Federal vs. Local: Misconceptions about Historic Districts

national_registerAs a REALTOR specializing in historic homes sales, one of the most common questions I received from buyers or other agents about my old house listings was, “Are you allowed to make any changes to the house?”

(Click Here for Index of 100+ articles here at Historic House Blog!!)

The regulation (or lack thereof) of historic houses is probably one of the most misunderstood issues surrounding antique properties, especially those located in Historic Districts.  Buyers usually assume the worst, thinking that they won’t be able paint the house a different color or make alterations or additions.  (And in the United States, people don’t like to be told what they can & can’t do with their own properties).  Yet, however mysterious these regulations may seem to some buyers, the confusion & suspicion is usually unnecessary, since many properties are not regulated at all.  And the regulations for properties that are subject to rules can usually be found easily at the town hall or on the internet, and may not be as restrictive as potential buyers imagine.  A quick rule of thumb . . .

009FEDERAL:  In general, a property’s inclusion in a federal historic district (on the National Register of Historic Places) is only a positive thing— it simply declares that the property is worthy of preservation, and that it may even be eligible for certain grant money.  But it DOES NOT add restrictions.  In fact, the following quote, taken directly from the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places website, might surprise many potential buyers:

“From the federal perspective, the National Register of Historic Places is part of the National Park Service, a property owner can do whatever they want with their property [my emphasis] as long as there are no federal monies attached to the property. . . However, before this occurs, you can, or the property owner should contact the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO.) The SHPO is the state agency that oversees historic preservation efforts in their state. There may be state or local preservation laws that they should be aware of before they undertake a project with a historic property.”

local-historic-districtSTATE:  Most states may have a historic preservation division that promotes the historic resources of the state, including its historic properties & districts.  Check your state preservation website to find out if there are any regulations or laws imposing further restrictions (find your state here).  But most state organizations share the mission of their federal counterpart — only to identify, promote, and educate, but not to legislate.

LOCAL:  On the flip side, local historic districts, usually created & governed by a local historic district “commission,” often are subject to strict rules & regulations.  These are often the rules that potential buyers have heard about & the control they fear.  But the rules might not be as bad as they expect.  Paint color, for example, is not regulated by any historic district that I’ve encountered in Connecticut.  And rules should be easy to find.  It varies from state to state, but in Connecticut a copy of the Historic District Regulations can be picked up at the town hall.

So in short:  National Register= no rules, State recognition=usually no additional rules, Local designation= often extensive rules & regulations that should be reserached & understood.

But no matter what, REALTORS should emphasize the benefits of owning a property within a historic district.  Not only does this usualy mean that the property is located in a quaint area with lots of other historic homes, but in addition, buyers should consider that any rules also apply to their neighbors, meaning that their property value is protected.  Regulation equals protection!


  1. by Historic House Blog » Plaques, Plaques…Get your Plaques., on 01.29.09 @ 12:00 AM


    […] week, we posted a discussion on the differences between the different kinds of historic districts, and about some of the benefits of owning a property in a historic district. Having a property […]

  2. by T.C., on 11.08.10 @ 6:56 PM


    I like your quick summary but here’s the problem with this part:

    “Local designation= often extensive rules & regulations that should be reserached & understood”

    It’s almost impossible for the local rules to be researched because the procedures are defined but the prevailing tastes of the persons on the historical review committee are not set in stone. In my town, we had to submit plans for review without knowing most of the “rules” regarding local historic preservation. And the construction permits would not be issued until the historic review committee approved the plans.

    We did hire a local architect who had experience in our town. It was a great decision. But even so, we were encumbered with questions like “where are the gutters” etc,,, because they have this need to pick things apart.

    I agree, beware of the locals!

  3. by Michael, on 11.09.10 @ 1:56 PM


    Yes, agreed. The details of many local districts come down to the “whims” of the particular members on a local commission/board. However, I have also come across local districts that have fairly specific guidelines for their construction requirements — which is great, because everyone knows the ground rules. The best thing to do is to contact your local commission to ask for the written regulations & guidelines . . . if they exist . . . and, second, try to involve the officials as soon as possible, so as to make them feel a part of the process & to stroke their egos a bit. There is a lot of credence to the old saying, “You catch more flies with honey!”

  4. by Historic House Blog » Realtors in Mobile, Alabama (Oddly) Resist Disclosure Requirement for Historic District Sellers, on 05.18.11 @ 3:06 PM


    […] want to know that it was located in a designated historic district?  Especially if that district contained rules governing future alterations of your historic home?  Of course you would.  And the City Council […]

Comment RSS · TrackBack URI