would start with contacting the local building code office and ask about their process for issuing permits in designated historic districts.  Ask for specific contacts on the HARB and see if they have a website.  Depending on the scope of the exterior work, it may be beneficial to hire a local architect that is familiar with the specifics of the local requirements.... and they may have contacts to help ensure the review and close-out process goes smoothly.  Good luck!

I love old properties, and I am a preservationist at heart. My own house is an 1845 Greek Revival. But man, historic renovations are expensive and having a HARB or similar body will add a lot of time and expense to your property. You can make money on old houses, but you need to be prepared for a different level of expense than you are used to with cheap 50's and later construction.

These boards do serve a purpose but be prepared to have every single thing you do to the exterior of the house reviewed, questioned, and approved. No cheap vinyl replacement windows, no vinyl siding, no cost-effective pressure treated exterior decks, no hanging a ductless mini split off the front of the house, etc., etc. As mentioned above, get to know your local board and their rules and make sure you know what you are in for before you close the deal.

In general, they only have jurisdiction over the exteriors but they definitely can get involved in paint color, trim, siding, doors, windows, etc., etc.  And if you are buying an old gem in a historic district, you are crazy if you want to rip out or change any of the historic interior details even if you are allowed to. Those details are what makes the place more valuable to sell in the future, and many tenants also are willing to pay a premium to live in a nicely restored place with period details.

I wouldn't advise anyone to own a historic property if they don't love and treasure these old gems, inside and out. If your goal is to do a cheap renovation with big box materials, don't buy this place. 

@Jason Turgeon We do love all of the charm and history of this property. Unfortunately, the trend now is to paint over everything, including beautiful woodwork and trim. It's good to know how much we may need to prepare for everything we do to be reviewed. On another note, what have you done about lead paint in your home/properties?  We have a 13 month old and are expecting our 2nd next summer. This will be an owner-occupied property for us. Have you had any issues (legal or personal) come up in that field?

@Keith W. Thank you! I will definitely be reaching out to our board here in Sioux Falls this week to get a feel for their guidelines. Any suggestions on important topics to ask them about from a landlord/owner perspective?

@Cassandra Brown to hell with trends. Don't paint that woodwork! Get better lighting if you want it brighter inside.

Lead paint is tricky. Do you still have time in your inspection period to hire a lead inspector and find out the extent of the problem? The best advice is to delead your unit, according to the laws in your state. If you can't afford to do a full delead, do everything you can to minimize your children's exposure to lead. It's the dust and the small paint chips that are the real culprit, so deleaders worry about friction surfaces (painted doors and windows, painted trim that gets banged up, staircases, etc.) much more than they do about walls that just sit there. Of course, if you drill a bunch of holes in your wall and create dust, that is just as bad. Or if the paint on the walls is peeling and coming off, that's also bad. But if your house doesn't have painted doors, windows, windowsills, staircases, and trim, the main areas of concern for lead paint dust are minimized. 

We did not plan on having a kid, so we didn't delead our unit. Then we had a kid (oops!). We had replacement windows, so that isn't a concern. But the painted windowsills, doors, trim, and so on are all suspect (I never tested for lead, since given the age of the house we're certain to find it). We have blocked off his access to the windowsills with bookcases and other furniture so he can't gnaw on them. We try to be as clean as possible, including using a HEPA vac and wet mopping to capture any tiny lead dust particles. So the main areas of concern are 3 interior doors and a set of pocket doors, plus some baseboard. I have considered replacing the beautiful solid doors and trim and ripping out the pocket doors, but am hoping I don't have to since it will not only be expensive and disruptive but also detract from the historic nature of the house. Right now his blood level is 4 on whatever scale they use. Under 5 is considered safe. If it gets up to 10 the state will require us to delead the unit, at a cost of ~$10-20k. If it were to reach 45, he would need medical treatment to bring the levels back down. 

