DIY Historic Home Preservation

The cost of renovation following years of neglect can range from $150,000 to several million dollars. They also must meet strictly watched local, state and, sometimes, national building codes. Financing isn’t available, so potential curators must demonstrate they have either substantial nest eggs or ample do-it-yourself know-how to invest. And, in the end, most will never see a dime in return for their hard work.

Still, for some, the opportunity to live in a historically significant home is payoff enough.

“We anticipate our costs will end up being about the same as paying two years worth of rent in New Jersey,” Clarke says. “Then we’ll have 23 years of living rent-free in this amazing home we might not be able to afford otherwise.”

Many government-owned historic homes and buildings remain empty, isolated and boarded up, on the fringes of state forests or parks.

“It’s not like George Washington slept here,” says Jim Hall, who runs Delaware’s curator program. The state’s park system owns more than 220 properties. “Even if I had the funding to save them all, I couldn’t find a good public use for them.”

— This is fascinating. Some states can’t afford the upkeep on all of the buildings they own, so they have started letting people live in them for free if they agree to fix them up. You have to have the money for the repairs (banks won’t loan you money to fix up a property you don’t own) and “every nail you buy is a donation you’re making” to the state, but for some people, it’s a way to live in a house they’d never be able to afford. It seems kind of crazy to put a lot of money into a house that you don’t own, but if you look at it as pre-paying your rent, and then having free rent for a long time on top of that, it seems rather smart! Also some states let you use the properties for commercial purposes, which: $$$$$$$.