Historic buildings, often with a romantic tale to tell, are becoming increasingly sought after by Sydney buyers.

Sydneysiders are becoming increasingly enamoured of homes with history. That might be a fabulous harbourfront landmark, such as the eight-level, Federation building The Revy on Darling Island (on our cover), about to be transformed into 46 luxury apartments, or an old 1800s sandstone house or a pretty Victorian-style cottage.

"I think Sydney has been slower to appreciate history in their buildings than other cities, but now people are realising that there's a lot of inherent value in heritage fabrics," says Dr Stephen Gapps, the secretary of the Professional Historians Association of NSW & ACT.

"For some, that value is an interest in history, but there can also be a financial value there too. "It's often a post-modern nostalgia for the past that's becoming stronger in Sydney as we're constantly surrounded by new development."

A greater flexibility in both the planning system and architectural profession about how heritage houses can be renovated is also contributing to a rise in their popularity, believes Graham Brooks, managing director of architects and professional heritage consultants GBA Heritage.

"Then there's character, continuity, identity, a sense of place, tradition.. all the things that people don't get in modern homes," he says. "It's a niche market, but people who want and love heritage are now much more easily able to live in them in a modern way."

Solid stone walls, high ceilings, fireplaces, original features and ornate decoration are all draw cards, as well as the evocative stories of the people who lived, or worked, in these buildings before.

"The value of heritage homes depends a great deal on their location," says valuer Ron Gedeon, principal of AVG Valuers. "In the inner-Sydney market, and suburbs like Paddington, Kirribilli and Surry Hills, people will pay more for heritage, especially in original condition".

"Homes with some kind of heritage can have a lot of character - in contrast to so many of the proiect homes that have none. As Sydney grows and goes from 2 million homes to 4 million homes, the number of these homes with history will stay at 200,000 to 300,000 and become an ever-smaller part of the market, for which people will pay a premium."

In Sydney, homes with history tend to include old Federation or Victorian houses, or apartments chiselled out of, or added on to, old warehouses, mills, garages, factories, even churches.

"I think, fundamentally, everyone likes to feel they're a part of an ongoing continuum," says architect and conservation consultant Otto Cserhalmi, director of OCP Architects. "Also, they feel that a building from the past has proven itself to have survived life over the years, so is likely to survive for much longer.

"People have a perception that older buildings were built with more care and craftsmanship, with more hand-made elements, and in many senses that's true, although they can also have problems like rising damp, lead paint or fibro elements."

Some histories might also repel, such as with homes where grisly events have taken place. The "material fact" laws in NSW require agents to disclose these grim facts to potential buyers.

But generally, there's plenty of sentimentality about happy pasts at play, as well as aesthetics. Hector Abrahams of Hector Abrahams Architects, who specialises in old buildings, has a private theory that people look back fondly at the milieu of their grandparents.

"They want to recapture happy memories of being with grandparents, so they move towards the aesthetics of two generations ago," he says.

"Victorians were always into their past, while Sydneysiders were a little more dismissive. But now I think we're becoming much more attracted to properties with some history."

"A lot of our inner suburbs have Victorian or 19th-century buildings, and places like Haberfield, Ashfield and the North Shore have houses from the first quarter of the 20th century, what we call Federation," he says.


By Sue Williams