Obviously, we keep a close eye on it and I am keeping money put aside for deleading just in case until he is out of the danger zone (he's 21 months now). Deleading would mean we would have to move out of the house temporarily (including removing all the furniture in the impacted rooms) so I am really trying to avoid it - if you are at all considering deleading, do it before you move in! 

Besides the safety of your own children, you also need to worry about the safety of your tenants. You cannot legally discriminate against families with small children, so there is always the concern that you may need to make the house lead safe if a family moves in (or your tenants have a child). You should take the EPA 8-hour lead safe renovation course to learn the ins and outs if you will be doing work on the house yourself. 

EPA maintains a huge amount of info on lead paint and lists of approved deleading firms, so you can start there. A lot of lead work is done at the state level. South Dakota seems to be pretty hands off, so you might want to look at how other states do it. Rhode Island has a fairly common sense approach to the issue and lots of information for landlords on lead mitigation techniques that they consider acceptable besides the full removal or encapsulation of all lead paint.

@Cassandra Brown I owned a 100+ year duplex on Spring Avenue for many years. It was outside the historic district, so I didn't have to deal to with any restrictions. The building had gone through complete rehab, but what I learned is you never know what lurks under the walls. Very often when they rehab, they will leave older elements. It can be old pipes, old wiring, lead paint, asbestos, etc. That can be a source of problems. Many of those old duplex had stone foundations. They didn't install drain tile back then, so you water issues are common. We had snakes in the basement that found their way in through the old foundation. Chimney deterioration can be an issue. Roof construction was different back then, so often there isn't proper venting under the eves and on top for air flow. That reduces life of the roof. Overall my repair expenses were very high. That is just to be expected, so plan accordingly. 

I actually went through the process of listing a building on the historic registry many years ago in Garretson, SD. In your case it is a historic district, not a building, so even less restrictive. I don't think you will see much in the way of negative restrictions. South Dakota isn't very restrictive and federal guidelines are vague. Since it is a district, you just need to maintain the exterior in a historic manner. That mainly comes into play with significant alternations. 

As far as lead paint, in many cases it has been covered up by years of paint. Usually the concern is windows, doors, cabinets, where chipping or peeling is more likely. If any areas are peeling or chipping, I would just cover with a high adhesion primer and paint with a good enamel.

I would recommend a good inspection, including having the sewer line scoped. Realtors somethings don't advocate thorough inspections or they recommend "their guy". If you want a thorough inspector, us Hennies Home Inspection in Sioux Falls. Some realtors don't use them because they find too many problems.

I don't know much about historic districts, unfortunately, but you asked for any things to watch for: Lead has already been discussed here and it is unlikely to be a problem if there is no flaking or rubbing areas on the paint. You are buying a duplex, so you will have a tenant who might not be as concerned about it as you. They could cause some issues if they try to do some modifications. You should get a test done in your diligence.

Have your inspector pay close attention to the wiring. Those old houses will have knob and tube if not updated. Knob and tube usually works just fine but future buyers can be scared off and insurance companies sometimes get queasy about it. While they are looking around in the attic have them look for evidence of bats.

Basements like to flood. If you have a basement, make sure the inspector looks for evidence of water. This time of year, it'll be dry as a bone down there, but in the spring it can be a lake.

Some of those old houses will have remodels where they put in vermiculite insulation in the walls. This contains asbestos. As long as it is in the walls it is not a problem for health but once you do remodels it will be a major cost. Find out now if it is present. It will take putting a hole in the wall(s) to find out so make sure that the seller is comfortable with it. Don't just inspect the attic, vermiculite may not be there. Another place that they put asbestos is in floor tiles. Same deal here: as long as you don't disturb them its probably not a problem. Hopefully you have all wood floors in your prospective property and don't have to worry about this.

If this is a place you intend to live long-term these issues are not as acute. Since it is a duplex, you may have tenants that are concerned about it. Find out now to avoid problems later. Good luck. Those old houses can be beautiful and more solid than the newer ones if they are well cared for.