This article was crafted with the help of Dennis Gehman of Gehman Design Remodeling.

If you’re in the market for a new home, you may harbor visions of finding the perfect fixer-upper to transform into your dream blend of old-fashioned charm and modern convenience.

We talked to Dennis Gehman, President of Gehman Design Remodeling in Philadelphia, to find out what you need to know before buying a historic home with the intention of remodeling it.

The National Register of Historic Places

If you’re interested in purchasing a specific historic home, it’s worth looking into whether the house is on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).

Managed by the National Park Service, the NRHP is a list of places that the US government wishes to remain historically authentic. According to Dennis, what this means for prospective buyers is that renovations to the home are limited to replacement with the same materials.

He warns, “You can’t say, ‘Oh, this is a better product, it’s going to last longer, and it’ll look the same.’” While this can certainly be frustrating if you want to, say, increase the energy efficiency of an old house, sticking with the original building materials is the only true way to maintain a building’s historical integrity.

Not All Homes Deemed Historical Are Governed by the NRHB

Some historic homes, particularly those significant to a specific community or area of the country, are protected by local historical societies. Additionally, buildings located in a recognized historic district are subject to any regulations imposed by that district.

Renovation limitations for these homes can vary greatly depending on the particular society or district to which they belong, but in general, you can upgrade as long as it does not alter the exterior appearance of the home.

Dennis says that the first step is always talking to a representative from the society or district because renovations must be approved before you can apply for a building permit.

He explains, “Some of them are quite easy to work with while others are more stringent. There’s no right or wrong way to do it, and most commonly, the homeowners want to maintain the historical integrity as well.”

Best Updates When Restoring Old Homes

Remodeled historic home kitchenHistoric homes are beautiful landmarks that are certainly worth preserving. That being said, building technology is constantly evolving; older materials are not always the most energy efficient, and some products may not even be considered safe.

Dennis recommends updating the following items, if such renovation are not prohibited:

  • Electric
  • Plumbing
  • Heating
  • Insulation

He explains that the wiring in older homes often doesn’t stand up to modern electrical codes, and old plumbing systems typically consist of materials, such as galvanized steel, cast iron, and lead, that are no longer recommended for one reason or another. Outdated heating systems sometimes work perfectly fine, but they’re not likely to be very energy efficient.

Dennis also points out that older homes tend to have poor insulation. He goes on to say, however, “That is oftentimes part of what enabled the house to last longer. If there was moisture getting in somewhere, there was enough air flowing in and out that the moisture didn’t hang around.

Most of us these days tend to not like drafty, leaky houses, so we seal them up, which sometimes creates other issues.” Dennis explains that the key is to contract with a renovation company that knows how to insulate a house for energy efficiency and comfort without causing issues over the long term.

Limitations to Renovating Historic Homes

Renovated historic home exteriorThe biggest potential roadblocks to upgrading a historic home are limitations regarding the home’s exterior appearance.

Home additions are frequently prohibited, but Dennis points out that it is possible for a quality home remodeling company to add onto a home or update part of its exterior in such a way that it is nearly impossible to tell which parts of the building have been altered.

Changing the Exterior of Historic Homes

If you’re wondering why anyone would consider changing the exterior of a historic home, Dennis explains, “The exterior is where people seem to be most concerned about maintenance, because that’s where all the materials are out in the weather, exposed to the sun, rain, hot, cold, and all that.”

Usually, historical houses are constructed from wood and then painted, and all the exterior trim is wood. Exterior painting always requires ongoing maintenance, but wood in particular tends to create more painting-related maintenance as times goes on.

Dennis says, “We can replace wood with cellular PVC. It’s a plastic material, but it holds paint extremely well. There’s actually a chemical bond that takes place between the paint and the PVC material, and when it’s painted, even if you touch it and knock on it, you really don’t know the different between it and wood.”

Final Thoughts on Renovating Historic Homes

Just because you may have to jump through some hoops in order to renovate a historical home doesn’t mean you shouldn’t invest in one. Renovated homes almost always have higher market value. Add to that the already high resale value typical of historic homes, and you’ve got a worthwhile investment for the future that is also a unique part of history.

This spotlight article was crafted with the help of Gehman Design Remodeling, a Home Remodeling Best Pick in Philadelphia. While we strive to provide relevant information to all homeowners, some of the material we publish may not pertain to every area. Please contact your local Best Pick companies for any further area-specific advice.