Why It Pays to Research a Home's History Before Buying
When Nick Weith and Damien Mordecai bought their Gowanda, New York house in 2020, the Zillow listing read “Built in 1940.” But they knew better.
The boxy silhouette. The Second Empire roof. It was clearly Victorian Era. That 1940 date? It had to be a placeholder.
After a deep dive into the history of their new home—with help from a local historian, ancestry websites and digitized town records—the couple learned their hunch was right. "The Kimble House," as they've since deemed it, was actually built in the 1870s.'
They learned a bunch of other cool stuff, too. Like the property's original owners (Byron and Deborah Kimble), and the name of the guy who built it (Byron's dad, Charles). They even found some books, photos and other memorabilia of its most famous resident: the dancer and stage designer Anthony Nelle, who died in 1977.
If you've never perused the market for centuries-old homes, these details might seem insignificant. But determining a property’s true age — and other facets of its history — is valuable information. For new owners of old homes, it can inform renovation decisions, and determine your eligibility for tax exemptions.
Also, it's pretty darn interesting.
What a home’s history can tell you
A little research can tell you a lot. What materials were used during construction? What—if anything—has been renovated?
These are major budget considerations. Removing lead paint can set you back a few thousand dollars, and asbestos removal can cost up to $30,000, according to HomeAdvisor.
You should also scour your home’s history for details on when major structures were last updated — like the plumbing, roof and foundation. This can help you anticipate when your next repair is on the horizon, and avoid any health or safety hazards prior to move-in. If you're really on top of things, it can help you decide if you want to move in.
“If electrical, plumbing or HVAC has not been updated, there can be a ton of costs associated with bringing a home into the modern world," says Bret Weinstein, CEO of Guide Real Estate in Denver. We have seen an HVAC replacement cost over $100K.”
There are other financial benefits to knowing your home's history.
If it can be certified as a historic structure through an organization like the National Register of Historic Places, you could qualify for valuable tax perks. (The Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentive, for one, offers a tax credit for income-producing properties equal to 20% of the rehabilitation costs. Some states and cities offer additional incentives.)
And don't discount the resale value: If you eventually decide to put your historic home on the market, it will probably sell faster (and for more money) than a comparable new-construction home.
A good backstory "always" makes a home more marketable, says Leslie Turner, co-founder of Maison Real Estate in Charleston, S.C.
“People love to be connected to history," she says.
How to research a home’s history
There are countless ways to dig up an old home's history.
Local historical societies, museums and libraries are great places to start. Newspapers — which you can find digitized or on microfiche at many libraries — can also be good sources of info. And the keeper of your city's historical records (probably a county courthouse) may have historical maps, deeds, utility records and old building permits for your very property.
Online resources can also be a huge help. At the Kimble House, Mordecai used Ancestry.com, which lets paid subscribers access Census records, birth and death notices, historic photographs and more. It takes time, he says, but if you can track down just one former resident — or even a relative of a former resident — you can usually piece together a property’s history.
Still, a little luck never hurts.
As it turns out, the historian Mordecai and Weith tracked down used to work as a real estate agent in Gowanda. And about 40 years ago, the Kimble House was one of his properties.
“He kind of chuckled when he came in,” Weith says. “He was like, ‘It looks about the same as when I sold it 40 years ago.’”
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