In the know: Buying a listed home

Philip Ryder from Thomas Legal on what you need to know before buying a listed property

"We have found our dream home, a beautiful 17th century cottage. We want to make an offer but the house is listed and various alterations have been made over the years. What do we need to know?"

English Heritage is responsible for maintaining the National Heritage List of listed buildings in England, the purpose being to recognise and celebrate the wealth of historical, cultural and architectural interest in this country. The planning system, working alongside the list, preserves that heritage for future generations. Almost all buildings built before 1700 are listed, as are the majority built before 1840. Generally, the older a building is, the more likely it is to be on the list. There are over 300,000 listed buildings in England, and different categories of listing. Only a small proportion are Grade I Listed - buildings of exceptional interest - palaces and castles, for example. Grade II Listed buildings are buildings of more than special interest, and the majority of listed buildings are Grade II Listed – those of national importance and of special interest.

Buying and owning a listed building can be a great pleasure but it will come with additional planning obligations. Buyers need to know what they are buying, what changes have been made in the past, and with what consents. You also need to what you can and cannot do in the future, taking into account your plans for the property. Your solicitor will carry out a search via the local authority and obtain a copy of the listing itself. Speak to English Heritage with any queries. Most listings cover the whole building, including the interior, unless parts of it are specifically excluded in the list description. It can also cover other attached structures and fixtures, garden features and extensions or additions carried out after the date of the listing. The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act recently made amendments to the planning laws that allow English Heritage to say definitively whether attached or curtilage structures are protected, and provide clarification about whether a part or feature of a listed building is not of special interest, for the purposes of listed building consent.

The fact that a building is listed does not mean that it cannot be altered but listed building consent must be applied for in order to make any changes, along with the usual consents. Listed buildings can be altered and extended in consultation with the local authority, who use listed building consent to make decisions about balancing the historic significance of a house against other issues such as its function, condition or viability. If you wish to make alterations you should liaise with the listed building officer at the local authority, only making changes after having obtained listed building consent and in accordance with the terms of that consent.

When buying a listed property it is important to understand what changes have been made since the date of the listing. It is wise to arrange for an expert to check all such changes because it is very difficult, often impossible, to obtain insurance to protect against the risk if these have been made without consent. Equally, obtaining retrospective listed building consent can be expensive and risky. The law contains a number of criminal offences aimed at protecting historic buildings, making it an offence to carry out works that require listed building consent without such consent. Not all works need consent (for example, in Grade II Listed buildings, generally you can decorate without asking permission), but major work such as demolition, alteration or extension certainly will do.

The local authority decides whether proposed changes will affect the character of a building, so check first. Consent often requires traditional building methods or materials to be used - this can increase the cost of maintenance, of course. However, none of this should deter you from buying a piece of the wonderful architectural history of England – just ensure you investigate all the implications, costs and responsibilities that come with it, first. 

Philip Ryder is a Partner at Thomas Legal – one of the Cotswolds’ premier property law firms: The Conveyancing Experts. Please contact him via email at philip.ryder@tlg.uk.com or via the website www.thomaslegalgroup.co.uk for information on the cost of conveyance upon your property sale or purchases.