Buying & Selling Buildings of Heritage in UK & USA

What is a listed/registered building of heritage?

You may have heard of buildings, especially homes and hotels, being classed as ‘listed’ or ‘registered’, but what does that really mean? Generally, the assumption is that the building is in some way protected because it is either very old, or of significant historical importance, or both. In reality, the classification refers to any building or structure that has been registered on a statutory list by the appropriate country’s government. In the UK, for example, ‘listed buildings’ are found on one of four statutory lists maintained by Historic England (or equivalent bodies in Wales, Scotland and Ireland).

Listed buildings in the UK

In the UK, there are three grades of listed buildings: Grade I means that they are of ‘exceptional interest’, Grade II buildings are described as ‘particularly important’ buildings of ‘more than special interest’ and Grade III buildings are of ‘special interest, warranting every effort to preserve them’. What this means in reality is that every effort must be made to preserve the original features and characteristics of the building, including any unique materials used to build them.

London Coliseum
London Coliseum – built in 1904 as a large, luxurious family variety theatre in Westminster, UK

Some notable listed buildings in the UK include Battersea Power Station, The Coliseum Theatre in London (pictured above), Liverpool Cathedral, and Warwick Castle (pictured below). However, there are plenty of buildings in the UK that fall under the ‘listed category’ which are not so grand – many domestic residences have listed statuses, as do several hotels, restaurants and other commercial premises.

Warwick Castle, May 2016
A view of Warwick Castle from a bridge over the River Avon, in Warwick, UK

The United Kingdom’s central government is responsible for maintaining the register of listed buildings across England. If you’re considering buying, selling or modifying a listed property, the first point of call should be to check your local authority’s Historic Environment Records (HERs) and Sites and Monuments Records (SMRs) – these are maintained at local government level.

The National Heritage List for England, developed in 2011, also contains a full list of all scheduled monuments, listed buildings and registered outdoor spaces, so is also worth a look.

English Heritage is a useful organisation funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport – they can assist you with any enquiries you may have about heritage buildings in England. 

For buying, selling and modifying listed buildings in Northern Ireland, contact the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.

In Scotland, you can contact Historic Environment Scotland.  

Listed buildings in the United States

In the United States, there are state by state rules to comply with, and a site or building can only be listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) – this register formed in 1966 by recommendation from certain states’ historic preservation offices. To qualify for a place on the National Register of Historic Places, you must fulfil one of the following four criteria.

  • Criterion A is described as an ‘event’ criterion, meaning that the property or place must have made a significant contribution to the ‘major pattern’ of American history.
  • Criterion B is the ‘person’ subsection, where the building is associated with a significant person, or people, significant to American history.
  • Criterion C is defined as a ‘design/construction’ classification, which concerns the architecture or construction of a particular building, as having ‘great artistic value’ or being designed or created by a person of significance.
  • Criterion D is ‘information potential’, which is ‘satisfied if the property has yielded or may be likely to yield information important to prehistory or history’.

Listed buildings differ between states – some states maintain their own registers, and some duplicate the National Register by default, so if you are buying or selling, it’s worth checking at both state and national level. However, listed buildings in the USA differ somewhat from the UK, in that the National Register listing in itself offers no guarantee of protection to a historically important building, so contacting the local state authorities should be your first step in seeking advice before buying, selling or modifying a listed building in the States.

National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) plaque
US National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) plaque

In the USA, buildings placed on the National Register of Historic Places tend to sport plaques (like that pictured above) stating that they are on the list.

Some famous examples of listed buildings in the States include The Loren Andrus Octagon House (Washington, Michigan), The Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church (Berlin, New Hampshire), The Fargo Theatre (Fargo, North Dakota) and (pictured below) the Dealey Plaza Historic District (Dallas, Texas). 

Texas

In Texas, the Texas Historical Commission works in coordination with the US National Park Service to define places of historical significance, as well as having buildings listed in the National Register. Texas currently has over 3000 sites on the national register, across the 254 counties within the state.  

Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas
Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas

How does being ‘listed’ impact property owners?

Listed buildings are generally prohibited from being demolished, altered or extended without specific permission from a governing body. What this means for homeowners is that if you are lucky enough to live in a listed building, it can be very difficult to make alterations to your home. This often causes frustration for homeowners, who often cannot modify and improve their property to their liking. It can almost make you feel like you don’t really own and have real control over your own property.

It also means that, when it comes to selling your listed property, you may run into difficulties for the same reason. Buyers will often want to adjust the building their own taste, for example with functional extensions or cosmetic redecorations, but unfortunately the listed status prevents this, therefore listed status can be a deterrent to potential buyers.

How to sell a listed building

Listed buildings can be tricky to sell, as potential buyers will know they’ll struggle to make any structural changes they may desire. However, there are some tips that might help move your sale along.

Contact the relevant authority first

If you do the legwork and find out exactly what can and cannot be done to your property, prospective buyers will have a firm idea of their options and this makes it easier for those who are comfortable with the terms to accept the transaction. You can contact your local planning authority, who will in turn contact the relevant agency. This process can be lengthy, so if you get a head start, potential buyers will undoubtedly appreciate the information.

Ensure the attractiveness of your property

If you cannot make the modifications that you really want, capitalise on its unique features to create a unique selling point. Perhaps a part of your home is specifically historically interesting, or has a story to tell. Convey this to your potential buyers and ensure that they see the attractive side of a listed building.

Consider selling through a specialist platform

Should you be struggling with selling, specialist speed-buying organisations like Sell House Fast can always help. They are generally very reliable in making an offer to buy any property you may wish to sell, including listed buildings, and typically provide your with a cash offer within days if not hours of you submitting your property for a quotation. If speed is of the essence, this might be an especially useful route to take, as it provides a guaranteed quick sale regardless of the state of the building or its legal issues – so long as you are currently the owner, you can sell your building to them. 

Top tips for buying a listed building carefully 

Contact the authorities

It’s well worth contracting the relevant authorities before buying to check what you can and cannot do to the property – this is vital for avoiding future disappointment.

Consider age 

Consider choosing from buildings that are listed with modern historical value, as these will be easier to modify and buy. A general rule of thumb is that the older the building, the more difficult modifications will be, so be sure to check this before purchasing.

Examine work needed

Are you looking for a passion project, or are you looking to move into your readymade dream home? Your answer to this question will inform your decision as to whether or not buying a listed building is a good idea for you. Perhaps finding a listing building that is already fully modernised will alleviate any future stress, as the modification will have already been completed, without you needing to obtain permission yourself. 

Note the surroundings

Before buying a listed building, ensure to familiarise yourself with the nearby facilities. Are you looking for a remote rural paradise, or do you need local links to cities and towns? This is an especially relevant consideration if buying to turn into a hotel or b&b for example. What facilities could you offer potential guests? 

Envision the potential 

Many buyers use listed buildings as novelty hotels or airbnbs as they have such unique character and appeal. If this could work for you as an investment opportunity, consider the unique selling point of the property – does it have historical value, an intriguing story to tell or even perhaps a gruesome gory past? All these things can bring in custom, but only if you sell it right, so make sure you find out the full history of the place before putting in an offer.