What to check before buying a listed building

However desirable, owning a listed building can be an expensive and bureaucratic nightmare. Here's what you need to know before you make an offer.

Listed buildings

Buying a listed building

Listed buildings usually have special architectural and/or historical interest. As an ownership proposition, listed buildings tend to ooze character and desirability. However, restrictions over their use and development, as well as the upkeep obligations and costs, can take the shine off ownership.

If the current owner has carried out any unauthorised works or modifications, then the liability to remedy the situation will pass to the new owner - and failing to comply is a criminal offence.

Local authorities can take action to enforce the reversion or repair of the property to its original state. There are no time limits, so a local authority could take action years, or even decades after the works were carried out.

The 3 levels of listing

In England and Wales there are 3 levels of listed building:

  • Grade I - of exceptional national architectural or historic importance
  • Grade II* - of particular national importance & special interest
  • Grade II - of special architectural or historic interest (approx 94% of buildings are Grade II)

How do I know if the property is listed?

If you are thinking about buying a listed building you should obtain as much information as possible. You should find out if any specific part of the property is mentioned in the listing as well as what obligations and restrictions are in place.

This information is freely available online from the English Heritage database.

More information on individual listed buildings can also be found on the planning section of the relevant local authority website.

Some local authorities provide access through the Heritage Gateway.

Ideally, you will have reviewed the English Heritage official listing before viewing the property. This way you can ask the owner any relevant questions at the earliest possible stage.

What if I want to alter or extend the property?

Buying a listed property does not necessarily mean that you won't be able to modify it.

As a rule of thumb, it is usually easier to get consent to extend a listed property, than to remove part of it.

If you do plan to make alterations you should prepare yourself for significant added bureaucracy, cost and time when seeking consent.

Typically any alterations will need to be carried out in the same or similar materials. How far these requirements go can be at the individual whim of the planning officer. It is not unheard of for the planning officers to disagree on what is required and the owner gets caught in the middle.

Checklists

Referring to the following checklists could help identify any issues and resolve any concerns as early as possible in the process:

Before the viewing

  • Speak to the estate agent. Ask the agent if the property is listed and if there are any issues relating to the listing.
  • Check the English Heritage website to confirm what restrictions and obligations affect the owner. Check whether anything specific is mentioned in the official listing.
  • Check whether there are any obligations to contribute to the upkeep of other buildings, such as a local church. Obligations towards the upkeep of other buildings will normally be picked up by the chancel search and title investigation during the conveyancing process.

During the viewing

  • Look for evidence of alterations, extensions, loft conversion etc.
  • Does any part of the property look out of keeping? e.g. PVC double glazed windows. Windows are a major part of a property's aesthetic. To preserve this aesthetic, local authorities often refuse double glazing applications.
  • If present, ask the seller:
    • if they have made (or are aware of previous owners having made) any alterations to the property.
    • If the appropriate consents were obtained
    • what the cost of buildings insurance is and are there any aspects of the building that the insurer will not cover
    • if there have been any other issues relating to the building's listed status

Pre-offer

  • Obtain a few buildings insurance quotes and make sure that the full listed building rebuild cost (to the exacting conservation officer's standards) are covered.
  • Contact the Listed Building Owners Club (LPOC). The LPOC is an advice service dedicated to helping the owners of listed buildings. The LPOC will also provide a list of insurers that specialise in listed buildings.
    Some of the LPOC insurers can even offer protection against undiscovered unauthorised work through specialist insurance policies.
  • Double-check that your lender is prepared to lend on a listed building. The LPOC can again be of invaluable help here as they can put you in touch with a specialist broker.

Post Offer

  • Don't try and save costs by buying without a survey - listed buildings tend to be older (all buildings built pre-1700 are listed). They may be built out of traditional or unique materials that can be very expensive to repair or replace.
  • Instruct a RICS chartered surveyor for the survey. The LPOC will provide a list of approved surveyors who specialise in listed buildings.
  • If you plan to alter the property, you could have an outline conversation with an architect with experience in pleasing the local planning and conservation officer.
  • Tell your conveyancer that the property is listed at the outset.

Your next step

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Gaynor Haliday, Legal researcher

Author:
Gaynor Haliday, Legal researcher