Tips for Buying a Heritage House

Well maintained heritage homes with charm and character do not come on the market very often. Since heritage homes are so unique and rare, a listing can often attract multiple buyers and sell over asking price. Your best course of action to be the successful buyer of a heritage house is to work with a Realtor who has experience selling heritage homes and ensure you have enough time to complete your due diligence before making an offer. 

When choosing a Realtor to work with to help you find a heritage house, it is recommended you ask the following questions to ensure they have the knowledge and expertise to guide you through the purchase:

  1. Have you ever sold a heritage house? 
  2. What is a Heritage Revitalization Agreement?
  3. What can you tell me about the Heritage Register? 
  4. What does it mean when a home is listed on the Heritage Register?
  5. What is the difference between a home being “listed” and being “designated”?
  6. What do you know about knob and tube wiring?
  7. Do you know about Power Check? Have you ever used them?
  8. What do you know about:
    – Vermiculite? 
    – Insulating a heritage house? 
    – Old windows and heat loss?
  9. What are the costs of owning a heritage house? 
  10. What are the insurance issues with owning a heritage house? 
  11. What are the restrictions with renovating, painting, or building an addition?
  12. What issues can I expect when renovating a heritage house? 
  13. Do heritage houses retain their value for resale? 

In addition to working with a Realtor experienced with heritage homes, you want to ensure your financing is approved and you complete a pre-inspection with a professional building inspector before you make an offer. By having your financing approved and an inspection done, you will be able to make a subject-free offer if there are multiple offers. 

You should also talk to a planner at City/Municipal Hall if you have questions about the heritage status of the house, potential land use or development options in the future, and large scale renovations. 

Common Issues Often Identified in Building Inspections on Heritage Houses

Single glazed windows – Original wood windows are often a heritage defining element with beautiful wavy glass and original wood trim. Buyers seem to think their heating bill will be very expensive and want to replace the windows. Replacing windows with new, wood windows is expensive and the cost will unlikely be recouped in heat savings during the time the buyer owns the home. You can buy beautiful drapes and window coverings, or cashmere blankets and sweaters for a lot less than replacing all the original windows. If you replace the windows with less expensive vinyl windows, you risk destroying the character of the house and decreasing the overall value of the home. 

Asbestos – Asbestos will be found in most older homes, not just heritage homes. Asbestos can be found in vermiculite insulation, drywall mud, siding, linoleum tiles, lath and plaster and heat pipe tape. If left undisturbed, the asbestos poses no risk to the occupants of the home. When renovating, a contractor will have the materials tested for asbestos so they can remove it and dispose of it correctly. When planning a renovation, be mindful of added costs due to potential asbestos remediation and removal. 

Vermiculite insulation – Vermiculite insulation should be tested for the presence of asbestos. If undisturbed, there is no risk to the occupants of the home. However, some Sellers will elect to have the contaminated insulation removed before they sell their home or the Buyers will request that it is removed as part of their offer. 

Knob and tube wiring – If done correctly, knob and tube wiring is safe and functional, and does not need to be replaced. Homeowners can have Power Check complete an assessment of the knob and tube wiring, and have a certified electrician make any necessary changes to satisfy the safety concerns in the report. 

Perimeter drainage – Many older homes, not just heritage homes, may not have updated drain tiles. There may be no drain tiles or there may be older clay tiles. Make inquiries with the Sellers to ascertain if the perimeter drainage has ever been updated and if they have ever had any issues with exterior drainage. 

Oil tank – Any home, regardless of age, should be scanned for the presence of an underground oil tank. Often banks/lenders and insurance providers require an oil tank certificate stating there is no oil tank to approve financing and insurance. 

Lead paint – Lead paint can be found in many older homes, not just heritage homes. 

Poor insulation – It is difficult and expensive to re-insulate a heritage house because the interior walls most likely have to be stripped in order to install the insulation.

Permits – Be careful when you renovate a heritage house with permits as the City or District may require you to bring the house up to the current building code requiring more time and money than you anticipated.  

Stone foundation – Heritage houses can have a stone foundation instead of a concrete foundation. A building inspector will be able to identify any potential issues with the foundation. However, a second opinion from a structural engineer should be received as the problem may not be as dire as the inspector thinks.