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:
• 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).
• Investigate the need for a structural engineer to come take a closer look at the
• Determine if the house contains asbestos and, if so, where, and in what condition.
• Ask if the house was heated with oil, and if there is an oil tank on the premises.
• Educate yourself about lead-based paint and know that work done to the house, painting
and otherwise, should be done by certified vendors.
• Determine the type of wiring used in the house and make sure that it doesn’t affect your
ability to appropriately insure the house.
• 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.