Buyers fall in love with listed buildings for their period features and sense of character. While the idea of owning a slice of history can be very appealing, buyers are often concerned about the implications of owning a listed home, in terms of both upkeep and restrictions on alterations.
Although it is imperative that period property owners are aware of the laws that cover listed buildings, with the right guidance a property listing should not be a barrier to a purchase, nor to making reasonable alterations.
Listed buildings are those which have been added to the National Heritage List for England. Any type of construction can be listed, from homes to commercial properties, sculptures and even gravestones.
Buildings that have been listed have been designated as having special architectural or historic interest. Old houses are therefore more likely to be listed than modern homes; for example, all buildings from 1700 or earlier that still have some original features are listed, as are most buildings built before 1840. Newer properties that were built in the late 19th and 20th centuries can also be listed if they are of special architectural interest.
Buildings can be listed as either Grade I, II* or II. Grade I or II* properties are rare; the vast majority of listed buildings, and almost all listed houses, are grade II.
Listing a property allows the country’s planning system to legally protect the building from any unauthorised alterations that may affect its character. This means that there will be some restrictions on what you can do to the property, but it does not mean that alterations will not be permitted. Indeed, the aim of listing is to preserve buildings for future generations, and to do that, alterations are often necessary to keep them in a state practical for modern living and maintenance.
Start by checking the listed status of your property. You can do this free of charge through the English Heritage website. This site houses the official register of all listed buildings in England, and you can use keywords or postcodes to search the database. The entry will tell you which grade of listing applies to the property, when it was first listed and details on the historic significance of the building.
For more in-depth insight, you will need to consult your building survey report. A surveyor with experience in historic properties will be able to provide detailed information on your home. Your surveyor will advise on what repairs will be needed and any specialist materials that should be used, and will comment on the quality and condition of each part of the building. If you have any concerns or if you would like more detail on a particular aspect of the property, your surveyor will be able to talk you through their findings and explain their significance to you.
Importantly, surveyors will advise your conveyancers of any alterations they think previous owners have made to the property (or any constructions within its curtilage). This allows the solicitors to check that listed building consents were obtained for any works that have been done since the listing. This is crucial, because if unauthorised works have been conducted, as the new owner of the property you will inherit liability and can be forced to either remove the works or bring them up to standard, at your own cost.
As well as confirming listed building consents, your conveyancer may also be able to advise you on whether a listed building Heritage Partnership Agreement (HPA) is in place. HPAs are agreements between building owners and the local planning authority that set out specific works that will be permitted on a listed building without the need for applying for listed building consent.
Conveyancers will also investigate whether any restrictive covenants apply to the property. While some very old covenants on the deeds of period properties will be unenforceable because they are no longer relevant, it is important to be aware of any that are included in the deeds and their implications. They might be as innocuous as preventing you from keeping chickens in the garden, or as critical as banning any extensions and developments to the property.
Chancel liability, that is, an obligation to financially support the upkeep and repair of the chancel of the local church, is another search that your solicitor should conduct on your behalf. If chancel liabilities are identified, they will advise you on what your obligations may be and whether you should consider indemnity insurance against any claims being made.
Owning a listed building does not mean that you are not able to make changes, but it does mean that you are likely to need consent from the local planning authority. This is a legal requirement for any changes that may affect the architectural or historic character of the property.
Alterations to grade I listed properties should be undertaken very cautiously, and consent should be obtained even for the smallest changes.
For grade II listed properties, anything that permanently alters the building or that changes the exterior appearance will need listed building consent. This includes demolitions, extensions, removal of structures such as walls, windows, chimney breasts and staircases, painting of exterior brick or woodwork for the first time or changing their colour. Changing the roof covering also requires consent – even if you are going to use the same material, if are making any changes to the roof timbers or structure, you will still need consent. Even adding a satellite dish requires consent. This list is far from exhaustive and, given that it is a criminal offence to make changes that require listed building consent without that consent, anyone planning alterations would be wise to err on the side of caution.
Listed building consent applications are free but can take a while to process. To save time in the long run, you can request pre-planning meetings with your local conservation officer. They will be able to give you an idea of whether an application is advised, and if it is, whether or not it is likely to succeed.
If your application for consent is refused, do not be disheartened. You are entitled to an appeal. In such cases, the process should be viewed as an evolving dialogue between you, your architect or builder and the conservation officer. You may find that you can agree on a compromise with the local officers by amending the plans slightly or using different materials. It is worth remembering that the vast majority of applications for listed building consent are approved.
As discussed above, your surveyor and conveyancer will play a key role in making sure you are aware of the implications of purchasing your listed building.
For this reason, it is critical to find a surveyor with experience in heritage buildings – you need someone who has a strong understanding of how your property was built and what special methods and materials need to be used to repair any defects. This is particularly important with dealing with issues such as damp, because some solutions that work for modern properties can actually make the problem worse in a period property.
You will also need to instruct a level 3 rather than a level 2 building survey; in reality, if your surveyor has experience in listed buildings, they will only offer a level 3 survey for such a property. A level 2 (HomeBuyer) survey is normally not suitable for a listed building, because these surveys are not tailored to individual properties and do not have the scope needed to consider unique and historic features.
If you are planning to make alterations to the property after purchase, it is worth making your surveyor aware of this. They will be able to advise you on the suitability of your plans, and will also be able to recommend construction methods and materials that are suitable for the age of the property. For example, a lime-based mortar, rather than a cementitious mortar, is usually recommended for works to period properties, because the latter does not allow moisture to escape, causing freeze-thaw damage and damp.
Your surveyor will also be able to advise on the risk of deleterious materials such as asbestos and lead being present, and will advise you on any additional remedial works that will improve the building in the short, medium and long terms.
Although it may seem like owning a listed home comes with a lot of obligations and responsibilities, most owners find that the benefits of living in a home that is effectively a unique piece of history far outweigh the admin work required when making alterations. Afterall, listed buildings that have been standing for centuries not only have abundant character and beautiful period features, but also have solid structures that have stood the test of time.
As long as you follow the correct processes, you can have a stunning and unique home that you can still make your own.
Tim Allcott MRICS, Allcott Associates
0333 200 7198; www.allcottassociates.co.uk