Buying historic or listed buildings: things to consider

21 March 2019

Older buildings can have much to offer a potential buyer.  You may be buying rural land which includes historic farm buildings or dreaming of a family home full of heritage and history.  Before you proceed with your purchase, it is worth bearing in mind that an older building can also bring with it a number of potential pitfalls.

Of course, one of the attractions of an historic building is that each one is unique. The following is only an overview; if you have a specific property in mind, please contact us to discuss further.

Get a survey

A building that has stood for hundreds of years could nevertheless have any number of structural problems.  We recommend that before you commit to any purchase you arrange for a detailed survey to be carried out by a surveyor who has experience of dealing with similar properties.

Where are the deeds?

If the land has been in the same ownership for a long time, it may not have been registered at the Land Registry.  Your purchase will trigger compulsory first registration, and there are a number of things to check, such as:

  • Are all the deeds available? If any of the documents have been lost or destroyed at some point during the building's history, it may be harder to prove ownership.
  • Do the boundaries shown on the plans include all the land you think you are buying?
  • Will you have all the rights of access you need over neighbouring land?
  • Do third parties have rights over the property?

Have works been carried out at the property?

Is the building listed? If a building or structure is of particular architectural or historical interest, it may be included on the National Heritage List for England.  The list is maintained by Historic England, and can be found on their website.

Any works to a listed building, however minor, may require Listed Building Consent. Listed Building Consent is separate from planning permission (which may also be needed).  Carrying out alterations without the required Listed Building Consent is a criminal offence.

Before you buy the property, you will need to be sure that previous owners obtained Listed Building Consent for any works they carried out.  There is no time limit on enforcement action, so if you buy a house where unauthorised alterations have been carried out, or where the alterations have not complied with any conditions, it will be your responsibility to rectify the problem. This could mean:

  • you will have to apply for retrospective Listed Building Consent (and pay any costs involved)
  • you will have to carry out works to remove the alterations and reinstate the building as it was. Depending on what has been done to the property, this could be a costly and lengthy process.
  • you are unable to sell the property in the future, or the value is decreased.

Can you use the building as planned?

Before you commit to buy, consider how you intend to use the property.  Are you planning to develop or extend the building, or does it require modernisation?  As mentioned above, if it is listed then any works, however small, may require Listed Building Consent as well as planning permission.  Additionally, is the building in a conservation area?  If any of these things apply, it is possible you will need to comply with certain conditions (such as using specified materials or building techniques) or could be prevented from carrying out the alterations altogether. Your local authority will be able to confirm whether consent is needed.

Finally, it is worth bearing in mind that any structures (including barns, sheds, stables, cottages and so on) that pre-date July 1948 and are within the curtilage of a listed building are to be treated as part of that listed building, and the comments above would apply to that structure too. There is no legal definition of 'curtilage', and so establishing whether a nearby building is within the curtilage of your listed building can be difficult and is not simply a question of proximity.  We would recommend that you speak to your local authority or Historic England for more information if you think this might be relevant to any property you are interested in.

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