10 questions to ask before buying a heritage house

Close up of heritage home

Miranda Tay

Posted April 29, 2021

Heritage properties have timeless appeal, but there are rules and restrictions that might surprise you. Here is what you need to know.

Fancy yourself living in a grand old Victorian or an elegant art deco? Heritage homes are much sought after in Victoria, but with their timeless beauty comes great responsibility. Owners are subject to a range of restrictions on what they can and can’t do, especially when it comes to altering or renovating. Here’s what you need to know about owning a heritage property.

10 questions to ask before buying a heritage property

When does an old home become a heritage property?

Put simply, a heritage property has historic, aesthetic or social features that have been assessed to be worth preserving for generations to come. While people tend to think of grand 19th-century edifices, homes from the 1970s or even later may also be considered to have heritage value. 

In Victoria, eight standard criteria are used to determine if a home has heritage value, including: historical significance, rarity, research value, aesthetic value, technological value and social value, says Geoff Austin, registrations manager for Heritage Victoria. A property’s heritage status can cover not just the main dwelling, but also out-buildings, gardens or surrounds, and even the site the home sits on.

What does heritage listing mean?

There are two main types of heritage protection in Victoria. About 700 private dwellings are considered to have historic significance at a state level and are protected by the Victorian Heritage Act 2017. These so-called heritage-listed properties are included on the Victorian Heritage Register, and no work can be carried out, inside or out, without a permit (or permit exemption) from Heritage Victoria. 

What is a heritage overlay?

A further 300,000 or so properties – about eight per cent of all properties in Victoria – are considered historically significant to the local community or municipality, and are protected by a heritage overlay administered by the local council or shire. Some of these properties are classified as significant in their own right, others are deemed “contributory” because, although not individually “significant”, they contribute to the overall character of a heritage precinct. Some “non-contributory” properties may also be included in an overlay purely because of their location within a heritage precinct.  

Regardless of their status, properties covered by a heritage overlay usually need a planning permit from the council for any changes that are obvious from the street, such as demolition, relocation or construction of buildings, external alterations and exterior painting. As a rule, permits are not required for general maintenance and repairs, internal alterations, and repainting using the same colours.

Are there any other heritage controls?

Some areas close to places of Indigenous cultural significance, such as certain named waterways, are subject to cultural heritage sensitivity controls. Affected areas include Port Melbourne and Middle Park where home owners may be required to implement a Cultural Heritage Management Plan before conducting any development works or major changes.

How can I find out if a property is covered by a heritage overlay?

An easy way to check if a property is covered by a heritage overlay or other planning controls is through RACV partner Landchecker, an online hub that provides comprehensive information on hundreds of thousands of properties around Victoria and NSW. 

What obligations are required of a heritage home owner?

Anyone who owns a heritage-listed property is legally obliged to maintain it and ensure it does not fall into disrepair. Failure to do so may result in Heritage Victoria issuing a repair order, and heavy penalties apply if the required repairs are not carried out. Rules about maintaing properties protected by a heritage overlay will depend upon the particular local council, but many municipalities have local laws regarding unsightly or uncared for buildings.

You can only renovate a heritage-listed property if you have permission from Heritage Victoria. Photo: Lisa Luscombe
A heritage overlay usually controls modifications only to the external parts of a building. Photo: Lisa Luscombe

Can I renovate a heritage-listed property?

Contrary to popular misconception, it is possible to renovate or make changes to a heritage-listed property, as long as you have permission from Heritage Victoria. In most cases the heritage protection applies to the entire property, including land and buildings, so you’ll need a permit if you want to remove trees, demolish out-buildings or move a fence. Heritage Victoria recommends contacting them as early as possible when planning a renovation, not just to discuss what is and isn’t permissible, but also to seek technical advice from their heritage architects and other experts. In some cases, you may receive a permit exemption, so you won’t need to apply for a full permit.  

Heritage Victoria’s Geoff Austin says permission will usually be granted for bathroom and kitchen renovations, as long as care and attention is given to any original features such as ornate tiling. 

What about renovating a home with a heritage overlay?

While heritage-listing generally covers land and buildings, a heritage overlay usually controls modifications only to the external parts of a building - although in some instances permits are required for internal changes too. Routine maintenance to the exterior is usually permitted, but Will Leaf says any work that changes the home’s appearance, even paining the home a different colour, will generally require a planning permit to ensure it does not impact the streetscape. 

“In some instances you may also need a permit even for smaller alternations such as demolishing a carport or pergola, constructing a fence, external painting, or adding a water tank. This often takes homeowners by surprise,” he says. 

Daniel Xuerub, of DX Architects, which specialises in contemporary and heritage properties, says Interior renovations such as a new bathroom or kitchen, will generally be permitted, providing they don’t affect the exterior. “But if the house is classified as significant then approval may need to be sought from council.”  He recommends speaking direct to your local council’s planning department well before calling in the tradies.

And when planning your renovation project, don’t forget to factor in extra time – and money - to allow for permit approval, this can take up to 12 months, says Will Leaf. 

What if I don’t get the necessary permits?

Hefty penalties apply for any breaches of local heritage rules. In more severe cases, the local council may issue an infringement notice or a ‘stop work’ order, or even escalate a breach to the courts. Failure to comply can incur fines as high as $193,428.

The penalties are even higher at state heritage level. For example, conducting works on a heritage-listed property without approval may result in a fine of up to $793,056, or imprisonment for five years, or both.

Check out fees and penalties on Heritage Victoria’s site

Are heritage homes a good investment?

While owning and maintaining a heritage home does require extra care and attention, and in some cases extra cost, Geoff Austin says well-kept properties with historic character are much sought after and often attract a premium price. 

“Heritage overlay areas, for example, often have an identified character that makes them highly valued, sought after and in demand.”