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Beginner's Guide: Restoration & Conversion
October 21st, 2008
 
The demand for dereliction is a curious feature of the British property market. Fuelled in part by spiralling house prices, it's also driven by more romantic impulses that seem deeply rooted in the national psyche.

"The attraction lies in the romance of the old," says Adam Wilkinson of Save Britain's Heritage. "The pride and satisfaction to be found in restoring an old building is immense.

"Often people spend a great deal of time and money on a pet project. It takes patience and perseverance. Sometimes it can take many years."


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Just so. But for the inexperienced grand designer there are endless practicalities to get to grips with. Where do you find a property? How do you finance the project? And Where do you track down the best craftsmen and conservation specialists?

If you plan to take on some of the job yourself, where do you learn about the techniques and materials appropriate to such a task?

And if it's a period piece, where do you find the fixtures and fittings that will return it to its original splendour?

Below, in response to some of the most frequent questions we get asked, is a brief guide for the bewildered.


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1. Finding A Property: Agents & Auctions

Recently advertised. John D Wood (01865 311522)
The most obvious source of property is, of course, estate agents. John D Wood recently marketed a magnificent eighteenth century barn for conversion, though with an asking price of 620,000 it was undoubtedly beyond most budgets.

Why so much for a structure whose most recent residents were some newly-born lambs? Nick Hextall of John D.Wood explains:

"It was a vast and very fine Grade II listed barn, it was located in the very pretty village of Ewelme, and it had planning permission for conversion into a five bedroom home.


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Boatmen's Mission: Auctioned, May 2004
"When it's converted we estimate that it will be worth around worth 1.5 million, and if done really well it could be worth a premium over and above that. But it will cost a lot to convert - around 600,000. So it's probably a job for someone looking for an exciting project rather than for a developer."

That should give you some idea of just how sought-after and desirable properties for renovation/conversion can be - bargains are hard to come by. But one place you might well strike it lucky is at an auction.

Traditionally the stamping ground of hard core professionals, these days auctions are attracting more and more ordinary punters in search of something affordable or unusual - properties sold at auction are often in need of refurbishment.
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A catalogue listing the properties to come under the hammer is provided by the major auction houses 3-4 weeks before the bidding begins, and you could spend endless hours browsing through the various curiosities that regularly appear.

But remember: buying at auction is a rather different proposition to buying in the usual 'by private treaty' method. Once the hammer comes down, that's it: the deal is done and there's no backing out.

You will be asked to sign a contract there and then, cough up a ten per cent deposit and complete within 28 days of signing.

Read the RICS guide before you proceed. See also FindaProperty.com's special auction edition for properties about to come under the hammer.


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2. Finding a Property: Buildings at risk

The next place to look for your wreck is in the registers produced by various conservation organisations. English Heritage, the Government's statutory advisory body on the historic environment, maintains a register of Grade I and II* buildings at risk.

It can be accessed online. For more information call 0870 333 1181.

The Scottish Civic Trust has an excellent online register of buildings at risk in Scotland as well as lots of useful information about acquiring them. In Northern Ireland, the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society keeps an online register.


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Save Britain's Heritage carry on where English Heritage leave off, publishing a list of Grade II listed properties at risk. 12 months access to the register costs 15 (Tel: 020 7253 3500).

Their list, produced in collaboration with local authorities covers everything from barns and mills to castle and water towers.

But with manpower restricting them to a register of 750 properties, it's just a fraction of what's available - so it's also worth contacting you local conservation officer for other possibilities - though bear in mind that some councils will be a lot more helpful than others.

Another list to consult is the quarterly one produced by The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings - these properties come from estate agents, individuals, auctioneers, dioceses and local councils.

The society will refer you directly to the agent in charge of the sale. The list is only available to SPAB members (36 pa to join).


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3. Finding a Property: Other sources

Refurbished Art Deco home for sale
A few other sources worth noting are the following: New Uses for Redundant Churches, produced by the Church Commissioners, has a list of redundant churches, useful information on making an offer, and advice on everything from planning issues and structural alterations to covenants and dealing with human remains.

For a list of real curiosities, check out the Unique Property Organisation, which advertises everything from barns and mills to castles, house boats, churches and schools.


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4. Finding The Owner

If you've found the building you're after, you could be lucky and also have an owner willing to sell. But don't bet on it. "The buildings on our list are not necessarily for sale," says a spokesperson for Save Britain's Heritage.

"Often it's not obvious why they're sitting on the building - maybe waiting for prices to rise. In some cases the building is within the curtilage of their land and they're reluctant to sell because it will infringe on their privacy."

