What Are the Best Practices for Acquiring and Developing Real Estate in Historic Areas?

Historic areas hold an undeniable charm that attracts both property buyers and developers. Their rich history, unique architecture, and cultural significance make them highly appealing. Nevertheless, acquiring and developing properties in these areas is not a simple process. It involves compliance with local, state and national preservation rules, understanding tax implications, and carefully planning development to respect local community values. Here is a guide to help you navigate the acquisition and development of real estate in historic areas.

Understanding the Significance of Historic Preservation

Before delving into the intricacies of acquiring and developing properties in historic areas, one must fully comprehend the importance of historic preservation. Historic preservation refers to the practice of maintaining and preserving buildings, structures, objects, or sites that hold historical significance.

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Not only does historic preservation protect the physical realm of history, but it also safeguards the intangible cultural elements associated with these places. Historic properties create a palpable connection to the past and offer an opportunity to learn about our ancestors’ lives, cultures, and stories.

Historic preservation is a civic responsibility. We must respect historic buildings’ distinct character while ensuring that they remain functional and relevant for the present and future generations.

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The Process of Acquiring Historic Property

When acquiring historic properties, it is crucial to understand the specific rules that apply to these types of properties. Historic properties are often subject to regulations at the local, state, and national levels.

Start by researching laws related to historic property in your local area or state. Municipalities will often have specific zoning ordinances, building codes, and regulations for historic areas. Many cities have historic preservation committees that oversee changes to historic properties and districts.

Check if the property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Properties on this list are recognized by the federal government for their historical significance and are subject to specific regulations.

A thorough inspection of the building is essential before the purchase. Unlike modern properties, historic homes and buildings often have unique, older features that require special care. Inspect the property for any structural issues, outdated systems, and any potential hazards.

The Role of Tax Incentives in Historic Development

Acquiring and developing real estate in historic areas can be costly due to the unique nature of these properties. Fortunately, there are numerous tax incentives available to help offset these costs.

The Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives program is one such program, offering a 20% tax credit for the certified rehabilitation of historic structures. This program encourages the preservation and continued use of historic buildings by offering a financial incentive for property developers and owners.

Many states also offer their tax credits or deductions for historic preservation. Depending on the state, these incentives might be available for either owner-occupied homes or income-producing properties.

Balancing Development and Preservation

Once you’ve acquired a historic property, the challenge lies in developing it in a way that respects its historical significance, satisfies preservation regulations, and meets modern living standards.

The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties offers guidance on how to approach the development of historic buildings. These standards emphasize preserving distinctive historical features, repairing rather than replacing worn elements, and making any necessary changes in a manner that doesn’t destroy the building’s historical character.

It’s also important to build a good relationship with your local preservation commission or board and the community. These groups can be valuable resources in understanding what changes will be accepted and how to navigate the approval process.

The Impact on the Community

Acquiring and developing real estate in historic areas has a profound impact on the local community. When done right, it can revitalize neighborhoods, boost local economies, and help preserve a community’s unique history and character.

However, development must be done thoughtfully. Excessive or inappropriate development can disrupt the community’s historical character and lead to gentrification, pushing out long-time residents and changing the area’s cultural fabric.

As developers, you have a responsibility to ensure that your projects respect the community’s history and cater to the needs and wishes of its residents. This can be achieved through community engagement, careful planning, and a commitment to preserving the unique characteristics of historic areas.

Utilizing Professional Expertise for Historic Real Estate Development

Before you start working on the development of a historic property, it’s vital to surround yourself with a team of experts familiar with historic preservation regulations and the unique needs of historic homes. Due to the complex and unique nature of each historic property, you may need to consult with architects, contractors, structural engineers, and historic preservation consultants familiar with both historic preservation and real estate development.

Architects experienced in historic preservation can help in developing a design that respects the historic character of the property while incorporating necessary modern updates. Contractors who specialize in historic homes will understand the specific techniques and materials needed to maintain and restore historic elements. Structural engineers can assess the property for any potential structural issues, while historic preservation consultants can help navigate the local, state, and national regulations that govern changes to historic properties.

You may also need to engage legal and financial advisors familiar with the tax implications of owning historic property. These advisors can guide you through the process of applying for tax credits or incentives related to historic preservation.

When it comes to regulations, the National Park Service and the National Register play a significant role. The former provides the standards for historic preservation, while the latter keeps a detailed list of properties recognized for their historic significance.

Finally, consider engaging with local historians or community leaders who can provide valuable insights about the property’s history and its significance within the community. Their knowledge will not only aid in the design and development process but can also help you establish a positive relationship with the local community.

The Rewards of Owning and Developing Historic Properties

Despite the challenges associated with acquiring and developing historic real estate, the rewards can be substantial. Owning and preserving a piece of history brings a sense of pride and accomplishment. Additionally, well-preserved historic buildings add unique charm and character to a community, making them attractive to potential tenants or buyers.

Developing historic properties also has economic benefits. Apart from the various tax incentives available for historic preservation, these properties often hold their value better than newer builds due to their unique character and limited supply. Successful historic preservation can also stimulate local economies by attracting tourism and encouraging local spending.

In historic districts, a well-developed historic property can serve as a catalyst for further neighborhood revitalization, potentially increasing property values in the surrounding area.


The acquisition and development of real estate in historic areas require a careful balance of preservation and modernization. It necessitates a comprehensive understanding of historic preservation laws, an appreciation of the property’s historical significance, and the ability to navigate the special considerations associated with historic homes.

While the process can be complex, the outcome— a well-preserved historic property that continues to serve a useful purpose— often justifies the effort. With thoughtful planning, professional expertise, and commitment to preservation, developers can contribute to the ongoing story of a community’s unique history while simultaneously realizing the rewards that come with owning and preserving a piece of the past.