Conveyancing issues to consider with barn conversions
What is a barn conversion?
Barn conversions are a transformation of an agricultural building into a habitable building for residential or commercial purposes. They are not new concepts and following a rapid decrease in farming during the 1950s alternative uses were sought for rural buildings. Converting the properties into desired dwellings commanded the highest prices for landowners and increased in popularity during the 1970s and 80s.
These older properties, due to laxer planning regulations at the time, were changed significantly and often not for the better. It was due to the negative aesthetics of such properties which largely contributed to the implementation of much stricter planning laws.
Later barn conversions, from the 1990s onward, tended to retain many more original exterior features with local planners insisting windows could only be placed in existing openings. This heralded the introduction of full height windows which added to the overall look as opposed to detracting from it. Also, due to significant advances in building materials and methods, modern barn conversions are much more energy efficient than their earlier counterparts.
In 2014 restrictions were eased and ‘Class Q’ permitted developments came into effect in order to simplify the process of changing the use from agricultural to business and office buildings. Then in 2018, it was further updated to allow the development of three homes up to 465sq.m; five smaller homes up to a maximum of 100sq.m; or a mix of both. This means that it is now possible to convert existing farm buildings into homes without having to expressly apply for planning permission. Although there remains certain cases where planning permission is still required.
What you should do when buying barn conversions
- Check when the property was converted – this could have an impact on the energy efficiency rating and your utility bills;
- Check any covenants, such as rights of access across the land which neighbouring landowners may retain for their vehicles;
- In cases where the purchase relates to an unconverted barn with planning permission, it is always advisable to find out if the building is listed. If it is listed you could find yourself having to use specific materials which may add extra, unbudgeted costs which can quickly turn into a costly mistake.
What are the legal pitfalls?
Where you are considering purchasing an unconverted agricultural building you should ensure that if it was built after 3rd July 2012 it has been used for ten years in order to qualify for change of use. This is to restrict the building of new barns as opposed to converting existing ones. In addition, any building over 150sqm will need to go through a prior notification procedure to alter its use from agricultural to residential. Before purchasing a property be it barn conversions or a traditional property, you should ensure that all the required permissions are going to be given, otherwise you may be left with an unusable space that will be difficult to sell on.
Restrictive covenants and barn conversions
These are binding conditions that are written into the title deeds of a property or the contract by a seller and dictates what a homeowner can and can’t do with their house and the land surrounding it. Restrictive covenants are used to uphold certain standards which would otherwise negatively impact on a neighbourhood or come from a desire to achieve uniformity.
Restrictive covenants apply to new and existing builds alike. The age of the covenant does not affect its validity, although some may have become historically obsolete. You should ask your conveyancing solicitor for clarification and advice where any restrictive covenants are applicable.
If a restrictive covenant is breached it is advisable to seek legal advice as this area of law can often be extremely technical and fraught with complications.
Care needs to be taken in cases of unconverted barns that come with planning permission because it is still possible to erect a building and be in breach of a restrictive covenant. If you breach a restrictive condition in the title deeds you may have to demolish the property and/or pay significant damages or compensation to neighbouring landowners. The simple rule here is that the mere granting of planning permission to build does not mean you have complied with the title deeds of the property.
In the West Midlands a house, separate garage and snooker room and a bedroom were built on a piece of land. Two of the closest neighbours agreed to release the restrictive covenant however the third refused and started court proceedings the get the house demolished. The owner had breached a restrictive covenant put in place within the deeds in January 1950 that the land was only to be used as a garden. The owner argued that because there had been many changes to the area since 1950, the restrictive covenant was rendered obsolete. It is not common to find your self in far complex scenarios than this when dealing with barn conversions.
The court decided the covenant was not obsolete, but the breach was not sufficient to justify pulling down the property and modified the covenant to allow the building to remain. The owner had to pay £6,000 in compensation to the neighbour.
Most properties and land have restrictive covenants, including (but not limited to):
- Not to extend without consent (such as building an extension or converting the property in some other way)
- Preventing buildings from being erected on a certain section of land
- Not to carry on a business or trade
- Preventing the installation of satellite dishes or security cameras to the front of a house
- Parking a caravan or boat on the front drive or garden
- Keeping chickens or other livestock
- Allowing a garden to become overgrown and untidy
Before any building takes place you should always check your deeds and if there is a covenant, investigate whether anyone is entitled to enforce it. It is possible to get restrictive covenants waived on payment of a sum of money, which in the grand scheme of things is likely to be much less expensive than protracted proceedings in court.
The big take away is that you should not allow yourself to be lulled into a false sense of security by the grant of planning permission. Just because you have built in accordance with planning permission does not necessarily follow you have complied with the restrictions in title deeds of the property.
What your conveyancer/solicitor should do
- Compare any planning permission with the title deeds and identify any restrictive covenants.
- Ascertain the possibility of getting any restrictive covenants removed
- Check that the relevant covenants are recorded on the land charges register and ensure the covenants wording is correctly drawn up and enforceable.
- Consider whether specialist insurance could provide cover for breach of a restrictive covenant. Although, indemnity insurance is usually only available when a covenant has been continuously breached for at least twelve months without complaint. In these circumstances, once the policy is in place it will last in perpetuity and can usually be passed onto future owners.
- It is essential that the rights of way on the land surrounding the property are checked thoroughly. It would be a disaster to find out after you’ve purchased the property that you don’t have rights to access the land.
- Your solicitor will need to check whether any previous owners have been granted rights of access or if there are any ‘wayleave agreements’ to companies such as gas, electricity or water who may have the right to construct or access power lines or erect a mobile phone mast on the land.
- Find out if there is a public right of way across the land. It can be extremely expensive to re-route a footpath and having a constant line of people traipsing over your land is probably not a good selling point. Also, if someone injures themselves whilst crossing your land you may be liable. The solicitor should advise you whether specialist insurance should be taken out in such cases.
- They should advise you about the viability of obtaining mains gas, running water and drainage to the property. Lack of connectivity will mean you have to make alternative arrangements which could end up being costly. Also, where neighbouring properties are affected, what prior agreements need to be put in place.
- Consider whether the building is listed and if Listed Building Consent needs to be obtained before any work can be carried out on the property. Applications typically take between 8 to 13 weeks (longer at the moment due to coronavirus restrictions and lockdown measures). Costs are likely to increase if you have to source specific materials to match the character of the building and surrounding area. Carrying out unauthorised work on a listed building is a criminal offence punishable with a prison sentence or unlimited fine.
- The building may be situated in a conservation area. If so, there will be considerable restrictions upon your ability to change, or to add, any doors, windows, or guttering.
Whilst not a legal consideration, some barn conversions are not in the best location in relation to other buildings. Most, by nature of being a former barn, form part of other agricultural and farm buildings which may not necessarily fit with your vision of a rural idyll.
Depending upon the structure and more importantly, the quality of the conversion, the windows may not be perfect and may have restricted high eaves, whilst downstairs there may be very high ceilings which look amazing but need a lot of heating, and you may find cobwebs tricky to remove. Curtains and blinds can be expensive because of the huge windows and there may be very little in the way of built in storage which may be difficult to install due to the positioning of beams.
It goes without saying, where any property purchase is involved it is always wise to obtain specialist advice and go into the process with your eyes wide open.