The dream homes in search of an owner

You're out on a country walk and see a building ripe for renovating. But how do you find the owners of these neglected hideaways, wonders Sonia Purnell
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The Independent Online

With the sea and wide skies on three sides, at the head of a spit close to the Hurst lighthouse on the Hampshire coast, is what must be one of the most desirable holiday cottages in Britain. A stunning, white stucco building from the 1850s with a Welsh slate roof and oodles of character and history, the Lighthouse Keepers' Cottage is empty and falling into disrepair.

With the sea and wide skies on three sides, at the head of a spit close to the Hurst lighthouse on the Hampshire coast, is what must be one of the most desirable holiday cottages in Britain. A stunning, white stucco building from the 1850s with a Welsh slate roof and oodles of character and history, the Lighthouse Keepers' Cottage is empty and falling into disrepair.

The problem is, as with so many other remnants of Britain's architectural past, that the ownership of this potential property goldmine (worth, by some estimates, at least £300,000) is unclear. Three parties – the Ministry of Defence, Trinity House and English Heritage – claim ownership but their legal advisers are still at loggerheads after years of arguments because the relevant entry at the Land Registry is missing.

An estimated third of Britain's 18 million or so properties are still either unregistered – where there is no entry at the Land Registry – or the title is unclear, as in this case. Often, rural property will not have been registered because it may have remained in the same family for generations, particularly if part of a large estate. (Registration has only recently been made compulsory across England and Wales, but even then the rules apply only when a property changes hands. In Scotland, all land and property has been recorded in the Register of Sasines since 1617, but it is imprecise and sometimes unreliable. Entries are only now being transferred to the state-guaranteed Land Register. In the meantime, confusion reigns.)

The tragedy is that in the case of the Lighthouse Keepers' Cottage, while the impasse persists, the wind and rain is slowly destroying a unique building in a truly dramatic setting. Many other properties on the Save Britain's Heritage Buildings at Risk register – available by subscription through its website (www.savebritainsheritage.org) – face an equally grim future because of unclear ownership or where the owner is unwilling or unable to restore them. Yet Save believes many such properties could be saved by just one determined, patient individual.

The first port of call should usually be the local council's conservation officer – in the case of the Lighthouse Cottage, Jonathan Duck at New Forest District Council – to check on what is known, if anything, about the owner. Councils have the statutory right to force the owner (if traceable) to sell or make repairs if the building is about to collapse, but it is a power seldom used. Otherwise they simply keep a watching brief, as with Grade II-listed Alston Farmhouse near Marlborough, in Devon. An early 18th-century gem, it is among the most important buildings in the area, but is empty and although weather-tight is slowly deteriorating. The owner, who lives in a smaller house nearby and can be reached through the council, would consider offers although none has been accepted to date and some purchasers are deterred because it is between a working farmyard and a small caravan park.

If the owner is unknown or untraceable, there are other options. One of the finest Georgian terraces in Spitalfields, the historic meat market centre of east London, was until a few years ago marred by an ugly bombsite at the end of the road. The local heritage group, Spitalfields Trust, began to store its reclaimed cobblestones in the crater, the local council fenced it off to prevent unauthorised parking and a neighbour used to pop over to trim the resident buddleia bush.

After 12 years, the three parties claimed "adverse possession" under ancient laws that transfer the title to occupants of land or property if they remain unchallenged by the owners. The land was sold to a sympathetic developer – the £60,000 proceeds were divided equally between the three parties – who has built a facsimile double-fronted Georgian house to complete the terrace. It should be noted that the purchasers of the house, who were competing with the former minister Mo Mowlam, have taken out title insurance just in case a former owner does try to reclaim it.

"This adverse possession law goes back to Saxon times, so if you see an abandoned property that no one seems to own, go in and paint the windows, look after the roof, build up a relationship with the property," Derek Harris, of Spitalfields Trust, says. "Either the owner will come out of the woodwork or, if you're lucky, no-one does, and in 12 years you will have title to it."

Others are not prepared to take such a long-term gamble with a property that has captured their heart. Mark Jones, a restoration enthusiast, fell in love with an abandoned property in a North Yorkshire village that was also unregistered. After local parish records failed to throw up the name of the owner, he resorted "to local contact such as pub-visiting and the post office" in the search for clues but has yet to strike lucky despite seemingly promising leads.

There are less enjoyable but possibly more effective methods of tracking the owner of your dream property. It is worth checking electoral roll, council tax and even probate records. For up to £100 for a successful search, agencies such as 1stlocate will do the legwork for you. The owners, once traced, have often forgotten about the property or land, possibly having dismissed it as worthless a long time before.

One of 1stlocate's clients was interested in a lovely, isolated farm building in north Wales which had been abandoned for years, and was now ripe for development as a holiday cottage. They made inquiries locally, and found a potential lead in the shape of the name of someone who had lived there decades before but no one could recall what had happened to him.

His name matched the electoral records of the time, and the probate records showed a will had been made in the same name some 20 years before but from a nursing home rather than the farm. Upon the old man's death, the property had passed to a relative in the south of England who had abandoned it, not wanting the expense of maintaining it and believing it to be of little value. Istlocate's client bought it for a not insubstantial sum and both parties were happy.

Even after years of property market boom, there are owners out there who have woefully underestimated the value of their assets and left them to rot. Their neglect may well be someone else's opportunity.

Contact SAVE on 020 7253 3500 or save@bitinternet.com. 1stlocate, on 0113-2284452

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