This last summer, we’ve been taking advantage of historic property tax credits to help subsidize the repairs to our historic Cooksville home. This process isn’t complicated and can net you up to 20 percent of the costs associated with the construction project. Here I’ll outline some information I used to apply for this tax credit.
If you own an old building, you might be eligible for state tax credits for improvements to your property. This can allow you to recoup up to 20 percent of the costs (up to $10,000 of credits per project; if you’re doing construction costing more than $40,000, split it up into different projects, if possible, to claim multiple credits), but whether or not you meet the requirements can be confusing and seem like it is not worth the effort. Here, I’ll lay out some basic considerations and give you enough information to determine if you’re eligible, and, if so, how to take advantage of the resources available to you for preserving part of our national history.
Get acquainted with the program by going to the Wisconsin Historical Society’s page on this topic.
To get credits, you must fill out an application, available on the Wisconsin Historical Society website and be approved before the work begins. Much of the information is straightforward, but in a few locations, you should use some key words and phrases to increase your chances of gaining the credit. The part and question numbers below refer to the Historic Homeowner’s Income Tax Credit Application.
Part I: Are you Eligible?
The first portion of the application asks if your property is eligible for the credit.
Question 1: Listing in the state or national register of historic places.
If you know your home is on the state or National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), check the box and list the property name and number. If you’re not sure, you can check by going to this map and zooming into your location (you can also check the Wisconsin Historical Society’s database).
These are largely self-explanatory and ask for ownership and contact information, photographs, and basic property information, such as year of construction. When taking photographs, don’t go for artistic composition. You want to clearly show the entire property in its surroundings with enough detail for the state to recognize what it is. An overcast day is a good day to take pictures because it diffuses the light.
Question 7: Describe why the property is important. [or in other words “is my house eligible?”]
If you’re not already on a state or national registry, you’ll have to argue that your property is eligible for inclusion on a registry. Now you can just describe your house as you see it, but the person reading your application will be applying a standard rubric to assess whether or not your property is eligible. Below, I’ll describe the rubric they’re using, and if you write your answer with this in mind, your chances of success will be much higher. The specific eligibility rules are laid out in Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, but this document is complex and hard to follow in most cases. Here’s what you need to know. A “property” (in this context, a property can be a building, structure, location, object, or district) is eligible for tax credits if it is already on the NRHP or — and this is important — if it is eligible for inclusion in the register. This means your property (in most cases, we’re talking about your house) doesn’t have to be on the NRHP to get a tax credit, it just has to meet some basic criteria, described next.
If you’re not on the NRHP, ask yourself the following questions about your property:
Criterion A: Is your property associated with events that have made a contribution to national history? This can be a major event or a broad pattern of regional history. Examples: Pearl Harbor (major event) and the Pomeroy and Pelton Tobacco Warehouse in Edgerton (broad historical pattern).
Criterion B: Is your property associated with the life of a significant historical figure? This can be an individual of regional or national importance. Examples: Mt. Vernon, Ford’s Theater.
Criterion C: Is your property a prime example of a particular type, period, or method of architecture or construction; represent the work of a master; or possess high artistic value? Examples: Cooksville Historic District, Frank Lloyd Wright buildings.
Criterion D: Does your property have the potential to yield important information about the history or prehistory of the country? Remember property refers to the thing of historic interest, so having a Native American site on your land does not make your more recently built house eligible. Examples: Cooksville Mill and Pond Site.
You’ve passed the first test if you answered “yes” to any of the above questions. The more “yeses” you have, the stronger your case will be.
Next, take a look at whether or not your property possesses integrity. That is, if you have a house of a specific architectural style, for example, is that characteristic in tact enough to be worth preserving?
For each of the above criteria where you answered “yes,” which of the following characteristics are still present?
- Location (is the property in its original site?)
- Setting (are the property’s surroundings still extant? For example, if it is a mill, does the stream still flow by?)
- Design (is the important design feature still clearly present? For example, if your home has an addition, is the historic component still clearly present?)
- Materials (are the original materials [or identical reproductions] present?)
- Workmanship (is the original construction method preserved?)
- Association (is the property still linked with any important surroundings [similar to setting, but can include things beyond the landscape]?)
- Feeling (does the property maintain the original feeling? For example, a historic farm house surrounded by skyscrapers does not maintain feeling)
Your property doesn’t have to have all of these features, but the more you have, the stronger your case.
Finally, does your property still have a preservable element, that is, do you have something left to preserve?
Now, combine all the “yeses” you’ve accumulated to make a case that your property is eligible for inclusion in the NRHP (again, you do not have to apply for inclusion, you just have to be eligible). For example, I would describe my house as eligible for listing on the NRHP because it is an example of a specific historical architectural style (criteria C) by writing the following paragraph for question 7 on the application:
This property is a well-preserved example of carpenter or American gothic architecture of the mid-1800s. It has strong integrity because it is in its original location and setting as the neighborhood is made up of similarly aged houses and infrastructure. The design features have been preserved and the later additions to the house are off the back, not obscuring or changing the historical portion of the home. The original materials and appropriate reproductions have preserved the workmanship and feeling of the property.
For your own property, mention each criterion for which you answered “yes” and evaluate the integrity of each criterion individually. If using criteria A or B, describe the historical event, pattern, or individual and why they are important as well. The more you can include (without stretching the facts), the better your chances are.
Parts II and III
The rest of the application deals with the work you’re planning to do. In part II, you’ll have to describe the work, the estimated cost, and begin and end dates. The thing to be careful of is on question 7 of part II is when you describe the work you’re doing. You must be sure it does not detract from the eligibility criteria you are claiming in part I. For example, with my house, I had to be sure to say that I am replacing the old cedar shingles with cedar shingles to preserve the look, feel, and integrity of my historical property. You might not be approved if you’re going to detract from the integrity of the historical components of your home. The state won’t pay for you to make your home less historical. You must provide “before” pictures at this stage of the features you hope to update. I am including some of the pictures I submitted along with my application (as well as some in-progress shots). Because we’re replacing the roof, I had to take pictures of all sides of the house.
Part III is for after the work is done. You must submit photographs and a form to indicate the project is complete. You can make any adjustments to the actual costs at this point, which may raise or lower your final tax credit figure.
About the Author: Scott Johnson holds a Ph.D. in archaeology and learned much of what he knows about the National Register of Historic Places at a training by its governing body (the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation) and from experience working for archaeological consultants. He lives in Cooksville and, along with his wife, is in the process of rehabing the Longbourne House (1855), located on the Cooksville Commons. He runs the Low Technology Institute where he researches preindustrial technology and how it might be adapted for use in the future.