Savvy homeowners often renovate their homes to make them more appealing and increase their value. But there’s one quality that no contractor can install: a historic background.
A survey by Realtor.com found that homes with either a state, local, or federal historic designation sold for 5.6 percent more than similar-sized homes in the same ZIP code. Central New Jersey is full of beautiful old homes from Revolutionary times and before, and includes several historic districts where homeowners must follow restrictive guidelines that preserve the look of a neighborhood.
In places like Princeton, it’s nearly impossible to throw a rock without hitting a historically significant building, and the preservation of history frequently complicates development or redevelopment efforts.
For example, in July, the Princeton Historic Preservation Commission gave permission for a developer to turn the old post office building on Palmer Square into the new location of Triumph Brewery. The project preserves important elements of the old post office including a mural on the inside, but the architect complained to reporters that the approval process was proceeding at a “glacial” pace. The project still isn’t completed.
Despite the red tape imposed by the governmental guardians of history, important old buildings can be worth the trouble when it comes time to sell them.
“I’ve sold many homes in historic districts,” said Shelly Bryant-Reed, owner of SBR Realty in Ewing (www.sbrrealtypros.com). “Homes located in a historic neighborhood appreciate in value.”
Reed, a Trenton native, lives in a historic district herself and uses the designation as a selling point for her clients.
A historic district is one that includes a group of buildings, properties, or sites that have been designated historically or architecturally significant and relevant to the community, state, or the country. The federal government designates historic districts through the U.S. Department of Interior. Bryant Reed said homes located in a nationally, regionally or locally designated historic districts are better maintained and closely monitored by the state and city designation commission. In addition, historic homes must adhere to strict federal guidelines.
Federally designated historic districts are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There are about 150 such districts listed in the National Register of Historic Places in New Jersey. There are eight historic districts in Trenton alone: Berkeley Square, Ewing Carroll, Fisher Richey Perdicaris, Greenwood Hamilton, Hanover Academy, Mill Hill, South Warren, and the State House.
According to a study done by the Department of Urban Planning and Design Center in Tucson, Arizona, a comparative study of historic districts in New Jersey, Maryland, Texas, Indiana, Georgia, and Colorado showed consistent economic returns for homeowners when they buy historic. Homes with local or national designation can add as much as 20 percent to assessed property values within four years. National and state-level designations also convey more prestige and distinction to an individual property and community.
Homeowners in historic districts are often limited by regulations when it comes to making significant changes or repairs on their properties, said Richard Lawson, president of the Society for Historic American Homes — a national grass roots organization based in Owings, Maryland, that promotes owning homes in historic districts. “Depending on the rules of your local commission, you may not be allowed to make repairs or changes to the property, even if they are for safety reasons,” Lawson said. “It’s only after you begin to get into something that you realize how restrictive or flexible they’re going to be with the zoning.”
For example, last year, Princeton’s town council voted to add the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood to its list of historic districts. The neighborhood, which stretches from Paul Robeson Place to Birch Avenue, was a place where the town’s black residents lived between the 1800s and early 1900s when Princeton was segregated. However, many residents opposed the designation because it would potentially increase property values, and therefore property taxes, and add to the cost of home repairs.
Trenton resident Hattie Wilson, 36, purchased her first home in the historic inner-city neighborhood close to where she grew up, in part because it was located in a historic district. Wilson lives in the State House Historic District and bought her century old home in 2012. She says the mortgage on the home was an affordable $750, and she wanted to increase its resale value by doing some remodeling.
“I was able to make major renovations to my home — including installing a new roof, fence, and updating the bathroom,” she said. “I had to get approval and inspection from the city due to the historic designation.” Wilson said the renovations increased the value of her home by more than $20,000. She credits Bryant-Reed with helping her navigate the home buying process. “She encouraged me to look at properties located in city designated historic districts because they are higher quality homes,” she said. “I encourage anyone considering buying home to seriously consider buying a home in a historic district,” she said. “Buying a home establishes a base for wealth and secure future for my children.”