According to Peter Ansley, of the Listed Property Owner's Club, many people have no idea that they've purchased a listed building, let alone of the statutory requirements that come with it. "The problem is that listing does not often come out in the search," he says.
The simple rule is that all buildings constructed before 1700 which survive in anything like their original form are listed, as are most built between 1700 and 1840. More recent buildings of special character, particularly the works of notable architects, may also be listed.
There are three grades of listed buildings, classified according to their relative importance. Grade I are buildings of outstanding national importance which should on no account be destroyed, Grade II* are buildings of particular importance and more than special interest, and Grade II are buildings of special interest which warrant every effort being made to preserve them. Grade II accounts for around 91 per cent of all listed buildings.
In Britain there are around 500,000 listed buildings. A house that is listed tends to sell for 5 to 10 per cent more than an equivalent house that's not listed, but if you buy one you won't have absolute control over your property. A listed building must not be demolished, altered or extended in any way affecting its character without first obtaining listed building consent. Failure to do so may result in a fine or imprisonment. If your local authority considers the building is not being maintained in a reasonable condition or has been deliberately neglected it has the power to serve a repairs notice. If these works are not carried out it may seek compulsory purchase.
One of the major advantages of owning a listed building is that you could be eligible for financial help for structural repairs, from English Heritage (Grade I or Grade II* only) and some local authorities and county councils.
Work to listed buildings that requires listed building consent is exempt from VAT. This work includes remodelling, extensions, central heating, fitted kitchens, adding bathrooms and replacing windows. Despite many campaigns, maintenance work is not exempt from VAT. "It's ironic that we should escape paying VAT when we install a modern kitchen, yet will have to pay VAT on work to maintain floor boards and windows in their original state," says Andrew Tinker, who has recently bought a Grade II house in Hertfordshire. "This almost actively encourages you to make changes."
Another area for caution is building insurance. If your timber-framed building is damaged in a fire, the conservation officer may require you to use old timbers taken from the same period. Many insurance companies, however, will provide money only for modern timber. The NFU Mutual is developing a special policy for owners of listed buildings.
"The best advice I can give anyone contemplating taking on a listed building is to make friends with their local council conservation officer. He'll know your building and understand the way it's built, the materials used and where they came from," says Peter Ansley. "If you have plans to change a building it's so much simpler to sit down with a blank piece of paper and an open mind and talk through what you'd like to do on a one- to-one basis. That way you'll know in principle if you have his support and could save yourself a lot of trouble later on."
The Listed Property Owner's Club: 01795 844939; English Heritage: 0171- 973 3000; Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings 0171-377 1644; NFU Mutual 0345 045031.