England and Wales boast half a million listed buildings, each with its own story to tell. Many of us dream of owning one of these chocolate-box cottages or sprawling historic houses. But while the idea may seem very appealing, living in a listed property is not always plain sailing.
Homes with a heritage are usually lovely to look at. They are often positioned in prime locations as they were built a long time before any modern development. Listed homes also tend to be full of rustic charm or bursting with period features, such as high ceilings and cornicing.
The problem is owners are subject to some restrictive regulations – and a lot of red tape – when it comes to renovations. “Buying a listed property can add a new set of challenges, and it’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into,” says Jo Eccles, managing director of buying agency, Sourcing Property.
Peter Bell, a conservation officer for the Listed Property Owners Club (LPOC), says: “Buildings are listed in order to preserve their character, so the local planning authority will often take a conservative approach to an extension or alteration. Equally, some of the laws and regulations that limit what you can change about a listed property date back hundreds of years - and come as a surprise.”
Here, we look at the key issues you need to think about before setting your heart on a period home.
1. Find out the grading
First off, find out what grading the building has, as this will restrict what you are able to do.
There are three levels of listing in England and Wales: Grade I, Grade II and Grade II* – and a Grade-I listed building will have more restrictions than one that is Grade-II listed.
You can find out if a property is listed - and to what extent - on the planning section of the local council’s website. You can also call LPOC to help you establish this.
Listed status England and Wales
Grade I - Buildings of outstanding or national architectural or historic interest.
Grade II* - Particularly significant buildings of more than local interest.
Grade II - Buildings of special historic or architectural interest.
Listed status Scotland
Buildings of national or international importance, either architectural or historic; or fine, little altered examples of some particular period, style or building type.
Buildings of regional or more than local importance, or major examples of some particular period, style or building type, which may have been altered.
Buildings of local importance, lesser examples of any period, style or building type, as originally constructed or moderately altered, and simple, traditional buildings that group well with other listed buildings.
Using a similar system to Scotland, Northern Ireland’s listed buildings are graded A, B+, B1 and B2.
2. Local authority consent to make changes
If you plan to do work to a listed property, don’t make any assumptions. You will need to apply for consent from the local authority; this is the case even for something as simple as putting up a satellite dish.
“A listing pertains to an entire property – both internal and external – and requires listed building consent in order to carry out works,” says Richard Barber, a director at prime central London estate agency, W A Ellis. “Failure to obtain the appropriate consent is a criminal offence.”
Mark Lawson, a partner at buying consultancy The Buying Solution, says that it’s easier to make an addition to listed houses than to demolish or change anything that already exists. “It may be easier to add an extension or indoor pool, which doesn’t alter the main original part of the property, than to remove an original feature, such as a fireplace or internal wall,” he says.
“If a feature is specifically mentioned in the official listing document, you haven’t got a chance of changing it, so check this very carefully.”
The best approach is to buy a listed building because of its special characteristics, not despite them.
3. Cost of repairs and maintenance
Traditional buildings rely on maintenance far more than a modern home, and budget for this.
“Priority should be given to keeping the building dry, as excessive moisture can cause a lot of problems,” says Mr Bell.
“Also, check the integrity and effectiveness of the roof coverings, gutters, downpipes and drains. If you are carrying out repairs, such as repointing or window repairs, try to keep as much of the historic fabric as possible – and the repair to the minimum required. Note that ‘off-the-shelf’ doors and windows are unlikely to be acceptable to the local planning authority.”
When doing work, be aware that specialist materials might be required. “For example, if there is a lathe-and- plaster ceiling, it is likely that the planning department will want it replicated,” says Mr Barber. “Specialist finishes such as this can be more costly than modern methods.”
Restoring the original features can require a specialist tradesman, which can add another layer of expense.
4. Seek out a specialist
“The wrong surveyor can give poor, inappropriate, and very costly advice,” warns Mr Bell. So have a survey by a building surveyor who specialises in historic buildings before buying.
Once you’ve moved in and want to carry out works or make changes, consider hiring a heritage specialist or planning consultant to advise you on what is acceptable; this will ensure you are doing everything correctly.
“Conservation officers can vary on what they like and dislike,” says Mr Lawson. “It’s worth consulting a really good architect or planning adviser who is used to dealing with listed properties in that particular area.”
5. Check on past work
Have any works carried out by previous owners been authorised? “Check that the appropriate listed building consent has been gained,” says Jessica Parkinson, a consultant at property buying agency Black Brick. “If not, you will inherit any problems.”
Chris Carey, the head of residential property at property consultant Bidwells, adds: “If the property does not correspond exactly with the plans on the consents, you, as the new owner, will be the one liable to correct any mistakes.”
Having adequate specialist insurance in place will prove invaluable. Look out for cover for pre-existing works carried out by previous owners without local authority approval.
“We had to jump over a lot of hurdles”
Chris and Dionne Munn, both aged 43, know all too well about the laws and regulations that limit the changes that can be made to a listed property.
The couple, who have three children – Rhianna, 10, Alice, seven, and James, six – bought a five-bedroom, end-of-terrace property in Sevenoaks, Kent, around a decade ago. This was the first listed property either of them had ever owned.
“We fell in love with the place as soon as we set eyes on it,” says Chris, an asset manager.“We loved the period features – and its huge garden.”
However, Chris and Dionne first came up against the restrictive regulations when they wanted to replace their front door.“This was only a small change,” says Chris.“Yet the whole process involved a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between us, the Parish Council and the conservation officer, and in all it took us three months to get approval.”
More recently, the couple have faced some major hurdles when trying to get approval for a two-storey extension to the side of the property.“The aim is to give us a bigger kitchen with more windows, as well as a utility room, and an extra bedroom with an en-suite,” says Chris.
The couple first had their plans drawn up by architects back in November 2013, and then got a second set of drawings done once they had the initial comments back from the conservation officer.
They then submitted their plans to the council in March 2014, but faced another setback when a new conservation officer was appointed, as he had different views from the first one.
“We had to jump over a lot of hurdles,” says Chris. “This included having around 15 councillors from the Development Control Committee come around to visit the property, and us then having to present to them in August 2014; unsurprisingly, they pushed back at lots of our plans.”
Once again, there was a lot more to-ing and fro-ing – including the Munns having to go back to the Development Control Committee in November 2014 – to demonstrate that they had complied with all the necessary requirements.
“Eventually, our plans were approved in January 2015,” says Chris. “Though even then, we were given certain conditions we had to comply with, including a certain type of tile we had to use, and a particular mortar between the bricks.”
The whole process has taken just over two years, and it’s only now that work has been able to start.
“If we’d known a few years ago what we know now, then we may have done things differently,” says Chris. “The problem is, when you move in, you just don’t know what’s possible.
Aesthetically, living in a listed property is wonderful. But you need to realise that trying to make changes will involve a lot of red tape along the way, as well as discussions with various stakeholders on seemingly innocuous topics that must be patiently resolved.”
Prepare for the unexpected
Here are three extraordinary problems experienced by members of the Listed Property Owners Club:
- Living near a church – if you live close to a church, you may be liable to pay for repairs to the church, as well as your home, under chancel repair laws, dating back to Henry VIII.
- A thatched roof – if your property has a thatched roof, this will need to be repaired and replaced every few years. You need to ensure it’s not made too tall, or with the wrong type of thatch, or you may have to take it down.
- Double glazing – check how warm your home will be in the winter, as double glazing is frequently not permitted in listed properties.