Buying a Listed Building

If you are considering buying a listed building to be your new period home, make sure you are aware of the implications. There are specific rules which apply even to Grade II listed buildings which means you must seek approval for a variety of changes you may wish to make.

Buildings in the UK which are of architectural merit are protected from damage through neglect or inappropriate repairs. Such buildings are described as 'listed buildings'. For the owner, you have the caché of owning one and the possibility of grants. However, you will be bound by rules to prevent you from making a wide variety of changes and using improper materials.

When buying a listed building, you need to ensure that the vendor is able to produce any evidence that completed projects, affecting both the interior and exterior, have both appropriate planning permission and listed building consent.

Without this assurance, most people would advise that you walk away from this purchase. Only continue with it if you can get the legal status in writing. Without clarification, this will cause further problems when you in turn come to sell the property. You need to consider the two aspects of this; planning permission and listed building consent.

Planning Permission

You may be recommended to request your seller to pay for an indemnity policy. This would protect you. However, if the work was performed some years before, then the local authority may not want to act. Contact the planning department, describe in an anonymised way the work done, and ask their opinion.

Listed Building Consent

There is no time limitation for enforcement where listed building consent is required. Note also contravention of LBC is a criminal offence. To take enforcement action on the work done, the local authority would have to prove it was completed since the listing date; in some cases this will be difficult to do and therefore the chance of action is low.

Proceed only if a Conservation Officer will visit and certify the work, or list what does and does need action.

Ensure that the consents are in place because it could be you ending up with the problem of putting everything right that has been installed without consent from the local authority.


With the introduction of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, there was a duty on the Ministry of Town and Country Planning to list "buildings of special architectural or historic interest". Since 1968, Listed Building Consent has been necessary prior to any alteration which might affect the character of a Listed Building. To demolish, alter or extend part or all of a Listed Building without consent is a criminal offence.

In 1983, English Heritage was formed and it is this body which co-ordinates much of the decision-making process in consultation with Local Authorities. County Councils have Listed Buildings sections, and some Local Planning Authorities have a Conservation Officer although this is not universal. There are a number of specialist societies who can be called upon to advise on particular types of building.

From 2005 there were important changes to the way in which historic buildings are listed. These changes were the first stage of a wide ranging reform of the system for protecting and managing England’s historic environment which the government intends to implement over the next few years.

Listing gives statutory protection to historic buildings against unauthorised alteration or demolition. Over more than half a century, it has proved an effective mechanism for protecting and managing change to a vast range of buildings and structures that are powerful expressions of our long history. Now the government has brought in reforms to simplify the process and deliver greater openness and accountability.

The main changes that were introduced are:

  • Administration of the listing system is now operated by English Heritage. To list a building, apply directly  to English Heritage. English Heritage will make an assessment of the building against set criteria and a recommendation to list, de-list or amend the grade will be made to the Secretary of State at the Department of Media, Culture and Sport. The Secretary of State will still make the final decision about which buildings should be listed or delisted.
  • English Heritage will notify owners if an application to list their building is made by another party. While in exceptional circumstances there may be good reason to withhold this information if there is an imminent threat of alteration or demolition, in almost all circumstances it is important that the property owner is made aware that an application for listing is being considered. This will be done in the vast majority of cases.
  • English Heritage will consult owners and local authorities on applications to list buildings. At present there is no mechanism to allow the property owner or the local planning authority (LPA) to make representations on a proposal to add a building to the list, to alter its grade or even to de-list it. The government believes that owners should be given the chance to have a say in the future of their property, as should LPA’s, who have statutory responsibilities in relation to the historic buildings in their area. In future the owner and the relevant LPA will be given the opportunity to comment on whether the building meets the listing criteria, and their representations will be taken into account before the decision is made.
  • English Heritage will begin to introduce clearer information for owners of listed buildings. Owners and managers of historic buildings need good and precise information about what the listing of their property means. From April English Heritage will begin to introduce new documentation for new listings. These will include a map showing the extent of the listing and a summary of the building’s importance. Information packs for owners, which will give more detailed guidance about the implications of listing and sources of expert advice will be developed over the next year and sent to all owners of newly listed buildings from April 2006.

Other Changes

In addition to these new procedures there are two other significant changes to the listing system that will be introduced. These are

  • Publication of revised criteria for listing. In order to make applications to list buildings, applicants need better guidance about the criteria against which English Heritage assesses buildings for listing. So DCMS will publish a consultation document on more detailed principles of selection for different building types which will eventually form the basis of revised listing criteria that will replace those currently cited in the government’s Planning Policy Guidance 15: Planning and the Historic Environment.
  • A formal review process of listing decisions. At present if listing decisions are disputed DCMS has an informal process for the review of listing decisions. From April 2005 DCMS will develop and implement a formal review procedure setting out clearly the grounds on which a case will be reviewed and the procedure to be followed

For further details, please download the PDF from English Heritage 'Listing has Changed'.

Categories of Listing

Virtually all pre-1700 buildings which survive in anything like their original condition are Listed, as are most buildings between 1700 and 1840. The criteria are more selective for buildings after 1840, depending upon their contribution, features or history. Local Authorities and the relevant County Council hold a register of Listed Buildings with an entry for each property, but this is only a guide to some of the main features. The categories of listing are as follows:

Grade I

Buildings of exceptional interest and outstanding national significance. There are roughly 6,000 of these in the UK.

Grade II*

Particularly important buildings which are of more than special interest.

Grade II

Buildings of special interest which justify every effort being made to preserve them.

There are some 500,000 Grade II* and Grade II buildings in the UK.

The owner of a Grade I building will be subject to the strongest controls on what work is acceptable or not, but is rewarded with the greater likelihood of financial support. English Heritage tend to be involved with Grade I and II* buildings.

