Buying a Historic Durham Home

by: Courtney James, PD Board Member

 When Urban Durham Realty opened more than seven years ago, I wrote a blog post addressing the trend of downtown living. It was 2008 and we were entering what is now known as the worst housing slump in history. I stopped counting the number of times I heard people sarcastically proclaim, “Seems like a great time to start a real estate company”! The good news is that while the market was indeed a “buyer’s market” back then, Durham was more insulated than other cities across the country, so we fared much better than most. A buyer in Durham today might find it hard to believe that not long ago, sellers went to extremes to convince buyers to purchase their homes. Much of the demand at that time was in the relatively new developments in southwest Durham. Neighborhoods such as Woodcroft and Hope Valley Farms appealed to homeowners with commutes to other points in the Triangle, and their proximity to the then-burgeoning shopping scene of Southpoint Mall was (and is) seen as an amenity.

While much of that suburban housing stock remains in demand today, it doesn’t garner the fervent attention that the historic downtown houses do. A quick poll among agents in my office revealed that about 75% of our listings receive multiple offers, with many of those offers coming in over list price. The number of offers and amount offered over list price increases along with proximity to downtown. With the exception of a few new construction homes on infill lots, most of these are historic homes.

Although it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of living in a historic home, you must be aware of these homes’ nuances and do your due diligence. I want to make sure you are as happy on closing day as you are two years later. The best way to do that is to make sure you are educated going through the process so you have realistic expectations about owning and maintaining an older home.

In addition to the standard home inspection, here are just a few of the things you will want to investigate during your due diligence period:

  1. Check if the house is in a local or national historic district (Durham currently has seven
    local historic districts where exterior modifications require prior approval).
  2. Investigate the need for a structural engineer to come to take a closer look at the foundation.
  3. Determine if the house contains asbestos and, if so, where, and in what condition.
  4. Ask if the house was heated with oil and if there is an oil tank on the premises.
  5. Educate yourself about lead-based paint and know that work was done to the house, painting and otherwise, should be done by certified vendors.
  6. Determine the type of wiring used in the house and make sure that it doesn’t affect your ability to appropriately insure the house.
  7. Order a survey to uncover things like shared driveways and encroachments from old walls or fences.


My intention is not to scare you, but to encourage you to make the passionate jump into your “dream home” with your eyes wide open. Home ownership comes with responsibility, and that responsibility is usually greater with historic homes. As someone who has only owned downtown-area Durham homes built before 1932, I am intimately familiar with the challenges—and the joys—of owning historic homes.