You have to really love old houses to buy a listed building. My wife and I know this to our cost. We’re now on our third in a row. In each case we swore we’d never make the same mistake again and then, idiots that we are, we’d be seduced by some deceptively charming little gem and the same story would unfold.
It’s not just that old houses are likely to be impractical by modern standards: cold, crumbly and liable to leak. You accept that there’s a price to pay for character and historic heft. Most of these problems can also be lessened with some hard — and usually extremely costly — work. No, the challenges posed by the house itself must be accepted with good grace. The fury and frustration lies in dealing with conservation officers.
There are around 450,000 listed buildings in Britain. The majority are private homes. No alterations can be made to them, other than the simplest of repairs, without approval from a local authority conservation officer. At the last count there were fewer than 600 of these hapless individuals. Their numbers have dropped 35 per cent in the past 15 years, so those who remain are grossly overworked. Most are graduates, though rarely with degrees relevant to architecture, and they are poorly paid, generally earning less than £25,000 a year. Some, despite these difficulties, manage to be helpful, imaginative and good at what they do. But those who are not can make caring for a listed house a penance that no sane person would take on.
Our first listed building was a Georgian flat in Edinburgh that was, architecturally, by far the grandest home I’ve ever had. The rooms could get a little chilly with their 12ft ceilings and windows, but we spent eight happy years there.