9th February 2023

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Buyers’ Guide: Buying a Listed Building

When you buy a listed property you are buying not just a home but a piece of British history. But these architectural beauty queens come with strings attached.

Listed houses and flats possess plenty of character, style, and period charm. But there are costs attached to their ownership, and you are going to need to be prepared to get your head around the sometimes-frustrating vagaries of the British planning system:

What is a listed building?

Before the Second World War Britain’s treasure trove of landmark buildings had almost no protection whatsoever – a sorry state of affairs which saw fine ancient buildings routinely demolished or altered beyond recognition.

During the 1950’s the Government began drawing up plans for a new system to halt this practice by enlisting experts to assess the nation’s old buildings. Then – if they merited it on the basis of their architectural or historical interest – they could be awarded what is known as listed status.

From the buyer’s point of view it is crucial to understand that a listed building cannot be demolished or altered without a special listed building planning permission from the local council, called listed building consent.

Establishing the listed building system was long and slow – even Buckingham Palace didn’t make it onto the list until 1970 – and the conservation organisation Historic England continues to add buildings to the list every year.

Today there are around half a million listed buildings in England, divided into three categories.

Grade I listed buildings are the superstars – think the elegant Regency terraces around Regent’s Park – and only a tiny 2.5 per cent of all listed buildings are included in this top layer.

Grade II* buildings are considered extra special, but not quite Grade I standard. They make up about six per cent of all listed buildings.

The vast majority of listed buildings have a Grade II rating – this means they are considered to be especially good examples of their era and style. They encompass everything from tiny mews houses to modernist concrete houses. Most private homes which come onto the market with listed status will be Grade II listed.

Why buy a listed building?

For many buyers the key benefit of buying a listed property is the priceless satisfaction which comes from owning a beautiful piece of British history – these period properties are the best of the best.

As well as fine architecture, listed homes are often full of original features, from beams to panelling and fireplaces, which give them tremendous character.

Often listed buildings occupy absolutely premier locations, because many of London’s finest crescents and garden squares are listed. Black Brick recently acted for American clients keen to invest in a family home in Notting Hill. Theirs was a tough ask. They wanted one of the neighbourhood’s exquisite townhouses, with access to a communal garden, and this kind of home doesn’t come onto the market very often. We did, however, manage to find  them an off market home on Kensington Park Gardens, which they loved, and secured with an asking price offer of £21.5m. Such is demand for this location that haggling over the price would not have been appropriate.

Location aside, if a whole street or square is listed it means that all the houses are protected and there is little chance of a beautiful, symmetrical Georgian terrace or pretty mews being ruined by an ungainly modern addition.

What are the downsides?

Owners of listed properties simply do not have the same freedom to alter their homes as those with more ordinary homes.

And what you can and cannot do to a listed property is not a totally clear cut question. All cases are treated on an individual basis and different councils – and even different council officers – have subtly different listed buildings consent requirements.

In very simple terms the higher the listing is the more restricted you will be. You are likely to be able to modernise and extend a Grade II listed home – our American family in Notting Hill went on to win permission for a refurbishment of their house and the addition of a basement swimming pool, upping its value to north of £30m.

But you will also have to be prepared to jump through some hoops if you wish to follow suit. Depending on the individual property you may need to apply listed building consent for even the simplest project – repairing the front door, wallpapering the living room. And, because listed buildings are almost all old you are going to need to do very regular maintenance work.

If you want to make major changes to a property, like altering the layout or extending, you will certainly need listed building consent (and, probably, planning permission too). Your local council, or an architect or planning consultant, can advise you on when you need to make an application. Don’t be tempted to take a chance because carrying out work without the correct permissions could result in a very hefty fine or even, in extreme cases, jail time.

Make sure you employ advisors with a track record in dealing with your local authority as they will be aware of any special local policies or foibles.

Many councils do not charge for an application for listed building consent, others request a nominal fee. But if you do need professional assistance then the cost of winning consent is going to mount up.

Then there is the cost of the work itself. Often councils grant permission for a listed property project on the condition that the materials and techniques used mirror the history of the home. This could mean needing to find an expert in lime wash plaster if you wish to redecorate, or finding a joiner capable of restoring, rather than replacing, warped panelling. This kind of expertise costs more than a regular contractor.

You will also have to submit to regular inspections by the council and, in some cases, Historic England officials, to make sure that the work is being done properly.

What is the situation if I want to buy an apartment within a listed building?

The good news is that  the complication faced by house owners is considerably reduced if you are after a flat. The freeholder or managing agent will deal with any works required to the exterior of the building and its common area.

And since the building has already been radically altered from its original state when it was converted, local councils are more likely to be amenable to further changes to the interiors of individual properties.

Black Brick recently helped a South American client buy a £3.4m apartment at Oceanic House, formerly the London headquarters of the White Star Line (of Titanic fame). Developers had spent years on converting the building, tucked behind Leicester Square, and our client could move straight in. We steered him away from the show flat, because we can see through fixtures and fittings, and not only found him an larger property with a better layout but secured him an £800,000 (almost 20 per cent) discount.

Are listed homes hard to insure?

There are plenty of insurers willing to take on a listed home. But a knock on effect of higher building costs on listed homes is that insurance premiums tend to be higher than standard home insurance. You may need to find specialist cover for a listed home if it is particularly unique.

Are listed buildings energy efficient?

In a word, no. These homes were not built with integral insulation. If they still have their original windows they will be single glazed. And while their grand, high ceilings are certainly elegant, the volume of the rooms makes them more expensive to heat.

There is nothing to stop you making simple improvements like adding loft insulation, insulating curtains, and chimney balloons to eliminate draughts.

But you will need listed building consent if you want to take more drastic steps: replacing original windows with double glazed versions, or installing heat pumps, solar panels, and underfloor heating.

Whether you will get permission for this kind of work is, frankly, a toss up. Councils up and down the country are struggling between their desire to protect Britain’s heritage, and the undeniable need to reduce domestic carbon emissions. There have certainly been cases of owners of Grade II listed homes being allowed to install double glazing (so long as the frames are timber and they look identical to the originals). Equally other homeowners have been refused.

It is an evolving arena, and if you are considering taking on a home which needs this kind of work it would be well worth requesting the advice of a planning consultant – or simply calling your council, asking for the conservation team, and gauging their stance on this kind of work.

What should I look out for when the time comes to sell?

Because there is a finite supply of listed homes, and plenty of people who aspire to own one, they are certainly not White Elephant properties.

There will always be buyers deterred by the extra effort and costs involved which means your potential pool of buyers will be smaller than if you were selling a more everyday home.

Ultimately it has to be a matter of personal choice – yours and your potential future buyers.

If you are satisfied with everyday, then there isn’t a huge amount of point going out of your way to take on something special with strings attached. If you want the quality and patina that a historic home possesses then you will consider it worth the effort.

One small piece of advice if you do buy a listed home is to keep hold of all of the paperwork relating to work you have had done. If you don’t have all the relevant permits to hand your buyer could face legal action if mistakes have been made. Their solicitor will most certainly check this and a sale could be derailed if you’ve installed the wrong style of light switches.

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