Derelict properties can seize the imagination in a wild romance of mellow brick, ancient timbers and warm stone. Who among us hasn’t paused by a tumbledown old barn on a hill and thought ‘what if…’?
Whilst the rewards can be spectacular, the works required can be daunting when viewed in the cold light of day. Many derelict houses and buildings never actually reach the open market, so if you have your eye on something, it can be worth doing some research on the Land Registry to find out who owns it and approaching them direct. Another very useful source is the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (www.spab.org.uk) which offers advice on restoration and details of specialist firms involved. They have a quarterly magazine which is well worth reading as an introduction to the subject as it carries detailed case studies and analysis of restoration works.
One has to be extremely clear-headed about major renovation projects and start with the most basic questions, such as ‘is the work I am wanting to do even legal?’ Don’t imagine that just because you have the imagination and drive to save an old building that the Local Planning Authority will agree with you. There may be any number of restrictions in place which might not be immediately obvious, such as those imposed by Listings, Heritage requirements, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and so on. Start by looking into the background of the building and the Local Planning Policy for clues. Councils now offer dedicated pre-application advice for a fee, which is not the same as a planning application but gives a good insight into the issues that might arise.
Once these issues are clarified, it’s time to call in the experts, starting with a specialist building surveyor and a structural engineer who between them will be able to start building a picture of how much work will be needed. Older structures will need careful examination of roof parts, walls strengths and foundations whilst 20th Century properties and especially former industrial sites should have an asbestos survey as well. Another point that is particularly relevant for rural properties is the supply of utilities. That old barn may well make an ideal home, but where is the nearest water main or electricity supply? If they have to cross someone else’s land to get to you, there will be costs involved and legal agreements to be drawn up.
Even getting to this point may well incur substantial costs before a single brick has been laid, so your funding is key to the whole project. You may find that many standard lenders are very reluctant to lend on ‘non-standard’ properties and that definition can include buildings with steel frames or concrete walls so an understanding financial institution or adviser is crucial as is a sensible budget and a contingency fund. Keep an eye, too on the local market: is what you are doing sensible and if you are not building for yourself, are you going to be able to sell it at a sensible price? You might be surprised how often people get carried away and forget this part.
It’s hard work, but an incredibly rewarding if it’s done right. A careful mixture of head and heart.
Edward Dixon MSc MRICS FAAV
Simmons & Sons, Henley on Thames