Challenges of selling the most unusual homes

by Dawn Carritt

Unusual properties can command the highest prices and most prestige. But they also require extensive research

To be invited to sell some of this country’s most unusual properties brings with it a variety of problems, rewards and challenges. There are a whole host of problems encountered when trying to gain an understanding of what you are selling – its construction, history and architecture – though these are usually offset by the reward of getting to see and learn about buildings which one might otherwise only read about. The challenges involve conveying the true essence of a building and allaying the potential fears a future owner may have in taking on the responsibility of an historic house or cutting-edge contemporary property.

Contemporary houses are generally easier to sell as there is every chance their architects are prepared to explain the concept of the building, their choice of materials and the basis of the structure. Importantly, it is quite possible to put together a complete bible on the property listing all the key suppliers and maintenance contracts so the new owner can easily manage the ongoing care and maintenance of even the most futuristic design. Period houses are slightly more complicated to deal with. Prospective owners who have not owned a listed building before are frequently worried about the maintenance required, regardless of the size of the property.

Research is key to selling period homes. Not all historic houses have registered titles, so checking the deed plans or Land Registry plans is the first essential step to make certain what is being offered tallies with what is on the ground. The idea that the Land Registry is infallible is not the case. It is evident that in some instances, when first registration takes place, whoever carefully outlined the plan may not actually have visited the property. A road that has encroached, a stream that has been diverted or a field boundary that has been removed are among the most frequent culprits leading to inaccurate title plans.

Such problems are not insurmountable, but rectifying an erroneous plan usually takes time, which is something that should be factored into the sale.

A common misconception among period-home owners is that only the exterior of a listed building is covered by the listing legislation and, consequently, the number of alterations that take place through ignorance is surprisingly high. Any object or structure not fixed to a listed building but lies within the curtilage of a listed building, and did so prior to July 1948, is listed, and consent is required for any alteration that materially affects the character of the building, or structure, inside or out.

There is a specific question in the standard enquiries, to be answered by the vendor, stating whether or not any alterations have taken place. If unauthorised work has been carried out there is a legal requirement to reinstate, although obtaining retrospective listed building consent may be an option. Understanding what can and cannot be done can certainly have a bearing on a sale.

Specialist surveyor

In view of the current uncertain market conditions, we have in one instance instructed a specialist surveyor with a good understanding of period buildings to prepare a report on a property that needed modernisation and a degree of restoration. This enabled us to give a potential purchaser a steer as to the likely cost of the work involved for key items. Fear of the unknown can deter a purchaser, so hard facts also help agents target the property at the right market and make buyers aware, even before they view the property, of the level of investment that is likely to be required.

There are also certain avenues one can explore to minimise the risk of abortive sales. This includes working with clients’ solicitors from the beginning of the sale process to check, for example, rights of way, tenancies, footpaths and covenants.

One recent case we dealt with involved a restrictive covenant in favour of the National Trust, which was reasonably straightforward. It more or less mirrored the restrictions imposed by listed building legislation, though there was one significant difference – the Trust had a responsibility to oversee the protection of the setting of the house, not just the physical wellbeing of the buildings.

This meant that although listed building consent would not be required for a new freestanding building in the grounds (as the soil is not listed), it would require the consent of the National Trust. A further covenant required a degree of public access by appointment as a result of major restoration work having been paid for by the Ministry of Works in the 1950s. This seemed unreasonable, as no one had asked to see the house or grounds for at least 30 years.

An approach was made to English Heritage but, four months on, we are still trying to get the covenant lifted as no one seems sure about the identity of the successor to the Ministry of Works

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