Look before you leap

Guidelines to buying an old building

[nb: this leaflet was available to Local Authority Planning Departments and Estate Agents for distribution to their clients. It is published by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, with whom the copyright is vested, and which can be contacted for further information, though the leaflet itself seems to be now out of print.]

Are you thinking of buying an old building for the first time? The chances are you will be carried away by the appeal of the property, the pleasure of possessing somewhere with special character, and the usual high emotion and anxiety connected with house buying. But stop, just for a few moments, and read these notes.

We at the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings are concerned with the fate of historic buildings, and are aware how many buildings can be ruined, their special character obliterated or swept away, by the ill-advised and hasty actions of new purchasers. These mistakes usually arise because of ignorance rather than malevolence towards historic buildings. The fault may be laid at the feet of professional advisers, builders, owners, or all three.

These notes are, then, reminders or early warnings of difficulties ahead. By offering a number of common-sense steps to follow, they may well save you trouble and even money. They are the kind of things that in the excitement of the chase you might just not think about. From our point of view, at the SPAB, they are also in the best interests of any historic building.

Making Your Choice

First: before your jump, pause a moment and consider. Is this building the right one for you? It may have magical qualities, but they may be distracting you from reality. If your preference is for vast, uncluttered spaces, don’t purchase a cramped cottage and then attempt to turn it into a double height hall, or vice versa. Countless converted churches, schools and barns around the country are proof that standard domestic living areas rarely sit well in a building that once offered soaring space.

Don’t buy an old building unless you are prepared to accept its particular character, its quirks, even its warts. It is essential that you adapt to it, rather than trying to iron it into shape according to a completely different model. There was no standardisation in old buildings; they followed the logic of their location, the dictates of materials and the skills of the period. If you make those undulating plaster walls around the house plumb-straight, with every corner razor-sharp, your cob cottage will have disappeared. You will have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. In an unaltered property, the door and windows will follow the proportions of the building as a whole. Replacement doors and windows, especially those easily bought off-the-shelf, have no such sympathetic relationship to the building.

Professional Guidance

Your initial survey may well be carried out by a surveyor with no specialist experience in historic buildings, particularly one employed by a mortgage company. It is worth asking whether he or she is familiar with Section GNA 2 of the RICS Appraisal and Valuation Manual (the so-called Red Book) which concerns the surveying of old buildings. Problems of liability mean that a surveyor is likely to draw attention to all apparent defects. Remember that by no means all the points raised in a surveyor’s report will be a cause for concern or will require immediate action.

Once you have completed the purchase, seek professional advice at the earliest possible moment. Try to find someone who is a specialist on old buildings of this type and period, and ask to look at other work they have done. The specialist could be an architect or a chartered surveyor; it is their expertise and attitude to the building which is the issue. The same applies to your choice of builder, or the firm nominated for the job. Ensure that you have found the best people for the job. It may take time.

Cardinal Rules

Move slowly. Get to know the property thoroughly, find out everything you can about it. Explore cupboards, roof spaces, cellar – anywhere might throw up important clues. You will discover evidence of how it was built and of its problems – which may have been dealt with successfully long ago. The more you know about your own building, the better client you will be, the easier it will be to brief a professional adviser or to work with a builder.

Don’t start ripping out the building carelessly – what may appear to be worthless and immediately disposable should offer clues to a practised eye. If in doubt, always ask for a second opinion.

Work out what you can afford. Spend your money first on the essentials; repairs to the fabric can be expensive and depressingly mundane but ignore them at your peril. The ‘mod cons’ and the enjoyable things like decoration can follow – your reward for all that you have endured. When work starts, make sure that all interior features are protected thoroughly. Even the most careful and conscientious builder can have an accident.

Practical Guidelines

Once work is under discussion, bear in mind some basic guidelines. Respect the changes of the past and avoid guesswork and conjectural restoration. Fashions come and go in this field as in any other – steer clear. Work with what you have; don’t attempt to make a simple house grandiose, or to disguise a building converted from another use. Make the most of what you have got. After all, that was what drew you to the building in the first place!

When you have to add to the building or do new work in the interior, don’t ape the existing. Try to find someone who can understand the character and qualities of the old but can add their own contribution, respecting the proportions and form of the building. The new work should be honestly of its time, our own time.

Avoid experimental materials, wonder-cures and miracle chemicals. Stay with tried and tested materials. Remember, the old, traditional materials and finishes were textured, rather than highly finished, porous not impervious. By using the wrong material, employing a ham-fisted builder or an arrogant professional you can blot out the character, age and charm of an historic building in a matter of hours.

In recent years there has been a revival in many traditional materials and finishes; keeping the character of your house is easier now than it was twenty or thirty years ago.

In the long-term, the old adage is to do little, and often, to keep an old building in good condition. That is the best approach, from the very beginning.

Good Sense Pays

All these principles suggest that an historic building is something to be approached circumspectly and treated with great care. But, if you are unconvinced, remember that the house that best reflects its age and character, while offering a comfortable and practical interior, will prove to be the most easily saleable in the future. Nothing is more off-putting than a house on which too much money has been spent, to the wrong ends, and on which the purchaser has to spend more – getting rid of someone else’s “improvements”.

Your building may be listed

Your solicitor should have told you while you were buying the house. Don’t rely on the estate agent’s particulars which may not mention it. Your local planning authority should be able to supply you with a copy of the list description, which gives some information about why it was listed. Just because the description does not specifically mention a particular feature does not mean it is not legally protected.

If the building is listed, you will need listed building consent for any work, to the inside as well as the outside, whatever its Grade, if it affects the character of the building. As soon as possible contact the conservation officer in your local planning department to discuss whether an application is required, and, if it is, how to go about it. Listing does not automatically stop you making changes: it ensures that what you propose is given careful consideration. Obtaining consent takes time, so don’t leave it until the last minute.

Remember, if you receive listed building consent for an alteration, you may be able to avoid paying VAT on that part of the work. But if you go ahead without any consent, you could be prosecuted and be forced to undertake expensive remedial works.

Your local conservation officer, if your council employs one, should offer encouragement and advice and may be able to direct you to possible sources of grant aid.

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings can also help. Members of the Society can receive a quarterly list of historic buildings that need repair and which are for sale.

We sell a wide range of publications on the repair of old buildings, covering subjects such as damp, pointing, and window repair. We run special courses, including an annual weekend course specially designed for the owners of old buildings. We can help you go about choosing a professional adviser or finding a supplier of traditional materials. We also have a technical advice service, and try to answer individual questions about the care and maintenance of old houses of every sort.

By dunbarheritage

an eye on built and natural heritage in and around dunbar