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Purchasing a Historic Home: What You Need To Know Before You Buy

[Photo by Gert Hochmuth via Shutterstock]

Congratulations, you’re ready to buy a house in San Francisco! Maybe it’s your inner history nerd or you’re just a sucker for some architectural character, but you’ve decided you’d like to own a historic home. Whether it’s a swanky Mid-Century gem or a Victorian fixer-upper, San Francisco is chock full of historic buildings. While the satisfaction of owning and living in a piece of history can outshine the gloss of new construction, there are some details you should familiarize yourself with first.

BEFORE YOU BUY
1. Is the building a “historic resource”?
Just because something is old, doesn’t mean it’s historic. The best way to determine whether the house has historic status is to check out the SF Planning Deptartment Property Information Map. Enter the property address, and a whole slew of info will pop up. Click on the Preservation tab to get the historic status of the building.

Here’s where things might feel like information overload, but bear with us. The tab will tell you if A) it’s a local landmark, and B) it’s on or is eligible for the National or California Register of Historic Places. Whatever the entry under “National Register Status Code” is, you can look up the code here. Basically anything with a 1-5 code means it’s historic. If there are no entries on the Preservation tab, then it likely hasn’t been officially determined a “historic resource” (yet).

2. Is there an easement on it?
The other thing to figure out before you sign on the dotted line is whether there is preservation easement on the house. Easements are basically a contract between a property owner and a non-profit/public agency where the owner “donates” the development rights in exchange for a hefty Federal tax deduction (we'll cover this later today). Preservation easements bind both the owner who donated it and future owners to protect the historic character of the property, requiring any major exterior changes to get permission first from whichever group holds the easement.

Now any realtor worth their salt is supposed to disclose when a house has an easement, but they often "forget," or "didn't realize," and bury the documentation in the mountain of papers you’re about to sign. It’d be worth the few minutes of your own research to figure it out. The main group that holds them in San Francisco is San Francisco Architectural Heritage, and they have a map that shows which properties have easements. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the California Preservation Foundation also hold a few in the city.

Check back later today to learn about how to handle your historic house after you've taken the plunge and signed on the dotted line.
· SF Property Information Map [SF Planning]
· Historical Resource Status Code [California State Parks]
· Easement Resources [National Trust]
· San Francisco Architectural Heritage Easements [Heritage]
· National Trust for Historic Preservation Easements [National Trust]
· California Preservation Foundation Easements [CPF]