Reading the small print when you buy a property is always highly recommended, as there are many little stipulations that can be overlooked, even by professionals. One of these is the matter of chancel-repair liability, an issue that has only come into focus over the past 20 years, and can cost property owners vast sums of money. The Government is going to introduce a solution in 2013, but, until that time, it remains a thorny issue for buyers.

An ancient law The law regaring chancel repair heralds from medieval times, when every parish had its rector, who took profits from glebe land and tithes that collectively made up the ‘rectory’. Looking after the wear, tear and repair of the church was split between the parishioners, who were responsible for the western end where they sat, and the rector, who was responsible for the eastern end, or chancel.

Following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, the properties of religious houses, including their rectories, were sold on, and owners became lay rectors if they came into possession of this type of land. In present-day terms, this means that if you own land subject to chancel-repair liability, you can be called upon to fulfil your duty to repair that part of the church. Few owners fussed about exposure to chancel-repair liability until a case arose in Warwickshire in the 1990s that set something of a precedent. A field on a farm in the county was identified as part of a rectory liable for chancel-repair costs that were claimed by the local parochial church council.

The Wallbanks, the couple who had inherited the farm, fought the case to the House of Lords, but, in the end, the Church prevailed, and they had to pay out hundreds of thousands of pounds. As a result, nobody else has dared fight another case, and, for now, those who own land with this particular liability can, in theory, be asked for funds at any time. The position taken by the Church of England is that the law states that it’s actually legally required to seek these funds from owners (instead of from other funding agencies, for example), and that those who do pay had prior knowledge of the possibility. ‘We don’t know of anybody being asked to pay chancel-repair liability when they weren’t previously aware of the risk,’ says a spokesman.

Buy insurance Philip Selway, managing partner at buying agents The Buying Solution (01488 657912; www.thebuyingsolution.co.uk) has been at the forefront of advising buyers for decades, and is familiar with the risks associated with chancel repair. He recommends buyers pay a one-off insurance fee against chancel-repair liability (which costs about £140 for a house worth £1 million with fewer than 10 acres).

‘Rectorial land is thought to exist in about 5,300 parishes in England and Wales, and, although there may be several households each owning a portion of the land, the Church only has to find one person to pay the entire costs,’ Mr Selway points out. Solicitors also advise buyers to take out insurance. Tom Scott, a solicitor at Chattertons in Lincolnshire (01507 522456; www.chattertons.com), says: ‘You can do a quick search to find out if you’re liable, which costs about £30, but these often prove to be inconclusive. There are much more thorough searches which cost £300–£400, but we usually advise clients to take out insurance.

The whole thing is a nightmare. Finding out your liability risk in itself can be extremely difficult, but you’re far better off covered, because people have been hit for thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of pounds.’ The Government has taken measures to solve the liability issue by ruling that all chancel-repair obligations will cease on October 13, 2013. Properties that are liable until that date  are currently being registered with the Land Registry, a move designed to help buyers find out if they may have to pay out. Whether they will be asked to do so, however, is impossible to predict.