Renovating historic homes in Alameda

We have been entranced by a few Alameda homes lately that are historic and also in need of huge amounts of updating. I am not naive about the costs and amount of time needed to renovate 19th century houses, but I am curious how it works with regard to permitting and historic preservation requirements in Alameda. Is it very, very difficult to turn a shabby old painted lady into a lovely modern family home? Are there design/build companies that specialize in navigating the reviews/approvals processes? Curious to learn more about how it all works and if it's staggeringly difficult and time-consuming. 

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The biggest hurdle is money. Architects and contractors who can take on a large project like this in Alameda will be able to navigate design and permit review. A whole house remodel could easily cost >>$1M, so really do your homework about cost before starting. The city isn't terrible to work with.

After renovating two 19th century homes, this is the advice I can offer. You will need to determine if the home is on a historic register or has some other protected status. This information should be disclosed to you by the seller before you buy. If the home is protected, it will be subject to much more stringent requirements (example - historically appropriate wood windows, siding, etc). There are also some cities that offer financial assistance programs for owners renovating historic homes. A great online resource for historic house parts is called Olde Good Things. 

While old bathrooms and kitchens obviously must be updated to modern standards, I hope you are not considering doing one of the gut remodels that seem to be so popular now. It is sad when a lovely old home with beautiful moldings and trim is taken down to the studs and turned into a bland generic "open plan." This happened to so many San Francisco Victorian interiors in the 60's and 70's when people thought the historic features were ugly. It is still happening today when flippers get their hands on these properties. Please consider that most homes change hands many times and that we are stewards of their historic features. When I sold my first home, the buyer later bragged to me that she had removed the 19th century built-ins and replaced them with Ikea cabinets. She thought it was an improvement. The built-ins had lovely carvings and were made of redwood. It was so sad. 

We are fortunate to own one of the homes you are thinking of, circa 1890's. I guess I'd start by saying that there are several of these types of homes on the market right now that are move-in ready. I don't know that it would be any less expensive to buy a historic 'fixer' in the current renovation climate than to just pay outright.

However, to answer your question, it depends on how historic the home is - on the city register? state register? national? Depending on how historic it is (and not all old homes are) and what you want to do to it, it may need to go before the historical advisory board for approval. Yes, there is a whole other layer of permits and approvals for historic homes, but it is not impossible.

We were lucky to GC our own project and renovate to modernize yet keep a lot of the original charm (and frankly you cannot beat the original redwood timbers). But IMHO there is no way I'd buy an old fixer and modernize it over just buying one that is ready to go with today's construction costs. If you'd like more specific info, feel free to ask the moderator for my contact info.

It really depends on what you consider a "lovely modern family home." In Alameda, pre-1942 houses are subject to protection and even those not specifically designated as historic properties will need, for example, approved wooden windows. But the process is manageable. As the first answer states, any competent architect or contractor will know what you need to do.

And there's a lot of good advice in the rest of the answers. If you really want a modern house, it's undoubtedly better value -- much less expense and distress -- to look elsewhere and get an actual modern house. That has the added benefit of leaving the "shabby old" properties for people who appreciate their historic and irreplaceable features.

(We renovated a couple of deteriorating bathrooms in our old house here and although they aren't period replicas, we took great care to make sure that they fit well with the existing look and feel of the house.)