Country houses for sale

Buying listed properties with unlawful alterations

Many the properties launched in Country Life are among the estimated 680,000 listed buildings in the UK. The system was introduced after the Second World War to protect buildings of architectural merit. As a result, listed buildings may not be demolished, extended or altered without special permission from the local planning authority.

Inevitably, not everyone complies. And, as tempting as it might be to overlook the work done on a house you’re desperate to buy, you risk incurring the cost of sorting out work that didn’t have the appropriate listed-building consent, points out solicitor Suzanne Bowman from Adams and Remers.

‘The listing can include anything within the curtilage of the house, so you might be instructed by the local authority to undo unlawful work on a converted outbuilding that provides extra rooms, or to remove a swimming pool. You’ll lose the value of this extra space or leisure facility and the price should also take into account the need to remove these recent additions,’ she explains. Such a purchase might also create mortgage difficulties, Mrs Bowman continues. ‘Most lenders want to know if building work on a listed property has the right consent.’

There is, of course, the option to push the onus onto the seller to rectify the problems, but this could hold up the purchase. In the end, you don’t want to be saddled with a country house you can’t easily sell on. Richard Gayner from Savills’ country department adds that many people confuse planning consent with listed-building consent. ‘If no one finds out the work was done without planning permission, the problem can disappear with the passage of time. However, there is no such thing as a time limit on listed-building consent and it’s a criminal act to alter a listed building without the correct permission.’

There is an element of risk that needs to be weighed up carefully, believes Mr Gayner. ‘You might find it simple to reinstate something that was taken out, for instance, but if the only natural light for a principal room is from an illegal skylight, you could be better off giving the property a miss.’
A solicitor carrying out a local search for the buyer will ask whether any alterations have been made to the building since 1948, and to the best of the seller’s knowledge whether they had listed-building consent. It can be difficult to answer those questions if a house has been in a family for ages, and a lack of proper consent could be down to ignorance rather than anything else, suggests Dawn Carritt of Jackson-Stops & Staff.

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‘Conservation officers are more professional and understanding these days about this grey area,’ she says. ‘They recognise that someone doesn’t want a 16th-century house with 19 bedrooms and only one bathroom. You probably won’t be allowed to seriously cut through very old panelling, but you will be able to carry out work that retains the integrity of the building.’

Miss Carritt cites the example of Grade II*-listed Shurland Hall, a medieval gatehouse in Kent thought to have been extended for a visit by Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in 1532. The Spitalfields Trust has sensitively restored the property, which is now on the market at £2 million with Jackson Stops & Staff, ‘illustrating that it’s possible to put a bathroom into a listed building, which was clearly originally designed not to have any bathrooms at all’.

‘It’s likely you’d be able to take out indemnity insurance for undiscovered unauthorised works carried out by previous owners,’ adds Neil Quinn at Yiangou Architects, who feature on ProjectBook (, a website that helps owners of listed properties. However, it can be difficult to indemnify against known unapproved works, he cautions.

Listing: quick facts

  • Grade I (2.5% of total)-a building of ‘exceptional interest’; Grade II* (5.5%)- ‘particularly important, of more than special interest’; Grade II (92%)-‘nationally important and of special interest’
  • All pre-1700 buildings in anything like their original condition are listed, as are most of those built in 1700-1840. Post-1945 buildings have to be exceptionally important to be listed.

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