The owner can also be unknown, or the ownership in dispute. The first port of call should be the council conservation officer, who may be able to help you track down the person to wave your chequebook at. But if this fails, or if the building is unregistered, you could try 1st Locate.

This company offers a range of property services, including searches of the Land Registry for titles, property history, and evidence of former ownership and, more importantly, the tracing of the owners of land or property unregistered with the Land Registry. For this latter service, they charge 150 if successful, 25 if not.


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5. Value And Potential

Converted oast for sale
Presuming you can find out who owns the building and convince them to sell it to you, your next issue will be whether you should actually buy it.

That barn you've fallen for might look like a real bargain, but if it's too decrepit it might be far too expensive to restore. And if it's miles from the nearest drainage or electricity connections it might be very costly to connect.

In order to establish its value and structural integrity, you should have a full building survey carried out by a surveyor with experience in the conservation field - call the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors on 0870 333 1600.

They have a special conservation forum and should be able to put you in touch with a specialist.
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Derelict lodge house: Save Register
You should also check the planning possibilities carefully before you buy. Buildings with planning permission for change of use - such as the barn mentioned above - fetch premium prices.

If it doesn't have permission you should check with the council to find out how likely it is that you'll get it. See also SPAB's useful notes on 'change of use' applications.

If the local authority doesn't flatly refuse, they will probably advise you to employ an architect or builder to draw up plans to submit for their consideration.


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Refurbished C16th century home


The Royal Institute of British Architects has a searchable directory which can be scanned under various categories: Georgian, timber-framed, 30s, and so on.

A search under "barns, oast and mills" returns 283 registered practices. You can refine this by searching for prize-winning practices.
The Federation of Master Builders also has a searchable database that lists experts in particular fields: listed building specialists, barn conversions etc.

Gaining planning permission will be easier in some cases than others - councils, for example, prefer barns and churches to be used as community resources or as part of the local economy rather than be converted to residential use.

Remember, too, that if the building is listed you will be a lot more restricted in what you can and can't do and will need to work closely with the local conservation officer to meet the required standards.

6. Finance

If you've seen Channel 4's Grand Designs you'll know that the best laid plans often go awry and budgets inevitable overshoot.

Conversion or renovation is often more expensive than building a new home, and old buildings can hold many - expensive - surprises.

Some structures - barns and oast, for example - were never meant for human habitation and can be expensive to transform into a home, others are listed and will need more expensive building materials to restore.

Most mortgage lenders will not lend on a derelict property, but a number do specialise in renovation and self-build projects.


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The main ones are the Ecology Building Society (Tel: 0845 674 5566), Norwich & Peterborough, and Buildstore - who also offer a useful project management service. (Tel:0870 870 9991)

All, with variations, will release funds in tranches. First the price of the derelict building (or an appropriate percentage of its value), then further funds for each stage of the job.

A valuer will need to come and check that it's reached an appropriate level to building standards before the next sum will be released.

There are also various grants available. The Architectural Heritage Fund is a comprehensive guide to funding for historic buildings, and English Heritage offer grants on buildings which are listed Grade I or II*

Local authorities may also have very limited funds, as will some government departments - Defra, for example, may be willing to fork out a few quid if you're restoring an antique agricultural building.


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7. Restoration: Materials

Restoring an old building is immensely rewarding, but it's worth bearing in mind the advice of the SPAB:

"Move slowly. Get to know the property thoroughly, find out everything you can about it. Explore cupboards, roof spaces, cellar - anywhere might throw up important clues.

"You will discover evidence of how it was built and of its problems - which may have been dealt with successfully long ago. The more you know about your own building, the better client you will be, the easier it will be to brief a professional adviser or to work with a builder."


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Part of the pleasure of restoring an old building is finding the details that make it complete - if you're baffled or need to find matches for what already exists in your building check out the fabulous Brooking Collection .

This is an archive with thousands of examples of original architectural features - from large items such as doors, windows and sections of staircases to smaller items like door knobs, knockers and sample lengths of architrave and skirting mouldings.

For architectural originals as well as period fixtures and fittings you best bet is salvage yards. Salvo is a detailed directory of salvage merchants and key source of information on antique and reclaimed materials for buildings and gardens.


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8. Restoration: Craftspeople

If you plan to do the job, or some of it, yourself, you should sign up for courses run by societies such as the SPAB, and attend lectures and events run by other conservation bodies. There's also a good list of courses available on Learn Direct.

