In addition to renovating their older homes, remodeler C. Mason Hearn helps his clients get money out of them. Under Richmond's tax abatement program for historic properties, homeowner taxes are calculated on the pre-renovation appraisal for 15 years. At the end of the 15 years, they are taxed based on the value of the renovated structure.

“We have about 20 clients who have used the program. It's a great deal for people who are doing a significant remodel,” says the president of the Manakin-Sabot, Va., company.

To earn the credit, the renovation must improve the value of the house, not including the land, by at least 20%. Most of Hearn's projects are significant renovations that meet this requirement. Hearn fills out the paperwork as a service to his clients. “It's a simple one-page application,” Hearn says. “It takes about 10 minutes and one phone call.”

However, state and federal tax credit programs for historic houses and buildings are more complex. First, the actual property must be eligible. “The property must be in one of the designated historic districts and must be a contributing structure to the district,” Hearn says. Then, the renovations must be approved based on a list of criteria.

Hearn prefers to refer clients to an expert, such as architect Doug Harnsberger, a principal with Commonwealth Architects in Richmond. Many of Commonwealth's clients find it worthwhile to tap into the company's expertise.

Harnsberger says the federal government offers a 20% tax credit for commercial or income-producing properties. Virginia offers an additional 25% in state tax credits that apply to both personal and rental properties.

“For a $1 million project, you can get $450,000 worth of credit on your taxes. You're getting close to 50% of your construction cost, which is an enormous advantage when looking at a spreadsheet on the project,” Harnsberger says.

The architect designs renovations to meet the state and federal criteria. Harnsberger says historic structures require more costly repairs, but the tax credits more than level the playing field. “Once clients realize the tax credits, it changes the extent and quality of the rehab enormously — particularly on the residential side. It gives them license to spend 40% more,” Harnsberger says.