The Pros and Cons of Buying A Historic Home

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One of the many things that makes West Palm Beach so unique is it’s historic homes. There are hundreds of homes that were built between 1880 and 1930, in the heyday of Henry Flagler and the Florida East Coast Railroad, that have stood the test of time, mother nature, and modernism. These homes are a snapshot in time, revered among locals. With the passing of historic preservation initiatives in the 1990’s, West Palm Beach and neighboring cities like Lake Worth and Delray Beach made preservation a city initiative and priority.

Historic preservation sign
A Historic Preservation Plaque proudly displays the year built.

Today, new homebuyers are buying historic homes at record highs because many of these homes are found east of I-95, where demand for housing is absolutely soaring. As a result, historic homes are enjoying a resurgence in popularity. In fact, historic homes, with their Old Florida charm, straight lines, and intricate construction designs, are selling faster than new construction.

But, before you ink the contract to buy that 1923 mission revival castle, read on the learn what makes a home historic, and the pros and cons of owning one.

A brief history on Florida homes, and what makes a home “historic”

Neighborhoods and areas are designated as “historic” if the homes or buildings were predominantly built in one of the architectural styles popular in the early 20th century, putting on display the many intricate styles, tastes, and features commonly implemented in the homebuilding process in those days.

The most popular of historic home design is unquestionably the Spanish Revival homes, built by or inspired by the architecture of Addison Mizner and his proteges in Palm Beach.

These homes are built from wood frame, lath, and thick stucco on the outside and inside. The striking red barrel-tiled roof contrasts against the light and pastel paint and blue sky. Many feature black iron-wrought work throughout. Often, you’ll find oversized large stone or concrete fireplaces, towers, or columns, and many offer outdoor living space with their front, back, and side porches. Many are two-story, but almost none offer a garage.

Flamingo Park Historic Distric
The popular Spanish Revival home is found throughout West Palm Beach.

For many historic neighborhoods, the homes were mostly built in the 1920’s, 1930’s, and as late as 1940. Homes that are at least 50 years old, if not having been designated already, may be considered to be historic.

Once inside, the first thing you’ll notice is the original Dade County pine, which served as the basic building material of almost all structures constructed at the time. This unique thick hardwood is often exposed as the flooring or sub-flooring, trim and doors, and ceiling rafters.

Fireplaces were very common during this time, even in smaller homes and cottages, with the mantels often adorned in decorative brick, stone, or other masonry.

Very often, historic homes will feature a smaller kitchen, and only one or two bathrooms, even in a house with four or five bedrooms! Owners of historic homes often make renovations to add bathrooms and kitchen space, to help make the home more practical for modern life.

These historic homes often have a second floor as well, where the master and additional rooms are located. The homes may be “big”, such as the 2,800+ square foot mansions adorning Flagler Ave in West Palm Beach, or they may be relatively tiny, such as the absolutely charming “cottages” of Lake Worth, located north and south of the downtown corridor, which feature incredibly diverse stylings, colors, and landscaping, despite only offering about 900 to 1,200 square feet of living space on average.

Historic home with potential
This Dade County Pine wood-frame home exudes potential!

The pros of buying a historic home

  • Historic homes will have more character, and there’s a story behind each. Many of these homes have been passed down from generation to generation, so old pictures and stories may be readily available from the seller, or in some cases, the city archives.
  • Each one was built to the owner or the builder’s spec, so each one is unique in it’s own right. It’s the opposite of the “planned development” approach developers take today, which maximizes costs at the expense of individual expression.
  • Many are already landscaped with mature native plants and trees, creating beautiful, lush outdoor spaces,
  • The lots are commonly larger. In first quarter century of the 1900s, lots were sold in multiple-acre swaths. It was years later that owners would begin to subdivide and sell off their land, creating the “density” in South Florida that we see today.
  • Larger lots create larger outdoor spaces and backyards, allowing owners to build pools and mother-in-law suites, cottages, and garages over the years. While these are all additions from the original structures, they are appreciated and enjoyed immensely by their present-day owners.
  • It’s a great conversation starter when you have guest over to show off your historic home!
  • Because the historic districts were built by wealthy land and hoteliers in Palm Beach, these districts are within close proximity to downtown areas. The beach and nightlife are often just a bike-ride away from many of these districts.
  • Finally, the homeowner’s associations are often extremely active, and they are voluntary and non-profit. It makes for great socialization with like-minded neighbors who love their homes just as much as you do!

The biggest pro to buying a historic home…

The State of Florida offers tax exemptions to owners of historic homes who renovate and restore their homes authentic to the period. To boot, cities such as West Palm Beach, Lake Worth, and Delray Beach have also adopted the same millage rate tax exemptions the State of Florida offers, maximizing the savings.

This results in many thousands of dollars being saved for the homeowner over a 10-year period. The idea is to offset the cost of renovations, and it has worked as intended, with hundreds of owners throughout the County taking advantage, bringing once decrepit structures back to their full historic beauty and glory.

The cons of buying a historic home

  • Firstly, you will want to consider the ongoing cost of maintenance. Many of these homes are 80, 90, or 100 years old or more. They are often poorly insulated, and may require expensive electrical, plumbing, HVAC, or restoration work.
  • Many of the homes will not offer the state-of-the-art appliances and energy-efficiency that new homes offer (and it may be difficult to retrofit these modern appliances into the smaller kitchens and spaces of a historic home without requiring significant re-design or renovation.)
  • Many of these homes will still have original windows, doors, and roofs. You will want to have an inspector who knows historic homes, and can accurately estimate the age or condition of these important construction elements.
  • Most have flat roof additions for “Florida rooms” and other additions to the home, and those roofs and joists must be re-sealed about once every three years. If that hasn’t been done in a while (and who knows when it was last done!), you could potentially face problems ahead. Water damage to flat roofs is extremely common, and it’s hard to find because there is no attic you could crawl into to look for leaks. Again, an experienced inspector is very important.

The biggest con to buying a historic home…

Many of the rooms in historic homes are smaller – including the kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms, and definitely the closets. Builders of earlier generations just had less “stuff” than we do today, and as a result, today, new owners will buy a historic home and quickly realize it’s just too small for their lifestyle.

Further, many of the modern construction layouts we are used to today are probably not going to be found in historic homes. For example, big, open spaces, the obvious architectural choice of today’s new construction, are not found in historic homes. Many spaces are smaller, with lower ceilings and lots of walls.

Here’s another example: unless renovated to accommodate, most homes of the period are not going to have a bathroom attached to the master bedroom, and may only have one or two bathrooms in the whole house.

So why buy a historic home?

If you’ve been charmed by the historic homes of West Palm Beach and Lake Worth, then you already know the answer to this! People often fall in love with these homes, very quickly. They are incredibly beautiful, and the detail and craftsmanship of the constructions simply cannot be matched, even today. These homes were built to last 200 years, and the style and architecture is timeless.

If you haven’t had the chance, take a tour of a historic home. Many of the West Palm Beach neighborhoods offer historic home tours throughout the year. Just perform a simple Google search for the neighborhood closest to you, and watch their social calendars.

We hope this article was insightful, helpful, and gave you everything you need to know about historic homes!

Follow Tom Copeland:

VP of Business Development

As Copeland & Co.'s VP of Business Development, I'm proud to be part of a brokerage that treats our clients and agents as family. My job is to ensure each and every client, agent, and partner of our firm receives the highest quality of service, with attention paid to every fine detail. If there's anything I can do to help, please send an email to me any time at tmc @ copelandcompany dot com (no spaces).

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