Buying an old house

What to watch out for

Buying an old house

In the UK, the term ‘old house’ usually refers to a building that’s pre-1940, while homes built before 1914 are often referred to as period homes, for example Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian.

If you want a property with charm and character; a building for renovation or conversion; outbuildings or a large plot of land; then you must usually buy an old property. The UK has a wealth of beautiful historic buildings encompassing village houses to castles, farmhouses to mansions (particularly 17th to 19th century townhouses and country mansions). When buying an old building you aren’t just buying a home, but a piece of history, part of Britain’s cultural heritage, and a unique building that represents the architects’ and artisans’ skills of a bygone age.

Thatched Houses

Homes with thatched roofs are attractive and very popular. However, they’re prone to fires (fire protection and an alarm system are essential), attract high insurance premiums and are expensive to re-thatch. Before buying a home with a thatched roof you should check that it’s in good condition, as the skills are disappearing and roofs are expensive to replace. They last anything from 20 to 90 years depending on whether they use reeds or wheat straw (the long-staple straw required can be difficult to source). Don’t be tempted to use plastic straws, which look awful and clatter in a high wind.


Conversions of old buildings are popular, and highly individual homes have been created from old schools, churches, railway stations, signal boxes, factories, coach houses, windmills, towers, mills and barns – you name it and it has been converted to a comfortable home somewhere in the UK. Barn conversions are extremely popular (and very expensive), but rare due to the lack of barns. (You can also have a ‘barn’ home built from new, which may be a lot cheaper than a conversion.) Expect to pay around £300,000 for a barn for conversion (usually with planning permission) and at least 50 per cent more turning it into a comfortable home. You can even buy a barn abroad (e.g. in France) and have it dismantled and reassembled in the UK. An economical way to live in a historic building (often within private grounds) is to buy an apartment or townhouse in a building that has been converted, which include former stately homes, hospitals, warehouses and factories.

Listed Buildings

Listed buildings are buildings of special architectural or historic interest, which are protected throughout the UK. Buildings can be listed because of their age, rarity, architectural merit or method of construction. Occasionally buildings are selected because it has played a part in the life of a famous person or was the scene of an important event. An interesting group of buildings, such as a model village or a square, may also be listed.

There are conservation areas in many historic towns and cities, where there are strict rules governing what can and cannot be done to the houses within them.

The older a building is, the more likely it is to be listed. There are over half a million listed buildings in the UK – around 350,000 grade I and II listed buildings in England and Wales, plus a further 175,000 in Scotland and Northern Ireland – most of which were built before 1840. They include all buildings built before 1700 that survive in anything like their original condition and most built between 1700 and 1840. After that date, the criteria become tighter with time, so that post-1945 buildings have to be exceptionally important to be listed.

Grading systems

In England and Wales, buildings are graded to show their relative architectural or historic interest as follows:

Grade I – buildings of exceptional interest (only some 2 per cent of listed buildings are in this grade).

Grade II* – particularly important buildings of more than special interest (some 4 per cent of listed buildings).

Grade II – buildings of special interest warranting every effort to preserve them (over 90 per cent of listed buildings).

In Scotland and Northern Ireland Grades I, II* and II are replaced by the grades A, B and C.

The task of identifying and protecting buildings in the UK is under the control of the following organisations:

England – English Heritage, 23 Saville Row, London W1S 2ET (Tel. 020-7973 3000, ).

Wales – Cadw (Welsh Heritage – Cadw means ‘keep’ in Welsh), Cathays Park, Cardiff CF10 3NQ (Tel. 029-2050 0200, ).

Scotland – Historic Scotland, Longmore House, Salisbury Place, Edinburgh EH9 1SH (Tel. 0131-668 8600, ).

N. Ireland – Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, 66 Donegal Pass, Belfast BT7 1BU ( 028-9055 0213, ).

Further reading

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