Downside of making the grade

The Abrams were charmed when their Georgian house in Stockport became a Grade 11-listed building. But no one warned them that buyers would be scared off by the costs of compliance. By Penny Jackson
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The Independent Online

NONE OF that self-doubt about the value of our homes need trouble the owner of a listed property. Distinguished, glorious, an architectural gem - whatever the reason for its place in the national register no one can question the fact that it is special.

NONE OF that self-doubt about the value of our homes need trouble the owner of a listed property. Distinguished, glorious, an architectural gem - whatever the reason for its place in the national register no one can question the fact that it is special.

Tony and Joan Abrams needed no official reassurance that the Georgian house they bought near Stockport in the Sixties was a treasure. A few years later they were more delighted that their house was recognised as being of local historical interest when a letter arrived proposing it be Grade II-listed. Thirty years on, the Abrams regret agreeing so easily.

For the past year, The Old Hall, Marple, has been for sale and it is of little comfort to the Abrams to be told listed buildings have an enhanced value. As would be expected with a lovely house in an idyllic spot it has drawn enormous interest.

But potential buyers dropped out because of their worries about the extra cost of complying with listed building consent. The Abrams' found buyers will not commit themselves without an idea of building costs, yet until they know precisely what they can do, they cannot budget.

"We didn't realise that to have the house listed would reduce its price by a chunk," says Tony Abrams. "We are well aware most people will want to update the interior but we never expected it to be so complicated. If we could de-list the house we would. Nobody from the local authority has been to look around the house, so how can they know what should be preserved? Major alterations were made in 1945." Frustration at the lack of guidance forced the first buyer to throw in the towel. "I couldn't get a steer on what my costs might be and as I was trying to budget for renovations it scared me to death," he said.

"For instance, I was told the beams holding up the floorboards would probably have to be replaced with thick timber which would have been prohibitively expensive and required a specialist carpenter. But why not allow concealed metal girders? I intended restoring it sensitively - but I don't have a pot of gold."

English Heritage, which advises the government on all aspects of historic buildings, is sensitive to the charge of making unrealistic demands on owners. Paul Velluet, assistant regional director for London, says: "Listed building control is not a process by which a building is frozen but it regulates the extent and nature of change so the special interest and features of a building are preserved."

Last year, he says, 90 per cent of more than 4,500 applications were approved, 5 per cent rejected and 5 per cent not pursued by the applicants.

Although English Heritage is not involved with Grade 11 buildings outside London, Mr Velluet recommends discussing proposals with the conservation officer before an application. "There is scope for loose informal discussion, but the only sure guarantee is in response to an application with detailed drawings. An essential prerequisite is understanding the needs of the owner and that is a matter of professional judgement on the part of the architect and planning officer."

A major problem is that official opinion can vary widely, says Peter Anslow of the Listed Property Owners Club. "Each local conservation officer has his own set of criteria about what constitutes changes to a building. The only possible route forward is to meet at the property with a blank sheet of paper and have a one-to-one discussion about the project. If you go straight for the official route it can be a nightmare."

Disagreement often occurs about the use of modern methods of construction and what should be preserved in a house that has seen numerous changes over the years. John Hunter, a developer who restored a terrace of Georgian houses in London, says: "The floors were sloping and there were gaps under the doors because the backbone of the houses had slipped. I was told it was part of the character of the terrace and should not be changed. I pointed out that it wasn't built with uneven floors."

The difficulty will always be in balancing the conservationists' argument that the crucial character of a house evolves over the years with the owners' plans and budget. English Heritage insist cornices, fireplaces and panelling cannot be swept away simply because they are not of the same period as the building, and buildings are listed in their entirety.

Henry Holland-Hibbert, a director of Lane Fox, the estate agent, says buyers should not be shy of a listed building. "Their chief worry is that it will need continuous maintenance and repair, but that is true only if the people before made a botched job. If a house does need work, it is far better if the seller gets a full structural survey done and gives copies to prospective buyers. That way everything is out in the open."

The Abrams house, with its 3ft-thick walls, is in a beautiful setting, close to fishing lakes, with a mill leat running across its boundary. Among its curiosities is a tunnel leading from the garden under the road into the field opposite. The Old Hall was listed because of its industrial history and is not a typical Georgian country house.

But it would be sad if that were not preserved says their daughter, Fran. "It was a brilliant place to be a child," she says. "Never mind that the heating didn't reach our bedrooms, it was still worth waking up in a freezing room. But what matters now is that the house should get the treatment it deserves. It is falling into disrepair while there are people who are keen to take it on. They just need guidance."

The Old Hall, Marple, is for sale through Bridgfords (0161 449 0317) at a price of £279,950. Listed Property Owners Club offers advice on restoration and insurance: 01795 844949

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