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Seven Questions to Ask when Buying a Historic Property in New York City

While there is something thrilling about purchasing in a newly constructed building, many of us New Yorkers prefer the charm of yesteryear. Old buildings allow us to settle into a home bathed in the glow of nostalgia as we align ourselves with the city’s past. But before we are swept up in the excitement caused by casement windows, beamed ceilings and crown moldings, we must pause to consider the ways in which we might be affected by living in a historic building. Here are some questions to consider before rushing to the bank.

1. Is my property landmarked and what does that mean?

When buying a historic property, it is important to understand whether or not your property is landmarked.

The New York City Landmarks Law was passed in 1965 as a direct response to the 1963 destruction of Pennsylvania Station, hailed as one of the most beautiful stations in the world. The law was enacted to protect the existence and character of old buildings and neighborhoods, which are designated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). Your building may be individually landmarked if it is architecturally or historically significant, or it might be part of a landmarked district. Either way, you will have to apply for special permits to make significant exterior alterations.

To find out if your building is designated, go to the landmark search tool on the LPC website.

2. How will I be limited by living in a landmarked building?

If your building is landmarked, you will be limited as to ways you can alter your property. Changes, particularly those impacting the facade, often require special permits. You will likely not be able to make substantive changes to the exterior (shutters, roofs, windows). If you are thinking about adding another floor to your West Village townhouse, you might have to think again. Building additions are often not permitted in landmarked districts if they are visible from the street. However, if you can prove that altering the height and setbacks of your building would aid in its preservation, you might be exempt from some of these restrictions.

You should also know that any repairs or work done in a historic building is likely to be more expensive. This is because you may be required to use specific, historically accurate materials.

3. What kinds of alterations do not require permission from the LPC?

Minor exterior repairs and maintenance do not require special permission from the LCP. Interior work that does not effect the exterior appearance usually does not require special permission unless the work has been designated an interior landmark by the LPC or if the work requires a permit from the Buildings Department.

4. My building is on the National Register. Does that mean that it is landmarked?

Not necessarily. The National Park Service places properties across the country that are historically significant on the National Register. The National Register is distinct from the localized LCP, although there is significant overlap. When a building is placed on the National Register, the designation is largely honorific and allows much more freedom to homeowners looking to renovate their property. Additionally, if you undertake the renovation of a building on the National Register, you may be eligible for tax benefits.

5. Will the historic status of my building affect its value?

Historic districts tend to have higher property values and more community involvement. For example, Greenwich Village and Soho, two of the most desirable (and expensive) neighborhoods in New York City, are designated historic districts. An analysis done by the New York City Independent Budget Office has shown that the prices of houses in historic districts are higher than those of similar houses outside of historic districts, but there are of course many variables. This report created for the New York Landmarks Conservancy by Placeeconomics provides more detailed information about the impact of preservation in NYC.

6. What steps should I take before purchasing a historic property?

It is important to bring in a home inspector who specializes in older homes in order to identify any structural problems. If you plan on altering the apartment, meet with contractors before purchasing the apartment to figure out costs and potential issues. Additionally, you should make sure the building has been checked for lead paint and asbestos.

7. What if I have more specific questions?

The New York Landmarks Conservancy is a private organization dedicated to preserving, revitalizing, and reusing New York’s architecturally significant buildings. For more than 25 years, their Technical Services program has provided expert architectural and preservation advice to property owners, developers, and contractors. The program’s
Preservation Hotline fields questions about building repair, project management, contractor referrals and more.

You can contact the Preservation Hotline with your questions at 212.995.5260 or by email from the New York Landmarks Conservancy website.