Could you turn an unwanted church into a heavenly home?

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The Independent Online

Church congregations have shrunk sharply in the last few decades – far from welcome news at the ecclesiastical job centre. But while this this fall-off may be troubling the souls of the faithful, it has given homebuyers a heavenly choice of unusual, spacious and often architecturally stunning properties, ripe for conversion.

Whereas previously converted churches for residential use appear with surprising regularity in estate agent windows, buying an unconverted church allows you far more scope to create the home you want.

"We sell a lot of churches now – about 10 in the last 18 months alone," says Phil Leonard at Yorkshire estate agency Scotts-Living. " Supply is caused by congregations declining and churches falling into a poor condition. But converting them is not straightforward. You have all the usual problems of restoring an old building with added complications such as having a graveyard around the property. As it will still be visited by the public, you cannot just build a fence around it and say it is private property.

"As well as the planning authority, you have got to deal with the church commissioners. You cannot move a gravestone without certain procedures, and the paperwork for exhuming is unbelievable. Most churches are listed buildings so you have to work within those structures too.

"We often find that many people get excited initially and then once they have done research they come to terms with what is on offer and fall by the wayside."

Other unexpected hurdles may include bats in the belfry. These animals are legally protected and cannot be evicted, which could cause havoc if the roof requires a spot of retiling.

"We have to go through the hoops of marketing for other uses before resorting to residential use for a redundant church," says Adrian Browning of the Redundant Churches Division of the Church of England. " We would prefer that it remains a place of worship of some kind, or of use to the community or offices. Residential use comes further down the list.

"Residential conversions account for about 20 per cent of uses for a redundant church. Proposing thata church be converted to residential use can cause unease locally and that puts people off. Architects' fees are a factor, too. They mount up especially as listed building consent is a lengthy process."

The percentage of churches converted to residential use varies greatly in different areas of the country. A far higher proportion of churches have been converted into homes in the diocese of Bath and Wells than the diocese of London since the early 1970s, for example.

Converting a church into a residential property can enable the creation of a very imaginative and original living space, especially if you have features like stained glass windows, high vaulted ceilings, elegant arches and deep stone mullions, as many do.

As a reflection of their high status in the community, many churches were built to a high standard and with quality materials that neighbouring properties could only pray for. Many have very thick walls that provide excellent insulation and strength, while the stonework can be a gorgeous addition to the landscape.

Yet anyone interested should remember that maintenance for old buildings can be expensive at the best of times, but if you have a large, sprawling, draughty old building like a church to care for and heat, your wallet is likely to take a very regular bashing.

Gloucestershire-based Stuart Levens has converted several churches in the past and is currently working on another in Truro, Cornwall.

"I do not believe there is anything sacred or special because you are converting a church," he says. "I like to get good use of a building whether it is listed or not.

"You have to make an allowance for the building not being a purpose-built house. They can be difficult to live in, and to retain the original feel of the church layout means the living space is not going to be as logical as it would be if you were building from scratch.

"It is important to try and keep living areas open. When people chop up churches to make them into flats it is not possible to retain the feel of it being a church.

"One area that people often don't know how to deal with is around the altar. There is often a lot of stained glass there, and people tend to think it should remain untouched. So they often put a kitchen there, and it just looks rather silly, like they are cooking at the altar. In that instance, I'd say it is OK to subdivide."

When it comes to renovating churches, architectural salvage firms are an excellent source of fixtures, fittings and furniture salvaged from other redundant churches. Cox's Architectural Salvage ( www.coxsarchitectural.co.uk) currently has pine church pews from £125, although a look at the stock at Lassco ( www.lassco.co.uk) underlines that church fixtures can be very valuable indeed. Lassco has for sale, for example, stained glass windows removed from redundant churches for up to £35,000, and a pair of Victorian carved oak choir stalls for £18,000.

Therefore, it is a good idea to ascertain exactly what will be removed from the church before you take ownership. The contents will usually be removed prior to completion but occasionally may remain, provided for in the sale or lease documents, or by separate loan agreement.

Save Britain's Heritage ( www.savebritainsheritage.org) has published 'A Question of Conversion', £9.95, a guide to the sympathetic redevelopment of religious buildings

Chichester All Saints, Chichester, West Sussex

Built of flint with stone dressings this largely 13th-century Grade II-listed church, with a 19th-century timber-vaulted ceiling, is coming on to the market soon with planning consent for residential use and a guide price of around £500,000. Contact Todd Miller Thomas (01243 532 222 ; www.todmillerthomas.co.uk).

St Peter's, Sacriston, Durham

This church, constructed from yellow sandstone and a roof of Welsh blue slate, was built in 1866 and extended in the late 1890s. There is planning permission for residential use and offers are invited in the region of £225,000 through Gray's (01388 487 007; ; www.grays-cs.co.uk).

St Mary's, Rimswell, near Withernsea

This Grade-II listed former parish church in the diocese of York was built in 1801 and retains many original features including a bell tower. Surrounded by a graveyard, the guide price is £150,000. Contact Scotts Living (01482 325 634 ; www.scotts-living.co.uk).

St Cuthbert, Bensham, Gateshead

This landmark building in a commanding position overlooking the River Tyne was built in 1845. Although a token sum could secure it, assurance will be sought to ensure substantial restoration works of more than £500,000 are carried out, including subsidence. Offers invited by 28 July to Gray's (01388 487 007 ; www.grays-cs.co.uk)

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