What does it mean to live in a historic district?

Whether the house you are interested in is within a historic district or not, it is always good advice to investigate all aspects of the neighborhood before purchasing a home. But, purchasing a home in a historic district has its own set of particulars to consider. These include, “Is the historic district a local historic district or is it a state or national one?“ “Is the house I like considered to be contributing to the district?” “Will I have to get permission to paint my door and plant a tree?” “Is there anything good about living in a historic district?” In reality, there are many misconceptions about what it means to live in a historic district, and the benefits historic districts can provide are numerous but unknown to many.


Historic districts are designations of a group of buildings that together form a historically or architecturally significant area. The designation is intended to preserve the character of the significant area, but not freeze it in time. The first historic district was created in Charleston, South Carolina in 1931.


Historic Districts that are listed on the National Register of Places are honorary and come with no restrictions as to what a homeowner can do to his or her property. Being in a National Register Historic District does, however, allow for the use of historic rehabilitation tax credits and other tax benefits.


Most state governments have a list that is similar to the National Register of Historic Places that can have similar benefits including tax incentives. The only historic districts that require homeowners to get permission before they alter the appearance of their houses, are local historic districts.


Local historic districts are created by local governments that make land-use decisions such as zoning regulations and overlay districts. Depending on the local ordinance or state laws, property owners’ permission may be required to create a historic district; however all owners are notified and given the chance to share their opinions.


For most minor changes to buildings in local historic districts, homeowners can consult with the local preservation planner and receive prompt permissions. Major changes however, require homeowners to get approval from a historic preservation commission or architectural review board.


Architectural review boards review all applications and compare them to a set of pre established guidelines. Members of local architectural review boards are tasked with using the local guidelines to assist homeowners in making the appropriate alterations to the exterior of their homes that maintain the character of the historic district, not to prevent them from making any alterations.


Local Review boards are able to veto changes that do not adhere to the guidelines, which can be frustrating for some people, however ninety-nine percent of all applications to architectural review boards receive approval. It is the 1 percent of difficult cases that always seem to make the news and convince people that they have to jump through hoops to make any changes to their properties. Good architectural review boards are able to work out difficult solutions and find creative ways to make the homeowners happy and also abide by the guidelines.


So, what are the benefits of living in a local historic district? While living in a national or state historic district can provide tax benefits, living in a local historic district provides real protection for you and your neighbors. Studies have also shown that houses in historic districts have higher resale values than houses in similar neighborhoods. Additionally, living in a historic district means that you are going to have neighbors who have a strong sense of community and care about you and your property, because they care about the neighborhood as a whole.


Many people love living in historic districts, but it’s not for everyone. Talk with your real estate agent, local planning departments and local historical societies to find out more about historic districts to make sure you understand all of the aspects before buying your new home.


If you have additional questions about what it means to live in a historic district, please feel free to reach out to us at info@preservationvirginia.org.