Heritage Homes: One Neighborhood’s Approach

Throughout North America are places that reflect the world that was, little havens of heritage.

This spring, I moved to one.

James Bay, in Victoria, Canada, is the oldest West Coast neighborhood north of San Francisco, its streets lined with a mix of homes dating as far back as the 1860s and apartment buildings built in the 1950s and ‘60s, when the city had its first population boom.

The big apartment blocks sprang up overnight, in so doing, they obliterated whole blocks of mostly heritage homes. By the time the ‘60s ended, the city had buyers’ remorse, and a move to preserve heritage began.

Shortly thereafter, in the ‘70s, the Heritage Foundation went into action. If owners could prove their home was a heritage building and were willing to do the work to repair it, they were eligible for grants towards the preservation work.

These days, an abundance of heritage buildings are protected, and a passionate citizenry is invested in it staying that way.

Is it character or is it heritage?

Wherever one finds heritage homes, they can be sure to also find character homes. A “character” home is one with no special historical distinction, thus no government grants, and is just a lovely home to own if it’s in great shape. Inside, like with a heritage home, one should find a good deal of original finishings.

In my ‘hood, you’ll find both. The heritage homes frequently have more ornate fronts with historically accurate “painted lady” type color combinations, and lavish gardens. Many are officially designated as protected heritage buildings, with build years prominently displayed on signs at the front.

As I walk past these lively old houses, I know what one small part of the world looked like as the Civil War raged down South, or as Mark Twain wrote Huck Finn, and the Titanic sank. I can imagine Model T Fords chugging up the streets. As I pass these fantastic old homes, for one 60-foot stretch, I know exactly what our world was like more than a century ago.

So, in a way, as an owner of a “heritage” home, one is a steward of history.

A pretty penny keeps a pretty house

One cannot buy a heritage or a character home without understanding there are different costs and tribulations that come with. There’s a patchwork of repairs, materials you can’t find in stores anymore, and a level of detail one seldom finds in modern carpentry.

A heritage homeowner can’t just up and paint their old home, for instance. Past paint should only be removed in certain situations, and even then can be particularly toxic if it’s old lead-based paint. There are so many considerations that there are books, government websites, and more dedicated to the topic. Most of the locals here seem to hire companies who are expert at doing the work.

I once was told one should never own real estate unless they could afford top-quality maintenance while owning it. When it comes to a homes build long before the Second World War, this is especially true. Of the heritage homeowners I’ve spoken to, they all agree, you have to love maintenance and be passionate about quality if you’re going to get into the heritage racket.

… And then there were grants

All that financial burden of being a steward of history doesn’t always need to be on the owners’ shoulders.

With the use of newspaper clippings, dated photos, and other archival documents, it’s possible to prove a home is of historical note. If so, having it designated a official “heritage” building can mean becoming eligible for all kinds of grants intended to help with its preservation.

It’s not a gravy train, the owners will tell you. Much of the cost of maintenance falls on them. Here, it’s possibly as much as 30% one can get back on perimeter, structure, and exterior cosmetics work, but it depends on the year, depends on the organization’s priorities, and who’s seeking what for what.

I marvel at these heritage homes in all their cute painted glory. The detail and the care it takes to keep them looking so great. Sure, it’s hard work, and it’s expensive too, but for the right owner, a heritage home is a labor of love that will span the ages.

And we the people should be ever so grateful such “right owners” exist, and heritage programs are there to help them.

Stay tuned, as I’ll be taking a more indepth look at some of these local heritage homes in the coming weeks.

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