Rehabilitation of historic buildings gets a major lift from new, better federal tax credits

''You know where I can lay my hands on a spare historic building?'' This question is being fired at state historic preservation offices by eager real estate developers. What sparks that kind of interest is new and bigger tax credits.

Beginning Jan. 1, 1982, a revised set of building rehabilitation tax laws will take effect. The laws, part of the tax cutting law passed last summer, simplify and improve existing incentives for rehabilitation of older buildings.

And none too soon, some city planners figure. Older cities like Boston and New Orleans are desperate for rental housing, and the tax cuts are expected to help ease the problem.

Boom towns, like Denver, are hungry for office space. ''We can use every square foot we can get,'' says Dana Crawford, a partner in Larimer Square Associates, a Denver development firm.

To familiarize people with details of the rehabilitation tax credits, the National Park Service, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers are sponsoring a series of 10 conferences across the nation. The conferences, self-financed by registration fees ranging from $25 to $150, have had high turnouts since they began at the end of November.

With rehabilitation costing about two-thirds of new construction costs,'' it's worthwhile to find out about the new tax credits, Ms. Crawford advises. ''The Denver conference was professional, and the facts and figures extremely helpful.''

Tony Lee, one of the conference coordinators at the National Trust, explains the conferences are not just aimed at developers. ''We want to inform architects , lawyers, accountants, city planners . . . anyone who will have something to do with a rehab project.''

As far as developers and historic preservation authorities are concerned, the best present in the new year's tax package is a flat-out increase in tax credits. Under the old law, developers could slice only 10 percent off taxes owed on building rehabilitation. The new law splits the buildings into three catagories: 30-39 years old, 40 or more years old, and buildings certified as historic by the secretary of the interior. Respectively, the new tax credits run at 15, 20, and 25 percent.

Another tax present, though a stocking-stuffer compared with the credit increase, is the faster depreciation schedule for buildings. Now all real property, not just historical, can depreciate in 15 years. ''You can get your money back a lot faster with this schedule than you could with the old 25- or 30 -year schedules,'' says David Gillespie, the assistant director of the National Trust's northeast regional office.

Mr. Gillespie praises the tax act for its simplicity and appeal to ''the little guy.'' It appeals though, to many more. Anyone who rehabilitates a building that will earn some income, from rental housing to industrial or commercial buildings, could qualify. But, a number of other criteria must also be met: The owner must have spent more on rehabilitation than on buying the property; the buildings must either be in historic districts or be certified as historic; the renovation must conform with certain standards laid out by the National Register of Historic Places. The process of finding out if a building qualifies begins in a state's historic preservation office and ends up at the National Park Service.

Old buildings and tax incentives are a relatively new pair. Though tax incentives in 1976 made renovating attractive, people did not really begin taking advantage of the tax credits until 1978, says Sally Oldham of the National Park Service. ''They didn't become aware of the incentives all at once; it was gradual,'' she says.

In fiscal year 1978, the Park Service approved 382 rehabilitation projects ($ 254.5 million in construction dollars). In fiscal 1981 that figure more than quadrupled to 1,512 ($374.4 million construction dollars).

The new credits should push the number of approved projects over 2,000 for this year, ''and maybe a lot more than that,'' Ms. Oldham exclaims.

''There is absolutely no question that the new incentives make rehabilitating more attractive. Developers will respond to them,'' Jason Nathan emphasizes. Mr. Nathan is president of J. Nathan & Co., the Philadelphia developing firm that restored the city's handsome, granite Drexel building, built in the 1920s in the heart of the financial district.

When the firm restored the old banking house under the 1976 tax act, Nathan reminisces, he thought the historic preservation authorities would be ''one more layer of approvals to worry about.'' Actually, he found the authorities ''extremely flexible and supportive.''

Mr. Nathan says there were major advantages in redoing the Drexel building. ''It's in a perfect location and has special features. Many firms prefer the exclusivity of having a whole floor to themselves, which they can do because our floors are smaller.'' He's also proud of the fireplaces in some offices, the original oak paneling, and brass fixtures.

There's only one thing he regrets: ''I've worked out the figures, and if I could have done the Drexel under the new tax credits, the savings would have been tremendous.''

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