In addition, many buildings fall within Conservation Areas but are not specifically listed. This is because of their contribution as part of a group. In some circumstances, normal permitted development rights may be suspended in Conservation Areas and it is advisable to check first with the Local Planning Authority if you are proposing external changes to a building in a Conservation Area.

What is Listed?

There is a common misconception that only the exterior of a building is Listed. In fact the listing applies to the whole of the property, both internally and externally; it covers everything in existence at the time of the listing, regardless of its age.

Any man-made object or structure within the curtilage of the site and which was in existence on 1 July 1948 is also included - for example boundary walls, outbuildings and wells. Buildings and walls within the boundary are covered, as well as those which are attached.

The main fabric of the interior is also controlled - for example the floor plan, staircases, architraves, cornices, fireplaces, original doors and door fittings, windows and ceiling finishes. It follows that Listed Building Consent is needed for many more changes than is sometimes thought - even for satellite dishes and meter boxes.

Maintenance and Repair

The basic principle used to assess proposed work is the effect or harm of the proposals on the intrinsic character of the building as well as the locality. Repair should be sympathetic, using appropriate materials, with minimum intervention. Listed Buildings should not be subjected to unproven methods of repair.

Common areas of conflict include the following:

  • Plasters and rendering must be suitable, especially on timber framed buildings. The use of hard sand and cement render is rarely appropriate, and modern emulsions can often be unsuitable. A lime-based render with a lime wash finish allows timber framed buildings to breathe, preventing water from penetrating cracked rendering and causing decay behind.
  • Old brickwork must be treated carefully, and modern hard sand and cement mortars should generally be avoided as these can cause considerable damage to the face of the brickwork. Once again lime mortar is more appropriate. Cleaning of brickwork is also generally undesirable.
  • Replacement of windows requires Listed Building Consent, and again should not be undertaken unless unavoidable. Repair is often possible to timber sashes, and the retention of old crown glass is important as this forms part of the character of many buildings.
  • Harsh chemical treatments to timbers are coming under increasing scrutiny, alternative approaches being more appropriate in many circumstances. Important structural timbers should not be cut or altered even for cables and pipework.
  • The proper maintenance of gutters and downpipes can prevent water penetration and rot damage at source.
  • Older roof tiles require regular attention to keep them watertight, and the acquisition of a stock of matching spares will pay dividends.

All contractors employed to work on Listed Buildings should have proven experience, and must undertake to comply with any special requirements of insurance companies (e.g. to avoid blow torches or naked flames). Contractors and advisors should also be aware that they may be held responsible in the event of any contravention of Listed Building Consent requirements.

All contractors employed to work on Listed Buildings should have proven experience, and must undertake to comply with any special requirements of insurance companies (e.g. to avoid blow torches or naked flames).

Contractors and advisors should also be aware that they may be held responsible in the event of any contravention of Listed Building Consent requirements and should be covered by surety bond companies. This is a great insurance when doing any major repairs.

See the section on Funding for advice on grants and VAT.

Leased or Rented Buildings

There is no overt responsibility on an owner to repair a listed building.

Having said that, where preservation of the building is at risk, local authorities can issue urgent works or repairs notices, but they will only do this when the building is in really poor repair and all other efforts have failed.

A local authority may carry out the repairs and reclaim the cost from the owners, or at the extreme, compulsorily purchase the building. Both these actions are rare.

Where a tenant feels that the landlord is failing to maintain the building, the tenant might have more success through housing legislation. Landlords have a duty of care to make sure that buildings that are occupied/accessed by the public are safe.

The tenancy agreement and any maintenance plan will specify responsibilities. Higher priority is likely to be paid to anything that is of concern on health and safety grounds.


There are specialist companies prepared to insure older buildings, but early enquiries should be made and as much information as possible given to insurers. Rebuilding cost figures should be agreed, taking professional advice. Any recommendations made by the insurers to reduce the risks, for example fire precautions, should be considered carefully at the outset. Some of this work may in turn require Listed Building Consent.

Requesting Listing

If you own an important house, you can request that it be listed. The main benefit to getting your building listed is that you may be eligible for grant aid to help with appropriate repairs.

Listing can increase its value. For some potential buyers, listing is a status symbol that they desire. Others won't go near it. Look at the property pages of your local paper - if a building is listed, Estate Agents will always advertise this as a selling point.

If you are successful and the house does get listed, you will then live with the satisfaction that you have effectively saved it from inappropriate alterations, or even demolition, and preserved it for future generations.

However, by listing you will be constrained in how you look after it. However, if your ideas are sensible, you should not face undue opposition from the Council. You may also have to accept a certain increase in the level of cost and effort when maintaining or changing your home - changes have to be made to the highest standards.

Once you have nominated your house for listing, don't expect to be able to change your mind or withdraw your nomination. There is no right of appeal once it has been submitted, and no way back.

For more information, contact English Heritage, or call your Council and ask to speak to someone about listed buildings.

Conservation Areas

There are more than 9000 Conservation Areas in the UK. Such an area is "of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance". To 'enhance' means supporting the qualities of the area, either through sympathetic changes or restoration. A Conservation Area acts in concert with listing; it affects only the outside of unlisted buildings but if listed, it affects the inside and outside. Work on buildings in a Conservation Area can attract grants.

Caring for a Listed Building

If your house is listed or in a Conservation Area, and you are thinking about repairs or improvements, make sure you:

  • make friends with your local Conservation Officer
  • use the services of an architect familiar with period buildings; projects are more likely to be approved if the plans are detailed and include the reasoning behind materials and design
  • expect costs to be higher than for a non-listed building


PLEASE SEE OUR DISCLAIMER OF LIABILITY. We are grateful for the advice provided by Mass & Co, Chartered Surveyors based in Essex.