10 Things to Consider Before Buying a Historic Home in Denver

Jacquelyn Mabry, Realtor
Jacquelyn Mabry, Realtor
Published on May 9, 2018

Do you want to own a piece of history? From Victorian to Mid-century Modern, it’s all here in Denver. Some people are fascinated by places that have been a part of what came before.  When looking at legacy houses, it’s good to have a sense of adventure, and humor. Charm, character and “unique” are all desirable features, but a “historic” home may also include a few quirks you didn’t initially expect- sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. If you’ve fallen in love with the idea of living surrounded by history, be prepared to do some homework before you make an offer.  Here is a list 10 things you may want to consider before buying a historic home.

Things to consider before buying a historic home #1

 They are old: With age comes wisdom… if you’re talking about Great-grandma Pearl and her life lessons in tales of years gone by. But old houses sometimes have issues to overcome. A house fifty years or older is considered historic. Remember that building codes, safety measures and accommodations for technology were probably much less stringent, perhaps non-existent, when these homes were built. Some quick advice? Get a home inspection…better yet, hire specialists. A general home inspection can help provide insight into a property’s overall condition. Hiring a plumber or electrician (in addition to your home inspector) can provide specific insight into a home’s “guts”. Is the wiring original? What about the pipes? Both of these can be costly to replace and so it’s a good idea to find out exactly what you’re buying into upfront.

Inspections aside, you will almost always find beautiful architectural features in a historic home that you can’t get in newer houses. 

Things to consider before buying a historic home #2

Start at the bottom: A solid foundation is always a good thing. It’s true in every endeavor: education, marriage, business, even art and sports. In an older home, it’s critical. Settling, cracks, water seepage and even previous repairs can threaten the structural integrity of any building. A structural engineer is best equipped to assess the quality or damage of a foundation and determine what is necessary to make it sound. You may find the slanting floors kind of quirky and interesting, but they lose their charm if you have to spend extra to keep your house from falling down.

Structural engineers typically cost more to hire than general home inspectors,  plumbers, electricians, etc. but the upfront cost can save you some big bucks in the long-run. How? Finding a structural problem as a buyer (when you can walk away from a house), is much less expensive than discovering a structural problem as a new homeowner.

Things to consider before buying a historic home #3

Unwelcome guests: No, not ghosts, mice! Cinderella was fond of her furry roommates in the attic, Mighty Mouse could save the day, and Mickey and Minnie are beloved by everyone. Their real life counterparts, however, are uninvited at all times. Mice can squeeze through the tiniest opening, and have an uncanny knack for finding ways to make themselves comfortable, particularly in older houses. There are many companies that can help eliminate this and other animal problems. Critter Control of Denver is well respected, uses humane methods, and can handle rodents and more. This is an easy fix and should not dissuade you from your dream. With ghosts, you’re on your own.

Things to consider before buying a historic home #4

Lead paint caution: So long as it remains undisturbed, lead paint is thought to be harmless. In homes built before 1978, there may be some lead paint on woodwork, trim or built-in pieces that small children or even animals might find appealing to gnaw. These areas should be tested just to be on the safe side. A list of approved inspectors can be found here. 

On a sidetone: If you own any painted antique furniture (whether it was from a store or garage sale), test it for lead paint! If a child chews on the side of their antique crib, or a pet chews on an old dining room chair, any lead paint can be a very toxic, harmful, and may cause long-term health issues! You can buy test kits from your local hardware store, or a big box store like Home Depot or Lowes

Things to consider before buying a historic home #5

Asbestos: This is another material found in construction from earlier years. Although it was used in more heavily in commercial applications such as mining and shipbuilding, it is found in some older dwellings as insulation and roofing material. Similar to lead paint, it is thought to be harmless if it remains undisturbed. When it doubt, however, it is best to have it professionally remediated. Colorado State government strictly enforces the laws and regulations dealing with its removal. 

Things to consider before buying a historic home #6

Electric, plumbing and other systems: If you’re drawn to the romance of a Victorian home, dream of a cozy Craftsman cottage, or long for the sleek lines and unadorned profile of something inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright from the 30s or 40s, you might find issues with what are known as “mechanicals”. Mechanicals may include plumbing and/or electric. When it comes to your home’s wiring and electric service, hire a professional to thoroughly inspect the electric panel. Just because a house has electricity, doesn’t mean the wiring is safe, grounded, and able to handle the demands for the power a 21st century family needs. Regarding the pipes and plumbing, work with a professional and look for signs of old leaking or galvanized pipes. In many cases, old pipes may function but it’s important to look closely and ask about anything that looks questionable. For example, are the wood floors warped? Is kitchen sink cabinet show signs of moisture? These could be signs of an old leak that’s been repaired or a current leak that the Seller “forgot” to mention. 

Pro Tip: Check your water meter! Some home inspectors do NOT check the water meter! If he/she doesn’t check the meter, then check it yourself. If you notice the water meter is turning (…even if it’s turning verrrryyyy slowly), and all water faucets are off (including sink faucets, showers, sprinklers, the toilet isn’t running, etc.), then there is almost certainly a leak somewhere on the property!  Point it out to your home inspector and/or plumber!

A thorough inspection of these systems with a plumber or electrician will serve you well, especially if they were installed before Nixon was president.

Things to consider before buying a historic home #7

Others may have a say in what you change:  Along with the bragging rights of a unique historic house come responsibilities. Preserving the character of a vintage home benefits the homeowner as well as the neighborhood. The City & County of Denver, the Landmark Preservation Commission, and the Denver City Council oversee design and review in our 52 historic districts. Exterior changes to your home will require a process that must be approved. The happy news is they say yes most of the time.

Things to consider before buying a historic home #8

There are some perks: Colorado State Preservation income tax credits are available to homeowners who make covered improvements to their homes. These are not tax deductions, which lower taxable income. Renovations, upgrades in electric and plumbing, window and roof replacement and other preservation projects can qualify. Carpentry, painting, and even cleaning are among the many costs that can be applied to the credit which directly lowers the amount you pay in taxes.

Things to consider before buying a historic home #9

Inside, the sky is the limit: In many cases, the interior of your heritage home is not subject to any approval from anyone other than you. Of course, there may be exceptions to the rule so it is best to double-check before starting any project. Every historic house has its own personality, imbued with the events that surrounded the residents who have lived there. Like anything old, it has eccentricities that annoy and amuse you. What changes you decide to make inside your antique house are limited only by your own imagination and budget. 

Things to consider before buying a historic home #10

Legacy means commitment: There’s an element of stewardship here that speaks to a connection between the past and what is yet to come. Historic houses require more attention; they can be expensive to heat, maintain and repair. There are rewards. You get to live in a house like no other, and you are the guardian of an era.  

When you buy an historic house, you are making a promise, not to live in the past, but to honor it. You are paying tribute to the folks who came to the frontier, who settled the wilderness and established a city and culture that now attracts new pioneers.

In Denver, we pride ourselves on the Pioneer spirit. Those who braved what the continent threw at them on the journey west faced harsher perils than lead paint and rodents. They had grit, determination and faith in the future. If you are inspired to create memories in your own historic dwelling, you’ve passed the test for Pioneer spirit. I’d love to show you what is available.

What is your vision for a vintage home? 


10 Things to Consider Before Buying a Historic Home in Denver
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