Ellen Alperstein received a generous offer for her 1905 Santa Monica beach cottage this year. Within days, the sale entered escrow, but then the deal fell apart.
The buyer, a prospective developer, bailed after discovering that the smallish cottage was on Santa Monica's Historic Resources Inventory — which was also news to Alperstein. The home, in fact, had been on the list since 2008.
Historic inventories of homes and other parcels are fairly common in preservation-oriented Los Angeles, which has the second-largest historical-designation program in the country. But homeowners can be unaware that their homes are on such lists, which seek to preserve architecture, social records and other historic layers.
A listing can potentially complicate home sales — depending on which local preservation ordinance a home falls under.
For instance, owners who apply for a demolition permit of inventoried Santa Monica property (as well as structures more than 40 years old) trigger a stay and landmark commission review that can sometimes drag on for months, even years. The majority of the 1,700 structures listed on Santa Monica's inventory are single-family homes.
That rule doesn't apply to city of Los Angeles residents whose homes are listed on the just-completed SurveyLA, the nation's "largest and most ambitious attempt to thoroughly document historic resources," said principal city planner Ken Bernstein. More than 880,000 parcels were surveyed.
SurveyLA identifies historical structures dating from about 1850 to 1980 and includes thousands of residences falling within nearly 500 square miles. A listing does not affect alterations or builds on a property.
Surveyed homes are not designated as historic structures but are merely identified as being historic. From there, rules vary. In general, the lists provide a steppingstone to eventual landmark status for some properties.
Beverly Hills uses its list to evaluate proposed alterations and demolition permit requests for buildings more than 45 years old and to prioritize some landmark designations.
Los Angeles and Beverly Hills structures are evaluated under the criteria (including architectural, cultural and social) for listing in both state and national registers for historic places, among other guidelines.
Some homeowners may be happy to find a photo of their property on a list, enjoying the cachet that history brings, and possible boosted market value, or in the case of Alperstein — shocked to find out in the middle of escrow. Others are simply not aware that their homes are listed because cities have no systematic way of notifying homeowners.
"That would be a tremendous amount of outreach," said Santa Monica senior planner Scott Albright. He added that "the word is on the street," as well as online, concerning public knowledge of the database.
Homeowners are generally "upset when they find their home is unilaterally listed without notification," said broker Robert L. Edie, managing partner for PCH Estates. Edie shares the news with clients, explaining that "in certain instances, a listing can limit the buying pool and decrease the price."
In Alperstein's case, nearly a decade passed before she uncovered the designation. The discovery, she said, "threw my financial future into doubt."
"I have owned the house for nearly 30 years; it was my retirement investment," said Alperstein, a writer and editor. "The city could ruin my financial future just because it was posted on the site."
Los Angeles homeowners are also not actively brought into the preservation process during initial stages of landmarking a home.
A landmark nomination for a residence can be filed, and a review hearing –– open to the public –– can be held, all without informing a homeowner. The stealth process largely prevents rushed property alterations that would stymie landmark status — or a demolition that would obliterate the very need for one.
"Many property owners feel blindsided," Bernstein, the principal city planner said, adding that a fix is in the works.
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