Living history through a home

September 7, 2012

So you want to own a historic home?

There are two ways you can own your dream historic home. First, you can buy one that has already been historically preserved and registered on the National Register of Historic Places or the District of Columbia’s Inventory of Historic Sites. Second, you can restore your own home and, assuming that it meets the requirements, seek to have it listed on the National Register or in the Historic Inventory. This column will deal with the first path to historic homeownership.

Buying a historic home, though a daunting task, is still the far easier route to take. A list of historic homes for sale is available on the National Trust for Historic Preservation Web site historicrealestate.preservationnation.org. These listings contain both registered and unregistered historic homes.

Historic homes are loosely described in the District’s Historic Landmark and Historic District Protection Act of 1978 as those homes which “represent distinctive elements of the city’s cultural, social, economic, political and architectural history.” This act regulates the homes located within historic districts in D.C. Once you are the owner of a registered historic home, your property falls under certain legal obligations.

The historic district act empowers the D.C. Historic Preservation Office and the Historic Preservation Review Board, as well as the Commission on Fine Arts, with ensuring that historic homeowners comply with stringent requirements relating to: alterations, new construction, subdivisions, demolitions, demolition by neglect and maintenance of their historic home.

Alterations are defined as: a change in the exterior appearance of a building; a change in the interior space that has been specifically designated as a historic landmark; the painting of unpainted masonry or on the façade of a historic home. In practical effect before any historical home can undergo any of these changes, the proposed change must be recommended by the review board, the Commission on Fine Arts, where applicable, and the permits approved by the mayor.

In order to obtain the necessary approvals to make alterations, such as painting the exterior of one’s home, the homeowner is required to apply for a permit and provide all relevant evidence showing it is in the public interest. Public notice of the proposed alteration is then published in the D.C. Register and a public hearing may be scheduled. The homeowner is expected to testify at that hearing in support of his application. The District has 120 days from the day the permit is referred to the review board to make its decision.

Owners of historic homes also are required to maintain their properties. The law requires them to keep their homes free from structural defects in the façade, foundation, walls, floors and supports. The law also requires them to keep ceilings, roofs, windows and doors weatherproofed, watertight and free from leaks or excess deterioration.

Homeowners who fail to maintain their properties to these specifications may be sued in D.C. Superior Court and potentially be found to be guilty of demolition by neglect. Demolition by neglect means failing to maintain, repair or secure a historic home that results in substantial deterioration of an exterior feature, structure or loss of the structural integrity of the home. If homeowners fail to take steps to prevent demolition by neglect, the District can step in and make the necessary repairs. The costs incurred by the District in preventing demolition by neglect are charged to the homeowners as a special assessment, and if not paid, become a lien against the property.

Any person who willfully violates any provision of the law or its implementing regulations can be fined $1,000 for each day a violation occurs, or be imprisoned for no more than 90 days, or both. In addition to these criminal penalties, the District may require any homeowner who demolishes, alters or constructs any building in violation of the law to restore that building to its previous condition.

For homeowners who may be financially unable to maintain their historic homes, the District of Columbia Historic Preservation Office administers a Historic Homeowner Grant Program. This program awards maximum grants of $25,000 per household ($35,000 maximum grant in Anacostia) for exterior repairs, rehabilitation and structural work on historical properties in selected areas of the city. Eligible repairs can include replacing missing historic elements such as a historic porch that is no longer there. But it cannot include internal systems such as heating, air conditioning or plumbing.

The grant application is a two-part process and is limited to D.C. low-income residents in certain parts of the city. For example, to be eligible, the applicant must be a city resident receiving the Homestead Tax deduction. Total household income for a family of four needs to be no more than $127,321. Copies of the application are available online at www.planning.dc.gov.

For information on eligibility or other questions, contact Brendan Meyer at the Office of Planning Historic Preservation Office Historic Homeowner Grant Program at (202) 442-8818 or via e-mail at Brendan.meyer@dc.gov .

Next time: Navigating the Historic designation process.

Harvey S. Jacobs is a real estate lawyer in the Rockville office of Joseph, Greenwald & Laake, P.A. He is an active real estate investor, developer, landlord and lender. This column is not legal advice and should not be acted upon without obtaining your own legal counsel. Jacob can be reached at hjacobs@jgllaw.com.

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