Rebuilding History- Historic Districts & Renovations (With Video)

Rebuilding History- Historic Districts & Renovations (With Video)

Real estate, like most things, starts to deteriorate with age.  The majority of homes in this country are built to last a minimum of 60 years.  This doesn’t mean that houses older than 60 years start to lose value based on age alone.  Some people are more interested in the “fine wine” of real estate- homes in a historic district.


Here’s a quick video from the field summarizing a few points form this article.

What is a Historic District?


Real estate Appraisal Historic District

People still take horse-drawn tours through the historic district of Charleston.

The first ever historic district was established in 1931 in the city of Charleston, California.  The city created a Board of Architectural Review (the BAR), tasked with: 

 “the preservation and protection of the old historic or architecturally worthy structures and quaint neighborhoods which impart distinct aspect to the City of Charleston.”

 The specifics of these rules vary from place to place, but they ultimately work to achieve the same goal.  Historic districts exist to preserve the character and feeling of an older neighborhood- to help it maintain it’s vintage feel. 

I Work in Real Estate.  What Does This Mean For Me?


One side of this alley is in a historic district, the other is not.  Can you guess which is which?

One side of this alley is in a historic district, the other is not. Can you guess which is which?

Historic districts are created to define an area where several new codes and restrictions are set in place to preserve an area’s character.

Let’s say we’re an agent showing a client a lovely little townhome in Georgetown.  While they love the property, you overhear them discussing plans to paint the house pink.

This isn’t a condo.

 There isn’t a home owners association telling you what you can and can’t do with your home.

Except for the historic district codes.



We’ll state again that these codes vary from place to place, but here are a couple of common rules:

1. The Paint.

Painting your home doesn’t require a building permit, making it hard to enforce for a historic district.  Only about 25% of districts will actually make the effort to review your paint.  As long as it’s not anything crazy,  aside from a little shame from the neighborhood, painting is usually acceptable.

2. Windows and Shutters.

The windows and shutters are usually a give away on a colonial-style home.  Most historic districts require damaged or missing shutters to be repaired or replaced.  in the Old Town of Alexandria Virginia for example, shutters in historic districts must be custom made, single-pane and wooden.  This usually means a higher energy bill, due to heating/cooling a home with single-pane windows.

3. The Roof.

Historic districts usually care about your roof, and want it to comply to the entirety of the neighborhood.  Using our example in Virginia, Old Town homes require slate, raised-steam wooden or metal shingles- which can cost quite a bit.  speaking of costs…

4. Insurance.

Get ready for this one.  So now we’ve seen that some of these rules require using customized and specific materials when building your home.  These materials are often much more expensive.  Insurance companies don’t like that.  Some insurance companies don’t even cover properties in historic districts, and those that due usually require higher rates based on the complexity of the historic district’s restrictions.

5. Getting Additions.

In some Maryland/Virginia plantations or homes closer to colonial battlegrounds, historic districts don’t permit any sort of building on a property at all. ( Click here to learn more.) 

Adding square footage in a historic district is impossible in some areas, and difficult in others.  Some districts may allow window boxes, but not porches.  Some may allow additional stories, but no changes to ground level.

Regardless of the rules, historic districts almost always require approval before making square foot modifications to a property.  Some have specific rules for different rooms in the house even, such as specific bathroom plumbing or bedroom codes. (For more on bedrooms click here.)

In Conclusion…

"Stupid district codes. The pool would've gone right there..."

“Stupid district codes. The pool would’ve gone right there…”


We’ve only scratched the surface as to how complicated (or simple) district rules can be.  This is just the worst of it though- around the country, many historic districts are very accepting when making modifications to a property.  Whenever you look at a house, as a buyer or seller, make sure you know if it’s a historic property.  If you don’t find out until it’s too late, your plans to build a backyard pool could fall apart all too soon.



Washington Appraiser Jonathan Montgomery is the founder and president of the The Real Estate Appraisal Group, and has been a real estate professional since 1998. He has been a broker, an investor, and currently works full-time  as an appraiser.  He enjoys handling real estate appraisals in Washington D.C., Southern Maryland, and Northern Virginia.



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  1. Thank you for sharing your take on historic districts in the Washington D.C. area. That is interesting that the windows in some areas are required to be single pane. In our area, the windows have to be custom quality and wood framed, but they can also be highly efficient.

  2. Very informative and interesting. Remodeling in historic districts can be a challenge however replicating the historical building materials and techniques provides great insight into the past and keeps the past alive for the future. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Good article on historic districts in the DC area. Historic districts can be extremely costly and limiting as summarized. Thanks for the information.

  4. Great info Jonathan! You are clearly have a great deal of knowledge in appraising historic properties. I would highly recommend The Real Estate Appraisal Group if you need a valuation for a historic home or any other real estate in the Washington DC/Georgetown area!


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