Property: Permission, please

Ignore the property laws at your peril

FOR MOST of us, buying or selling property is one of the biggest headaches we face - and if that is true for houses, then you can usually multiply the problem tenfold for flats.

Anyone who tries buying a flat quickly learns why the term caveat emptor was coined. Because most flats are leasehold, buyers have to take into account the fact that the lease will eventually run out, service and maintenance charges are often exorbitant, and relations with neighbours, who may live directly above or below you, have a tendency to be more-than- usually tense.

There is an additional problem, however, and it relates particularly to recently converted flats. In the 1970s and 1980s, the rise in property prices, combined with an increasing demand for accommodation for single and divorced people, meant that thousands of large Victorian houses were turned into flats and bedsits. In the mania to convert, many house-owners and property developers didn't bother seeking planning permission.

I discovered this to my cost when I bought, and later sold, a flat in Shepherds Bush, west London. A local authority search revealed that planning permission had never been sought to turn the three-storey house into apartments. Not surprisingly, building societies generally refuse to give loans on properties converted without permission.

Luckily, the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 provides a handy loophole that says if a converted property has been in its new use for more than 10 years without anyone complaining, the need for planning permission becomes invalid.

It seems like an odd situation - a way of allowing people to get away with breaking the law if they break it for long enough. "The planning system tends to be reactive," says Michael Haslam, who chairs the professional activities committee of the Royal Town Planning Institute.

"And if people do things and get away with it without anyone complaining, then perhaps there isn't a problem." Haslam acknowledges, however, that conversions on a large scale bring wider issues: "If a house is in an area of predominantly single families, for example, it changes the character of the area. This is one reason why the Government is seeking to bring in controls over houses in multiple occupation."

When I bought my flat in 1994, I was lucky, or so I thought, that my building society was happy to accept as proof a local authority ratings slip that showed the house had been in use as flats for more than 20 years. It was when I sold my flat earlier this year that the problems started.

For most mortgage lenders, definite proof that a flat or other property has been in use in its current form has to come from the local authority, in the form of a Certificate of Lawful Use and Development.

The certificate currently costs pounds 190 (prices are fixed nationally) and the authority will demand concrete evidence from the owner of the property's usage. Once the application, with suitable evidence, has been received, the authority is obliged to give a yes or no answer within eight weeks.

It sounds reasonable in theory - but in practice, it can be a frustrating process. When it came to selling my flat, I was on the verge of exchanging contracts when the buyer's building society suddenly announced it would not give my buyer a loan without a certificate. The certificate was applied for - but it was another 11 weeks before it was received.

The delay arose because the authority decided - after three weeks - that the evidence my solicitor had presented (the authority's own council tax records and the old ratings slip) wasn't adequate and it needed to see more. Fortunately, my buyer was willing to hang on.

The issue doesn't just affect conversions, however. Anyone buying a property that has had additional building work, such as an extension or the addition of a conservatory, needs to ask questions about planning permission.

In the case of building work being undertaken, the rule is that if no complaint has been made after four years (rather than 10 years, as in the case of changed usage), a certificate can be applied for. But why do so many people make alterations without seeking permission? "Ignorance is part of it," says Haslam. "That is no defence in law, but the planning system is quite complicated and the average citizen never comes into contact with it."

Haslam warns that buyers should always be wary about planning permission - particularly so, he says, if they are buying outright: "I've seen over the years many people who have bought properties for cash, then had problems when they come to sell that they wouldn't have had if a building society surveyor had had a look."

For more information, call the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions on 0171-890 3000 for the leaflet `Lawful Development Legislation: A User's Guide'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
Teeth should be brushed twice a day to prevent tooth decay
education
News
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
news
Sport
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League - but Mourinho is short of strikers
News
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
science
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
News
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
i100
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    IT Project Manager

    Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

    Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

    Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

    IT Manager

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

    Day In a Page

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London