Demystifying Historic Districts in DC

You’ve likely heard about more than one historic district in DC, but what exactly does the designation mean? Here’s a crash course in what the title means for those considering buying, selling, or simply living in a DC historic district. 

In terms of historic landmarks, it means either an individual property or a small group of related properties. The term historic district, however, broadens that out to a geographically bounded area, which oftentimes is part of a neighborhood. 

In DC, there are dozens of historic districts. One of the latest that could be added to the mix is in Chevy Chase. It’s a somewhat controversial proposal, but there are plenty of other historic districts out there already, including in Georgetown, Logan Circle, Cleveland Park, and Foggy Bottom.

To put it in simple terms, owners of properties within historic districts must abide by certain regulations before making changes. The idea is to ensure that the historic properties aren’t outwardly changed in such a way that they no longer reflect the historic character of the district.

This means if you want to alter the exterior of the property, demolish it, or do some new construction, you may have to be successful in the historic review process. It could be something as minor as new windows.

While getting new windows doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, the cost of getting something that fits within historic regulations oftentimes drives up the costs. It could also mean getting approval for something larger such as a garage, adding an extra floor, or redoing your home’s roof.

Sometimes, the approval process is contingent upon using specific, approved materials. It doesn’t have to mean making changes to an existing building, either. There’s commonly a review and approval process for new construction on empty lots too.

There’s another stipulation to consider, too. Sometimes, buildings in historic districts are listed as contributing structures, and sometimes they aren’t. If they aren’t, the rules are a bit looser in terms of making changes.

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