“I wish D.C. would encourage more property owners to put their buildings into a similar status in order to protect the character of the city,” Chodes said.
Many homeowners may not be familiar with easements, but they’re often an essential part of a historic house.
A preservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a homeowner and a preservation organization that ensures a property’s historic character is protected. The easement remains on the property regardless of who owns the property after it’s put in place.
Easements can be a useful preservation tool for both parties — the owner who donates certain rights to an easement-holding organization, as well as the preservation organization. By having regulatory control over changes that can be made to a building, a preservation organization helps maintain a city’s architectural heritage. The property owner benefits from the federal income tax deduction for the value of the easement. Federal estate taxes may also be reduced.
According to Ross Bradford, deputy general counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, though the tax incentive is significant, most homeowners are concerned foremost about safeguarding their house’s historic integrity.
“Most people see the easement as a way to maintain that property after they’ve passed away or after they sell the property,” he said. “They know that it’s protected and won’t be changed and altered in a way that would be detrimental to its historic significance.”
Chodes recalls two Civil War-era rowhouses that once stood on her street. Neither had a historic easement, which allowed developers to demolish them and replace them with new, much larger buildings.
“The message seems to be that owners in huge new buildings can live in a lovely, historic neighborhood — but the effect is to change that neighborhood,” Chodes said. “If you start losing one, two, three houses, all of a sudden you do not live in a neighborhood of lovely, old buildings. So, I think it is very important that every house be valued since part of the charm comes from seeing them all together, as a neighborhood, as representative of a different era, but still useful today.”
While Bradford echoes Chodes’s emphasis on the importance of neighborhood charm, he says preservation can also lift property values.
“If you have enough of these easements in a location, and the area is not already locally regulated, you maintain the integrity of the historic character of the neighborhood and generally speaking, that sort of integrity increases property values,” he said. “You don’t have a lot of insensitive alterations made to the buildings, and there’s a lot of local character.”
Easement-protected properties come with responsibilities and restrictions. Hannah Bergman lives on Capitol Hill and owns a rowhouse built in 1907. Because the previous owners donated it to the L’Enfant Trust, she gets none of the tax benefits, but is responsible for the costs of maintaining the property.
“At the time I purchased the house, I didn’t fully grasp what that would mean, and it’s certainly been a challenge to adapt my budget to the requirements any time there’s a renovation necessary,” she said.
Bergman, who loves old homes and purposefully bought one with its original features, said she would have purchased the home regardless of the easement. But she now understands better what owning such a home entails. She said she normally wouldn’t have purchased the expensive vinyl windows that her home’s easement required.
“The most important thing to consider is what renovations you plan to do and how the easement rules will affect your budget, especially if you’re purchasing a property after the donation has been made,” Bergman said.
Because of the various restrictions on easement-protected homes, the argument can be made that easements aren’t beneficial for property value. Lauren McHale, president and CEO of the L’Enfant Trust, agrees with Bradford that maintaining historic charm is positive for a community, but she’s hesitant to say it increases property values.
“If you look at it on a real individual basis, if you take two identical rowhouses and one has a conservation easement on it and one does not, and they’re both for sale, a potential buyer is probably going to buy the one that doesn’t have an easement on it,” McHale said.
“[An easement] is an added burden to the property. If they want to replace their windows, if they want to repaint their house, if they want to build an addition, if they want a fence around their yard, they have to come to us for all of that.”
Easements are not for everyone. They are not for homeowners who prefer complete freedom to make changes to their homes. But for homeowners such as Bergman and Chodes, who appreciate character-driven properties, they offer a way to protect their home’s historic legacy. Although they admit the restrictions can be an additional hurdle, they don’t mind the extra steps.
“I think historical easements are an important tool to protect properties and are key to preserving the character of the city,” Bergman wrote in an email. “Whether it makes sense for any one person to own a house with an easement really depends on the state of the house, how much investment and upkeep are needed, and what an owner’s financial situation looks like. … It seems to me that the biggest benefits for preservation come when the easements are available outside of the already existing historic districts.”