5 Tips for Selling a Historic Home

Posted On: June 4, 2019
When you're helping a client sell a historic home, you need to take a slightly different approach to your sales strategy.  Historic homes aren't for everyone. Some people will be nervous about potential upkeep and repair, and many will find that the layout, proportions, and lighting of the home aren't what they'd like them to be. You're looking for a very specific type of buyer.  And that requires a fairly specific strategy.  A lot of the steps are the same, but there are a few critical differences.  We'll discuss them below.

Tip #1: Don't Mess With It

Everything you know about prepping a house for sale may be completely wrong for selling a historic home.  With most homes, you'll advise your clients to make cosmetic repairs and spruce the place up in certain ways. You may very well want to make those recommendations in a historic home, but you should consider those decisions carefully. The fact is that with a historic home, you'll find a range of buyers no matter what condition the home is in.  Modernized or excellently maintained homes will appeal to buyers who want to live in a building with history and character but without too much fuss.  All-original, distressed, or poorly-modernized homes will appeal to buyers enthusiastic about restoration projects. The key is to assess which category this particular home falls into, then lean into the features that will appeal to those individuals.  And if you do decide that repairs and upgrades are in your clients' best interest, make sure you're working with contractors who know how to maintain historical value as they do their work.

Tip #2: Do a Seller's Inspection

Wait, didn't we just tell you not to mess with it?  Well, yeah, but you do want to head off any problems that can tank the sale later.  Unless the current owners have completely updated the home with professional help, you want to do a pre-listing inspection to look for major issues. Find an inspector who has experience with historic buildings, if at all possible.  In addition to finding any problems, they can provide you with information that might inform the true value of this particular property.  Just remember that anything they find in the inspection has to be disclosed to potential buyers. If any serious issues are uncovered, get them taken care of.  Look for contractors who know historic homes and will take preservation into account.

Tip #3: Learn the History

In your typical home sale, you're focused on the future, not the past.  For historic homes, you still want to help buyers see the value and future for them, but they'll be hungry for historical details, so you need to be prepared. If the current owners have a comprehensive history for the property, great—now all you have to do is fact check their work.  If not, you can either do the research yourself or hire it out. Either way, here are a few of the topics you want to cover:
  • What is the age and state of the property? What year was the home built? What features are original? Have any expansions, renovations or restorations been done? What were they, and when?  If you're showing to a renovation hobbyist, pointing out remodeling sins for them to correct might be a bonus.  If you're marketing to a young couple, the modernizations will be valuable to the sale.  Very old remodeling work can have its own historical value, even if it "destroyed" some original feature of the house.
  • What are the historical touches that remain? Is there a dumbwaiter? Servants' stairs? A strange layout quirk that originally served a purpose?  Are there outbuildings? Grounds? Historical landscaping?  Was the entire house used for something else? Point out these bits of lingering history and give context to help them appreciate the special character of the home.
  • What's the home's personal story? Who owned the home? What did they do for a living? What was their family's story?  Use specific details and fill in context of the times. You don't need to save this for properties where a famous person slept.  Prospective buyers will be charmed to know the everyday lives of the generations that lived there.  Your job is to help them imagine the history as it played out.  Even the gruesome can be a selling point, with the right buyer—historic homes might be the one place where death disclosure can attract
  • What's the area's story? If the neighborhood has historical significance, use that too. It doesn't have to be anything earth-shattering.  What kind of people used to live there? What kind of business was conducted? What changed over the years and why?
Tailor your pitch to the knowledge and interest of the individual—if they're a history professor, don't bore them with Wikipedia knowledge.  In fact, pick their brain!  Use their info on the next guy.

Tip #4: Cast a Wide Net

You'll want to list the house with the usual suspects but take a step beyond your comfort zone to attract any buyers who will value the history.  That includes:
  • Local historical societies
  • The National Trust for Historic Preservation
  • Historical magazines
  • Real estate publications that focus on historic or unique properties
  • Historical restoration or preservation publications
  • An article in your local paper

Tip #5: Market with Information

Whether you're listing it on a real estate website or in a special publication, you want to market with information.  Fact check and be honest—you don't want to get caught out in a lie by savvy buyers. Some of the details are the ones you'll always focus on, like home amenities and neighborhood features.  Others are the ones we've already discussed: age, original features, renovations, modernizations, and historical details. In addition, you should consider:
  • Floor plans with dimensions. Historic homes can have weird layouts—they're not for everyone. Publishing floor plans in your marketing materials will allow casual buyers to self-select out before they waste your time.
  • Professional photography. Find a professional photographer who has experience with historic buildings. Unique challenges like weird lighting and tiny rooms will make amateur photography a horror show.
  • Historical photos and documents. In your research, did you find any old-timey photos of your property?  News clippings?  Interesting documents?  These can add flavor and authenticity.
  • Possible tax breaks. Federal tax breaks focus on non-residential and income-producing properties, so go state and local.  Find out whether buyers can have property taxes reduced, find financial assistance, or get special interest rates for restoring or preserving the home.  These potential savings might be the tipping point for some buyers.
Many agents marketing historic homes find it worthwhile to build a property-specific website to house all this information.  There are lots of options for easy-to-build websites these days, for very little money.  That allows you to target individual listings or publications towards a particular audience and point them to the website for additional information.

Bottom Line

With a historic home, it may take a little time to find the right buyer—be patient. Do your homework, cast a wide net, and be thoughtful and creative with your marketing materials.

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