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The Ups And Downs Of Living In A Historic House Or District

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Curbed University delivers insider tips and non-boring advice on how to buy, sell, or rent a home or apartment. Today: the perks and drawbacks to buying an historic house. Have something you'd like to know more about? Send it over to

So, that charming Mediterranean Revival house you just plunked down for is a historic gem. You know it's historic not just because it has a cuban barrel tile roof, wrought iron balustrades, wooden window frames, and even a real coral rock fireplace, but because it comes with a big fat law intended to stop you from doing whatever the hell you want with your land. To newbies, the law can read like YOUR HOUSE IS HISTORIC AND YOU BETTER NOT TOUCH IT, but to others it's a siren song, preserving that aspect which makes your house or neighborhood exceptional. You live somewhere historic which has remained historic because of these laws. Historic designation preserves what's beautiful about our cities. Oh, and it also improves property values in nearly every instance. So, how do historic preservation laws affect your property?

National Designation

A designation on the National Register of Historic Places is the most prestigious level of historic designation. It's a big pat on the back and a free cheque, without any real limitations on personal property rights. Yes, you can get grants, tax breaks, and other perks for preserving and restoring your house, and you have the honor of living in a place considered to be of national historical importance. Adversely, if it's not also designated locally, you can demo the whole thing if you so chose. This is because land use planning law happens at the local level.

State Designation

The effect of a state designation various by state, with some states imposing legal protections and some doing everything they can to preserve private property right (like Arizona, where famous Frank Lloyd Wright houses are at the mercy of their owners). In Florida, most state protection comes in the form of grants, assistance, and other perks.

Local Designation

Local designation confers by far the most protection of historic structures, and will therefore have the most direct impact on you. So, what gives local governments this level of power which even the feds don't have? Well, the legal right of a municipality to restrict changes and uphold certain standards of construction comes from the same legal foundation as the right to police, and the right to enact zoning laws. Here the 'greater good' of the community comes before personal property rights.

Any alterations that impact the exterior, and sometimes the interior, will have to go before a special governmental board which will debate whether the particular shade of baby blue you picked is anything like whatever color it was originally painted, and stuff like that. You won't be allowed to rip off that Med Revival house's barrel tile roof, to paint it neon purple, or add a second story designed by Zaha Hadid. You'll have an easier time if your house is considered 'non-contributing' in an historic district (meaning that although you live in an historic district, your house isn't) but any changes you make will still have to coordinate with your neighbors' 'contributing' houses.

Finally, what if you buy an historic house with no actual historic designation? Can it be designated whether you want the designation or not? In most cases yes. Most municipalities have the power to designate historic houses right out from under your feet. The City of Miami can. Coral Gables can. Miami Beach can only in multifamily or commercial areas. Unlike many other South Florida cities, Miami Beach has no power to designate most historic single family properties without owner consent, and because of that Miami Beach loses many great old houses every year. Case in point is the dramatic ordeal that was the battle for 42 Star Island Drive.

UPDATE: Ok, we got the owner consent thing about Miami Beach wrong, and some people were upset. Oops. But hey, even though Curbed Miami is obviously is very pro-preservation, haterz gonna hate, right? You can designate without owner consent in Miami Beach, but it ain't easy. As a Curbed reader says:

The public process for protecting historic homes in Miami Beach is no longer effective, and it needs to be improved before it is too late. Coral Gables is a great example of how it should be: there, each home (designated or not) where a renovation or demolition is sought must first pass through the Historic Preservation Officer, who determines whether the home has historic significance or not based on a set of objective criteria. The officer then passes the home to the Historic Preservation Board if it is deemed significant, or else to the less restrictive Architectural Review Board. In contrast, Miami Beach skips over this critical step... any non-designated home can go straight to the less restrictive Design Review Board. The Historic Preservation Board only oversees homes inside historic districts, or those where the owner pursued a Voluntary Designation - which can take years and cost tens of thousands of dollars. (Only 26 homes out of 5,000 have gone through the process). It's a sort of owner-consent-required by proxy, since this set up leaves single-family homes outside of historic districts unprotected unless the owner voluntarily designates. Take 42 Star Island - had the home been in Coral Gables, it would most likely have been routed to HPB as soon as new plans were submitted, and HPB would almost certainly have proceeded with historic designation, before the new plans could even be reviewed. Case in point would be this home. In contrast, Miami Beach basically seals the fate of an historic home as soon as plans to demolish are filed - there is no way to stop demolition of a home at this point, once it reaches the Design Review Board.

· All historic preservation coverage [Curbed Miami]
· Curbed University archives [Curbed Miami]