Owning one of Britain’s historic buildings can be a source of great pride, but there are a few things that you’ll need to know before you buy a listed building. Here we aim to shed some light on what owning a listed building entails and we’ll explore the different types of listed status you may encounter across England and Wales.
What is a listed building?
It makes sense to start off with a brief explanation of what a listed building is, as not everyone will be fully aware of what the term means. Listed buildings are properties that have been included on the National Heritage List and deemed to be of ‘special architectural or historical interest’.
This inclusion comes with a duty of care that the owner must abide with in order to preserve the special character that led to the building being listed. The responsibility that comes with owning a listed building can include the upkeep of both the exterior and interior of the property, as well as the surrounding area. Other parts of the property may also need to be preserved such as courtyards, garden walls and even any period statuary situated within the grounds.
There may be exceptions to what falls under your care when you own a listed building. Many flats, for example, are part of a greater listed building but their interiors are not always required to be kept in their original state. Communal areas such as hallways and grounds may be protected, however. If you are unsure of what exactly you need to maintain and protect, we’ll explain later in this article who your point of contact should be for such enquiries.
How are buildings listed?
Historic England will generally put new proposals before the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport for listing. According to the Town and Country Planning Act (1990), the definition of a ‘building’ – ‘Any structure or erection, and any part of a building, as so defined’ – provides great scope for all manner of man-made structures to be included on the list.
All buildings that were built prior to 1700 and are still standing in a condition resembling their original state have been listed. Those dated between 1701 and 1840 have mostly been included on the list, but there is an element of selectivity involved, while structures dating from 1841 to 1914 are more rigorously assessed.
These buildings are generally given listed status if they demonstrate a particularly notable feature, were built by a named architect, or show a particular technological advancement. Buildings which were built post WWI are now being presented to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport for consideration.
How are listed buildings graded?
Once accepted onto the list, buildings are given a grade:
Grade I buildings are those deemed to be of exceptional interest. As one might expect, these are the rarest of the three groups with only 2.5 per cent of all listed buildings falling into this category.
Grade II* buildings are regarded as being particularly important and of greater interest than those graded as Grade II. Grade II* make up around 5.5 per cent of all listed buildings.
Buildings within the Grade II category are deemed to be of special interest, and it is this grade that prospective listed building homeowners will likely find themselves purchasing. This class is by far the most common of all the grades, with 92 per cent of all listed buildings deemed to be Grade II.
Oddly, the total number of listed buildings is somewhat of a mystery. This is because one listing can cover a number of different structures, such as a row of terraced houses, for example. However, Historic England estimates the total to be in excess of 500,000.
Buying a listed building
At first glance, buying a listed property may appear to be no different to purchasing any other home. However, there are a few points that need to be taken into consideration:
Applying for a mortgage on a listed building can lead to the lender asking you to make alterations prior to funds being made available. If this happens to you, you should seek out professional advice before committing to any such work. Common recommendations include underpinning, damp-proofing, re-thatching etc.
Solicitors and surveyors
Experience is key when employing the services of both solicitors and surveyors. Ensure that your solicitor has experience in dealing in this area as there are certain differences between buying an ordinary home and a listed building.
Similarly, you should seek out a ‘conservation’ surveyor to make the necessary checks on your building. They will be well versed in the common problems associated with listed buildings and be better equipped to spot any issues that may be missed by a less qualified surveyor.
Insuring a listed property is obviously an essential part of owning such a building, but it can throw up one or two issues. One such problem is the fact that you will more than likely be expected to replace like-for-like should anything happen to the building. This demand for traditional techniques and materials can significantly increase the overall cost of a rebuild, so it’s important to be aware that your insurance bill may be greater than it would ordinarily be.
Will I be able to make alterations to my listed building?
Yes, but you must get in contact with your Conservation Officer first. Your Conservation Officer will generally be a local council official who will be on hand to advise you about any changes you wish to make to your property. When assessing your plans, the Conservation Officer will need to ensure that any alterations you intend to carry out will not impact on the overall character of the building.
They will be able to advise you on the correct types of materials to use and even give you pointers as to which techniques will preserve the building’s original state the best. Many regard the process to be similar to acquiring planning permission, although those seeking Listed Building Consent will not incur any fees. Any work carried out, other than the most basic maintenance and repairs, must be granted consent.
While this may sound like the deck will be stacked against you, Conservation Officers are fully aware of the need to adapt properties to make them habitable for contemporary living. Adding new kitchens and bathrooms should not be an issue, but major works – such as extensions, for example - may incur greater scrutiny.
That being said, each piece of work will be assessed on an individual basis. So, providing that the special character of the building will be preserved, there may be scope to make large alterations. This will generally be under the proviso that you ensure the extension matches the original building. However, in some instances, your Conservation Officer may ask you to make major changes as modern as possible so that there is a clear distinction between the two structures.
Do I really need to get consent?
Most definitely. Failing to get authorisation for work completed on a listed building is a criminal offence, and there is an important point to be made here for new owners. Regardless of when the work was carried out or who did it, the current owner is liable. Therefore, it is absolutely essential when purchasing a listed building that you ensure that any changes made by previous occupants have been granted Listed Building Consent.
If you do not make the necessary checks and later fall foul of the law, you will be expected to complete any work required to revert the building back to its original state.
Common issues with listed buildings
As one might expect when buying a property of significant age, there are one or two problems that may arise.
Probably the greatest problem facing listed buildings is damp. Older buildings can fall foul of damp relatively easily, but there are steps that you can take to prevent it. Making sure that your roof is in good order, your walls are sound and the floor is made up of well-ventilated timber will help keep the dreaded damp at bay.
Many older homes will have poor plumbing. While this is not such a difficult thing to sort out, it can become a headache if you fail to address the issue quickly enough. Burst pipes can cause considerable damage, so it is worth putting plumbing at the top of your to-do list.
Old windows, large gaps underneath doors and poor insulation can all lead to draughts, making your listed building extremely inefficient. While things such as double glazing will generally be frowned upon by your Conservation Officer, there are ways to make things better. Secondary glazing, for example, is usually deemed acceptable.
Similar to plumbing, the electrics in period homes can be a cause for concern. Building regulations have changed dramatically over the last few decades, so bringing your listed building up to scratch may end up being a costly affair. Poor electrics can cause fires, especially in timber-heavy properties, so this is another area that requires immediate attention.
Buying a listed building can certainly be a rewarding experience, but it is not something that should be embarked upon lightly. If you require any further advice or would like to speak to one of our expert agents about any other property related issues, contact us today - we’re here to help.