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Nov 17

How to buy an old building with your head, not your heart

Reading Time: 4 mins

The charm and character of a period property is undeniable, so it is little wonder that these old buildings have maintained their high level of popularity for decades. Who wouldn’t want to own a little piece of architectural history, complete with original features that modern homes can only dream of?

What’s more, buying an old building can also be a great investment. There’s a limited (and dwindling) supply of original period architecture, and with demand remaining strong, this should translate into a healthy financial return when you come to sell. So what’s the catch?

Well, they’re old buildings, aren’t they? Charming period houses can certainly cast a spell, but is the structure sound and has the building been well looked after through the years? Or are you buying a pile of as yet unknown problems that have the potential to be eye-wateringly expensive to fix further down the line? 

The golden rule of buying an older building is to always go with your head, not your heart. Now is not the time to act on ‘gut feeling’. Instead, take off the rose-tinted spectacles and pay some serious attention to whether the building represents good value for money before you sign on the dotted line. After all, you want to be buying your dream home, not a nightmare money pit.

Here are some tips for you to consider.


Is it a listed building or in a conservation area?

There are nearly half a million listed buildings in England alone. According to Historic England’s grading criteria, listed status denotes special historical or architectural interest of some or all parts of a building. In an effort to protect these features, planning restrictions apply and you must obtain listed building consent before you can make any changes. This may make it difficult to carry out your plans for home improvements.

Before you commit to a listed building, especially one that you wish to refurbish or otherwise improve, it’s important to do your research and find out what you can and cannot do. Your solicitor should be able to tell you if the building is listed and the reasons for it.

Some properties may not have listed status but be located in a conservation area. This means that structural or aesthetic changes to the building must remain in keeping with the historic setting of the neighbourhood, and additional permissions will be needed before you can make alterations. Arm yourself with all the necessary information at the outset, so you know what is involved.


Don’t skimp on the building survey

All property buyers are strongly advised to have an independent home survey carried out to help them understand the building, warts and all – though many don’t bother. With an older building, the risks of not having a survey done are vastly greater than with a modern home. Period properties tend to be full of quirks, in addition to having been around much longer,  so it is well worth spending the money on a full building survey.

Ideally, you should appoint an experienced RICS Chartered Surveyor who has particular experience of older buildings in order to ensure that you know what you’re getting into. Here’s how one expert in the field, Hutton + Rostron, reassures his clients about historic building surveys:

“Our building surveys are carefully researched and compiled documents for individual historic assets. They are drawn up to provide specific and detailed historical information and well as clear, actionable recommendations for any refurbishment or remedial work to be carried out. Our reports are trusted by Conservation Officers and are a valuable aid in statutory applications.”


Take a pragmatic approach to building problems

Given the age of the property in question, it would be odd to find that there were no concerns with the building. You should expect the building survey report to flag up some defects and indicate the urgency with which each repair would need to be carried out. Crucially, the report should also give cost estimates for each issue detected.

Older properties can be substantially more costly to fix than modern buildings. Particularly if you are dealing with a listed building, things that need serious attention may end up much more expensive than you might expect. Take a new roof, for instance. Some conservation authorities may require you to use original materials (which will cost more) even if there are cheaper modern materials that would look exactly the same.

The key is to go into the purchase of an old building with your eyes wide open, expecting there to be building works and obtaining accurate information on the issues that need addressing and how much they will cost to fix. That way, you can put together a realistic budget and schedule to put things right.


Expect higher ongoing costs

It is a fact that older buildings are more expensive to maintain than modern homes or new builds. Construction materials and methods have developed over time, meaning period buildings are typically less energy efficient compared to homes built to modern standards. The upkeep of period features such as sash windows, decorative coverings and original fireplaces will also cost more to look after.

When it comes to owning a historic home, there is clearly a choice to be made between the desire to own a piece of history and the day-to-day challenges of maintaining an older building. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say, so buy your dream home with your eyes wide open and without any nasty surprises that might spoil your enjoyment of living in such a characterful environment.



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