Top tips for buying a listed building

Client: My Home Move Conveyancing
If you’ve ever driven past a splendid old house – maybe a Georgian mansion or an Elizabethan manor house – and wondered what it would be like to own it, read on!

What is a listed building?

Almost all homes built before the mid-19th century are ‘listed’, meaning that their details are kept on the National Heritage List for England and Cof Cymru – the National Historic Assets of Wales. There are around 500,000 listed buildings in England today are around 30,000 in Wales.

There are more recent examples, 30 years is the minimum age for a listed building, however the great majority were built before WWI.

For owners and prospective buyers, listed buildings come with a series of conditions. Typically, the whole building, both exterior and interior, is protected, so that any alterations must be agreed with planning authorities ahead of any work starting.

This protection can apply to the property’s gardens, outbuildings and extensions.

There are three categories of listed buildings in England and Wales:

  • Grade I (2.5 per cent of listed buildings), which applies to ‘buildings of exceptional interest’ such as palaces and some stately homes;
  • Grade II* (5.5 per cent), for ‘buildings of particular importance’, with a wider significance than just their local area; and
  • Grade II (92 per cent) for ‘buildings of special architectural or historic interest.’

The higher the grade, the stricter the conditions that apply.

Pros and cons of buying a listed building

There are some very attractive advantages of listed buildings: they’re generally beautiful, they have stories to tell, they represent a treasured part of the country’s history and they’ve been lovingly preserved over many generations. You can take pride in your ownership. What’s more, they’re likely to appreciate in value more reliably than non-listed buildings.

On the down side, you will be restricted in how much you can change or add to them, even for something as minor as a new door or a TV satellite dish. Renovation costs may be higher than for other homes, because you may have to use specialist materials and craftspeople or builders. If you fall foul of the regulations, you risk criminal prosecution.   

What you should know before buying a listed building

  • If you’re interested in buying a listed building, you’re strongly advised to hire a specialist surveyor, with detailed knowledge of the subject.
  • If you go ahead and buy, then it turns out that the previous owners had made illegal alterations to the building, then you could be liable for any remedial work.
  • You’re also advised to take out specialist insurance to cover this possibility, since the cost can run to tens of thousands of pounds.
  • Look out for evidence of damp. Pre-Victorian buildings were built with permeable materials and dried out through natural ventilation. Modern construction methods tend to seal the interior of buildings to retain heat, but this can cause excess moisture.
  • One other thing to know: listed buildings don’t generally need an Energy Performance Certificate (but confirm this with an expert).

Who you should talk to

Besides hiring a specialist surveyor, prospective buyers should arrange to meet the local conservation officer and talk through the buying process. Every listed building is different and unique, and each one will have specific features listed. It’s important to know what theses are, so you don’t buy a property that has been illegally altered. And so that you can plan ahead for your own renovations.

For anyone familiar with planning applications, getting consent for work on listed buildings is a lot more complex and detailed than normal. Even if you plan to replace a window with exactly the same construction, you’ll still probably need to get consent.

It’s a good idea to contact the Listed Property Owners’ Club to get as many details as possible about your particular property. As the Club points out: “Listed property guidance and law is always changing and no two listed properties incur the same restrictions or regulation.”

Contact a heritage expert who can advise you on the kinds of renovation that will be permitted, and how best to carry them out. You may need to build up a strong argument for changes that you’d like to make, so it’s helpful to have as many experts on your side as possible, saying why the changes are in keeping with the building’s history for example.

Of course you should talk to the property’s agents, but beware: they may not be specialised in listed properties and may not have all the relevant information. Find out exactly when the property was listed, its grade and the particulars of the listing.

Steer clear of lower level ‘house buyer’s’ surveys, with surveyors appointed by banks or building societies, but without specialist knowledge. The Listed Property Owners’ Club warns that ill-informed surveys can end up costing buyers enormous amounts of money, through advising them to do unnecessary work, or failing to spot where work needs to be done.

What you should look out for in listed buildings

A quirk of very old homes is that they’re often a bit mis-shapen, thanks to warping timbers or ground subsidence. If that happens to a modern property, you’d want to correct it or rebuild. In listed buildings, it’s part of the character of the place, rather than a defect.

The same goes for incidence of woodworm. This is very common in very old homes, but evidence that it’s happened in the past doesn’t mean you have to start ripping out timbers.

You can think of a very old property as being similar to an elderly person. There are a lot of things that can go wrong, but with care and attention, they can live happily for many years!

In particular, you’ll need to keep an eye on the building’s roof, walls, windows, pipework and chimneys. There are more vulnerabilities in an old home than in a modern one, with its PVC windows and cavity walls.

If you want a listed building to remain in good shape, it will definitely take more of your time and resources than a modern equivalent. It will cost more to buy, to renovate, to decorate and to insure.

On the other hand, you’ll have the pleasure of stewardship over something of timeless value, for which future generations will thank you.

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