A date with history

Historic homes conjure visions of romantic heroines and pretty gardens. But if you buy a listed building and want to make changes, be prepared for a battle, says Graham Norwood
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The Independent Online

You own a listed home? How lovely! All those period features, all that history, and the protection of knowing it can never be changed. How wonderful!" That dinner party-style comment may be typical of those who do not have to live with the restrictions of a listed property. Many relish the challenge of living in a historic property, but for others the reality is an albatross that prevents them enjoying simple conveniences like energy efficient roofs or draught-proof windows.

You own a listed home? How lovely! All those period features, all that history, and the protection of knowing it can never be changed. How wonderful!" That dinner party-style comment may be typical of those who do not have to live with the restrictions of a listed property. Many relish the challenge of living in a historic property, but for others the reality is an albatross that prevents them enjoying simple conveniences like energy efficient roofs or draught-proof windows.

"My cottage is worth about £400,000 so it's not a mansion. I had to replace rotting windows and could have done so for £8,000, but the only ones approved by my local conservation officers cost £17,800," says one Devon listed-home owner.

There are three grades of listed building ( see box). The vast majority of Britain's 500,000 are houses, categorised as Grade II and described as "of special interest". English Heritage, the body that identifies and protects listed buildings on behalf of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, says that its main criteria for selection are:

* Architectural interest (examples of particular building types and techniques)

* Historic interest (buildings illustrating aspects of social, economic, or military history) and

* Group value (fine examples of planning, like squares and terraces).

All listed buildings are protected and any owner who wants to make changes to them must win Listed Building Consent (LBC). Local councils can give consent for some changes to Grade II homes but must get agreement from English Heritage for changes to higher-graded properties. Some changes will also require "normal" planning permission on top of LBC, and in London there are further checks by some borough councils and the London Assembly. But the number of listed buildings and the vigour with which councils monitor them have increased, just as personal wealth and the passion for make-overs have risen, too. The result? Some people have fallen out of love with listed buildings.

"A listed property used to command a premium, but this has all but disappeared as difficulties in renovating have overridden kudos associated with ownership," claims Robert Bartlett of Cluttons estate agency, which sells hundreds of listed buildings each year.

George Philip of the Lane Fox agency in Bamnbury, Oxfordshire, goes even further. "A large majority looking to buy do not want listed buildings. We live in a nanny state, which tells us exactly what we can and can't do. This worries people if they're buying something they might want to make alterations to," he says.

But although the rules and cost are much criticised, few ignore them because planners can oblige owners to remove unapproved changes and make good.

"Anyone making changes without consent would be making a big mistake," warns James Greenwood of Stacks, a buying agency. "An enforcement notice is an expensive piece of paper. Even if you get away with internal changes at the time they will become a big problem if you sell."

And Bartlett believes things are getting worse . "A recent change stipulates that if work has been carried out without consent, the redress is upon the current owner - even if it was the previous owner who undertook the work."

But anyone wanting a truly historic house, or one that is an outstanding example of fine architecture, must accept listing or accept missing out on their dream home. For example, an Edward Lutyens-designed Dutch House in Surrey is on sale but is of course listed (£825,000 from Cubitt & West, 01306 883399).

So is the Queen Anne style house in Chiswick, west London, created by Norman Shaw before he designed House of Commons offices (£995,000, Kinleigh Folkard & Hayward, 020-8742 8686).

Many eccentric buildings are listed, too. Jackson-Stops & Staff in Somerset (01823 325144) is selling Combe Wood Tower, an 18th-century folly built for a land owner's banquets after hunting but now a three-bedroom home ((£550,000). Nearby in the village of Stogumber, a terrace of alms houses built in 1666 for six widows have been transformed into a single property (£365,000).

Sometimes whole areas are listed. For example The Grey Cottage, a 19th-century property in the Gloucestershire village of Lower Slaughter, is one in a long terrace of Grade II-listed homes (£750,000, Butler Sherborn, 01451 830731).

Of course, listing has protected these fine properties and many parts of the communities in which they are located. But the worry for some conservationists, as well as estate agents, is that maintaining the high standards of the past may make such properties too expensive and too impractical for many to buy in the future.

MAKING THE GRADE

In England and Wales, buildings are graded for their architectural or historic interest:

* Grade I ones are of exceptional interest.

* Grade II* are particularly important buildings of more than special interest.

* Grade II are of special interest, warranting every effort to preserve them.

There is a common misconception that listing only covers the outside or the main façade, but the whole structure is included.

All buildings built before 1700 which survive in original or near-original condition are automatically listed, as are most built between 1700 and 1840. After that date the criteria become tighter with time, so that post-1945 buildings have to be exceptionally important to be listed.

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