Most of us have a story about that crumbling wreck of a house round the corner that seems to have been abandoned by its owner. There's even that flicker of an idea that maybe we could buy it for a song, remove the tree that's growing through the roof and painstakingly return it to its former glory. Our towns and villages are littered with these rotting heaps, and unlike the isolated, ivy-clad ruin on a distant hill, they just look sad and depressing. Thoughts such as "Where are the owners?" dart through one's head, shortly followed by "I wonder if they'd accept £20,000?" But those thoughts could be the start of a very long journey.
Wrecks sometimes appear in estate agents' windows or on specialist websites such as Pavilions of Splendour ( www.heritage.co.uk), but most are to be found at auction. These problem piles are treated like any other sale under the hammer and require the prospective purchaser to do a bit of homework before catching the auctioneer's eye.
But if a wreck is in an auction, the sale should be clear-cut, leaving you the small matter of the restoration. But for some people, sourcing 18th-century tiles or learning how to lime-render is just not enough of a challenge.
Take Pen-y-Pye farmhouse in Grosmont near Abergavenny. It's on the "buildings at risk" register as compiled by Save, an organisation established in 1975 by a group of journalists, historians, architects and planners who were concerned about the state of historic buildings. Pen-y-Pye is thought to date from the late 16th or early 17th century. It's a tiny, one-storey-plus-attic stone structure set on a hillside. It's cute and would make a dreamy bolthole or an inspiring studio, but it's been empty for some time and shows all the signs of being unloved for decades.
The window frames are rotten, the walls show signs of structural failure and the roof is full of holes. It can only be a matter of time before the walls really begin to crumble and this place is lost for ever. It's not for sale and there's no known planning history - it has effectively been abandoned. Any romantic thoughts of restoring this cottage would involve some serious investigation, red tape and negotiation.
Fortunately, the people at Save are on hand to help. They want these buildings to be rescued. They offer advice to interested buyers and also put pressure on owners and local authorities to get their fingers out and turn these buildings' fortunes around. Aside from brazen neglect on the part of the owner, the main reasons for a building deteriorating and acquiring the "at risk" status are either redundancy of use, an ownership dispute or an undesirable location. An abandoned house with no registered owner next to a sewage farm is not going to present a smooth and attractive restoration project, irrespective of the building's architectural merits.
Finding a new use for a disused railway station or tracking down who owns that faded Regency townhouse can turn into a mountain impossible to scale. The shocking state of some of these buildings is mainly due to this protracted process.
One man who did see the light at the end of the tunnel is Gervase Webb, whose experience of rescuing his own Cardiganshire farmhouse has led him to set up a thriving restoration business. "I did most of the work myself on our house," he says.
"Purely through word of mouth, I started getting requests, so decided to make a business of it. The biggest problem I find with older, unlisted properties are building regulations. There are no sympathetic guidelines to advise inspectors on period materials such as lime. I and many of my clients tend to bypass the involvement of the inspectors altogether, although this can create problems further down the line if you decide to sell."
He continues: "There's a real sense of connection working with old buildings. I came across fingerprints and tool marks that are 300 years old. It's satisfying to think that my work will still be around in 200 years."
It's clear that the joys of restoring an historic building do eventually outweigh the struggles, but many people vow never to attempt such projects again. There are thousands of decaying country houses, redundant churches, disused mills and blighted cottages around the country all waiting for their saviour to appear. They represent hard work but also the chance to create a unique home that's a part of local history as well as belonging to our national heritage. If you love old buildings, can there be anything more satisfying than bringing one back to life?
Save's catalogue Heaps of Delight is available for £12 and features 100 buildings from its online database. Contact Save on 020-7253 3500 or at www.savebritainsheritage.org; Gervase Webb can be contacted on 01239 612 671 or at www.horganandwebb.com.
For sale: the renovation game
* Pentre Farmhouse, Newchapel, Pembrokeshire
Deep in the heart of Pembrokeshire is Pentre Farmhouse, a handsome collection of Grade-II listed buildings that were originally the home farm of Pentre Mansion Estate. All the buildings are available for sale, but the farmhouse cuts the strongest figure. Built of grey stone under a slate roof, it's a testament to the original construction that although much renovation work is needed, the fabric of the building is sound. There are iron window frames set into elegant arches as well as a Herringbone slate wall to the north boundary and fruit trees in the garden. Fully restored, the house would offer a large sitting room, dining room, kitchen, five bedrooms and a bathroom (plus as many en suites you care to add). The adjoining salting room and brew house with its spiral stone stairs, could also be incorporated into the farmhouse and there are spectacular, unspoilt views across the fields.
£295,000 through Pavilions of Splendour (020 8348 1234, www.heritage.co.uk)
* Buckland Court, Buckland-in-the-Moor, Ashburton, Devon
Hidden in the depths of the Dartmoor National Park is this Grade II listed manor house that was once the home of a Mr. E.R.P. Bastard, Esq. It stands empty, in a semi derelict state, and is crying out for some major TLC. It's 25-acre grounds include lawns and woodland whilst the buildings total more than 16,000sq ft of internal space. Externally, some of the original mathematical tiles and render survive, but serve mainly to hide the major structural problems that lurk beneath. Internally, a few doors, fireplaces and fragments of moulded plasterwork are also clinging on and there has been some attempts made in the past to preserve the building (the left-hand rear wing has been renovated). Mostly though, the interiors have been gutted. The asking price probably represents only half the cash needed to breathe new life back into this striking building, but there must be someone out there who dreams of creating an estate fit for a Lord nestled in the folds of the Devonshire countryside.
Buckland Court is priced at £1m through Townsend (01392 823935, www.primelocation.co.uk)
* Littleport, Ely, Cambridgeshire
This charming, partly converted Victorian Methodist Chapel is in need of extensive renovation. Ptolemy Dean would have a few things to say about the condition of the interior, but he would also be won over by its beamed wooden ceilings. It currently offers a bathroom and four rooms, one of which is the old Chapel Hall that measures 37' x 22'. It's unlisted, has a large private garden and comes with full planning permission for residential use. The Cathedral City of Ely is 15 minutes away and the views over the fens are breathtaking.
£295,000 through Harris Estate Agents on 01480 497627 or at www.harrisea.co.ukReuse content