People in the market for historic homes rarely talk in pragmatic terms. There is way too much romance in owning something that saw the birth of the nation, the Civil War, or the Industrial Revolution.
But before you drift away on a current of Americana, understand this — historic homes are old. They require upkeep not needed in newer models. They are not engineered with green design, and often cannot be updated to meet such standards. The wiring might be brittle and the paint might be toxic. And historic properties come with regulations that require a measure of stewardship to carry the history to the next owner.
Older homes, historic or not, mean more maintenance, says Joseph Mazotas, right, who owns an eponymous commercial real estate brokerage and management firm at 344 Nassau Street — itself a building of historical significance. And the cost of maintenance to such homes has increased.
Old buildings often feature materials and aspects that cannot be attended to by going to Home Depot and grabbing a piece of molding from the bin. Thus, specialists are often needed for what could be exacting re-creations of significant examples of early American architecture and crafstmanship.
Because of their construction, older homes sometimes cannot accommodate certain upgrades, such as central HVAC. If the house or office building is historic, you probably won’t be allowed to install solar panels, and the very density of the structure — which often means stone — could forbid any duct or wiring from being installed in or behind the walls.
Because advanced materials and techniques did not exist when a house went up in, say, the 1870s, buildings were what Mazotas refers to lovingly as “overbuilt.” Walls, particularly exterior ones, are heavy and thick because they had to be — they needed to be able to stand their ground whenever Mother Nature got bitchy.
The interiors of old homes also tend to be overbuilt, Mazotas says. His office building, which dates back, in part, to about 1700, has four fireplaces in it, plus a bevy of ornate woodwork, which was the order of the day in centuries past.
Mazotas’ building is considered historic mainly because of its west wall, believed to be a remnant of a structure built at the end of the 17th century. According to “Princeton Architecture,” a book published in 1980, the early buildings constructed here circa 1700 were never meant to be permanent structures — “although they were overbuilt like everything in the early days,” Mazotas says. As a result, few examples of Quaker architecture here remain, fewer still as a complete set of walls.
Around 1740 a two story section was added to 344 Nassau, and in the early 1900s a second story was added to the original 1700 section of the building, Mazotas says. In 1987 a large addition was added to the east side and rear of the two original buildings.
Also lending the site some historical cachet is the belief, reported in the Home News of New Brunswick at the beginning of this century, that 344 Nassau Street was connected to 342 Nassau via a tunnel believed to be part of the underground railroad.
Most of the building is now used as professional office space for four professional service businesses and it is the site of Coolvines, a specialty wine store.
Along with ornate interior craftsmanship and multiple fireplaces — the pre-20th century answer to central heating — the insides of old homes are small due to the truth behind the old adage that “people were a lot smaller back then.” Smaller people coupled with systems of heating that were not terribly efficient led to low ceilings, little rooms, and narrow stairwells.
But despite the combination of small spaces that require more work that costs more money, Mazotas says there is a healthy appetite for historic homes. “There is a substantial enough market to pay premiums on these properties,” Mazotas says. “Many old properties were on popular stagecoach lines that became our big roads. People will pay big for them.”
Mazotas, who grew up in the Trenton area, served in the Army in Vietnam before earning a bachelor’s in business from Trenton State College in the 1970s. He opened his firm in 1987. Real estate was in his blood, however, as that was his mother’s job. His father worked for the railroad.
Mazotas says the allure and drawback of properties from specific historic periods is that no one is making any more of them. Revolution-era homes and furniture are the pinnacle of historic properties in this country, and they are increasingly rare finds on the open market.
Right now, says Mazotas, there is a growing interest in houses built in the 1920s. These houses, solidly made and functional in design, are heavy on hardwoods and often are roomy enough for a small to medium-sized family. And they are more available than Victorian-era manors on winding country roads. Most homes in the ‘20s were built in clusters and neighborhoods and are often near urban amenities.
What makes a building historic isn’t necessarily its age, and a common misperception is that something significant had to happen, or a person of historical significance would have to have lived or been born in a building in order for it to be considered historic.
While it doesn’t hurt to know that Washington slept on your floor, historical significance is assigned mostly to places because they are, or contain, examples of original period work, Mazotas says. And, officially, the state Register of Historic Places will decide if a property is actually historic.
Sometimes an old property has already been renovated and much of its interior or facade has been replaced or altered before it was considered for historic preservation. But maybe the floors have never been changed. Or the porch. These surviving areas of the original house, says Mazotas, can be designated as historic, independent from the rest of the building. Owners can renovate around the historic aspects, though Mazotas says most people will try to keep the spirit of the structure as consistent as they can.
An example of an interior piece of historical importance is the Historical Society of Princeton’s second location — and anticipated new administrative headquarters — on Updike Farm. This farmhouse, recognized itself by the state Office of Historic Preservation, had an easement placed on the interior stairway, as it is an original to this mid-19th century building. The facilitator of the deal on the Historical Society’s behalf — Joseph Mazotas.
Buying or owning a property that has historical significance takes dedication and money, but there is help available. If you operate a business in a historic structure, as Mazotas does, the state offers tax incentives to owners who plan to maintain the integrity of the property in perpetuity.
Beware, however, that with government help comes government rules. You might be limited to the brand and color of the paint you can use, the contractors you can hire, and the grades and types of wood or stone. And if you get a federal historical preservation grant for a home — hard to come by and very restrictive — you might even have to open your house to the public a few times a year as a national historical site.
Typically, such grants are available only to historic preservation groups and nonprofits. At the state level, the Historic Preservation Trust offers grants for historic upkeep to home or property owners for locations listed in the New Jersey or National Register of Historic Places, or are certified to be eligible for the designation. Details are available from the state Department of Community Affairs at www.state.nj.us/dca.
Mazotas also notes that, while older homes are rife with charm, they are not necessarily friendly to older people. Old houses have a lot of steps (and not all at the same height), sockets in baseboards and floors, heavy doors, and little room to fit ramps or stair lifts. And if the house, or part of it, is historic, the maintenance of its integrity will win over your ailments.
Though a lot of people love an old home, “a lot” does not mean everybody, and resale could be an issue. Potential buyers might not be willing to commit to the necessary upkeep, or they might find the bedrooms and kitchen too small.
Or they don’t like the neighborhood. Remember, houses built in the early to middle of the 20th century are abundant in urban areas, and a lot of cities, particularly in the history-rich Northeast, have suffered the exodus of jobs. Many historic places in Trenton, for example, are not in neighborhoods that people with the necessary money to maintain an old house would want to inhabit.
When it comes down to it, Mazotas says, you own an old house because you love it, not because it will make you a fat profit in the open market. But if you have it in you to make a house a home, the results can be spectacular.