If you're looking for a specialist builder or craftsman - a stonemason, cob builder, stained glass guru, or timber-frame expert - your first port of call should be the excellent Building Conservation Directory


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In addition to dozens of informative articles by leading authorities, it also has a vast directory of companies, organisations, products and materials. There's also a very useful list of institutions offering courses, a diary of events and a handy online bookshop.

Guild of Master Craftsmen is a useful source for top notch craftsmen - everything from builders and woodturners to decorators and tiling specialists. The Master Carvers' Association is the place to go if you need to reproduce original stone and wood details.

House and Garden Addresses is a handy directory of interior design products and designers- including craftsmen and specialist suppliers.


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9. Support and Advice

If all of this is starting to sound complicated, you'll be happy to hear that there are many organisations and societies offering invaluable support and advice.

First among these is The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, whose publications, courses, and technical advice line are indispensable for the would-be renovator.

English Heritage (type 'listed buildings' into searchbox) provide useful information on planning consent and the repair and maintenance of listed buildings (For more call Customer Services Department on 0870 333 1181).


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The Listed Property Owners Club might also be worth joining if you plan to restore a period gem - they offer advice on grants and loans, planning, maintenance, insurance, and specialist contractors and run exhibitions and roadshows.

Heritage Information provide free access to information about restoring and repairing your historic building or garden - though thus far the service is in its infancy.

There are also specialist groups for particular eras. The Georgian Group provide help and advice to the Georgian homeowner and publish a range of publications on aspects of Georgian architecture and building conservation- everything from sash windows to lighting fixtures. (Tel: 020 7529 8920 ).

The Victorian Society does something similar for Victorian and Edwardian homeowners - including useful booklets on the care of Victorian houses. For Art Deco and modernist buildings, your first port of call should be the Twentieth Century Society


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Case History: Georgian Gem

Restored Grade I listed
Georgian town house
Recently advertised by John D Wood The Grade I listed Georgian property featured at the top of this page (and left) was bought by Peter Fowlds and his wife Adrienne in 1995. The house is part of Chatham dockyards and had been left derelict for several years before the docks were closed in 1984.

The docks, which have many period buildings, were later sold off but it was decided to retain around 80 acres as a living museum. Officers Terrace was sold to a developer to help pay for this. The first developer restored one house in the row, but the housing market crash of the early Nineties finished his efforts.

A second developer bought the houses and was eventually imposed upon by English Heritage and the dockyard Trust to develop them, so he decided to sell them off unrenovated.


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Big Chill

Peter received details from an estate agent in 1995: "I was going to view a racing yacht and the docks was on the way so I decided to drop by with Adrienne. But we never got to see the boat - we spent the whole day looking at various houses here. Some we had to climb through windows to view!

"They were in very bad shape - no floors, no ceilings, no plumbing or electricity. But I could see the potential and thought it was too good an opportunity to miss. We decided on No.6 and then had to convince the bank manger to give us the money - it had to be bought for cash because it was too decrepit for a regular mortgage.

"It took nine months to renovate. I lived here in the winter of 95/96 while the building work was being done - I ran my office off the builders' power. It was bitterly cold. I used to wear Long Johns and two pairs of trousers! The workmen's toilet blocks had central heating and I used to go there and cuddle up to the radiators to thaw out. After five or six months the top floor was done and we moved into that."

Uncovering the Past

Among the pleasures, he says, was slowly uncovering the period details: "We uncovered a lot of original panelling in the dining room, drawing room and several other rooms - it had all been covered over with plasterboard.

"Under all that was some very early wallpaper - a sort of hessian tacked on to the panels, covered with distemper and then papered over. So we had a lot of tacks and layers of old paper to remove. We still have some samples of the original wallpapers.

"The other big discovery was in the basement - we uncovered a fabulous original inglenook fireplace - it had been bricked up over the years with five subsequent fireplaces. The original would have been used for cooking - the hanging area was still there.

"We also found an exact replica of the gardens in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich- George III commissioned models of all the Royal Docks. It was so detailed that we were able to recreate the garden - an expense we hadn't anticipated but well worth it."

Restoring the house, says Peter has been frustrating, but also a pleasure. "It took a long time and a lot of patient research but we both love old houses. You're there for the interim, you're looking after the house - it was there before you were born and will be there after you're gone. That's quite special".

And it also turned out to be financially rewarding: it cost 140,000, they spent about the same. It's now on the market for 685,000. Peter and Adrienne are now moving to Italy - they have a house there with no roof that needs some attention.

Michael O'Flynn

Find A Property 2000-2007

 

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