Escape to the heritage heap: could you restore a derelict home?

Here is the ultimate lockdown distraction therapy: restore a heritage heap. Now that the office is only an occasional destination, why stay in a slick but poky Shoreditch flat worth £750,000 when magnificent, derelict piles are available for about the same price?

One reason to resist, according to Lindsay Cuthill, head of Savills’ country department, is the blood, sweat, tears — and fortune — needed to renovate a heritage property. “You buy those properties with your heart not your head.” 

That was true of Richard and Angela Mawer, owners of Cloford Manor, a beautiful, mainly Jacobean house in Somerset, south-west England. When they bought it in 1999, it was derelict, with 20th-century additions in the form of corrugated asbestos and concrete.

They found the manor via SAVE Britain’s Heritage, the heritage buildings organisation, and spent the next five years renovating it. At this point, owners usually tell horror stories about unreasonable planning authorities or hopeless builders, or the doubling of costs and the trebling of estimate time. Not so the Mawers. 

“Doing this kind of restoration is utter joy — to take on a terribly sad but beautiful building after many years of abandonment,” says Richard, who was an institutional stockbroker.

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“It was just a question of gently repairing it,” he says. The Mawers contacted the local conservation officer before they bought Cloford, and got them on side early. Then they appointed Philip Hughes, a project manager recommended by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), who drew up a detailed restoration plan which went out to tender.

Three specialist building firms were appointed for each of the three stages: stabilising the structure, structural repairs and internal work. “If you have the interest and the money it is thrilling to do something like this,” says Richard.

The Mawers did not want to reveal the final figures, save to say that the original purchase price of the manor amounted to just 25 per cent of the total costs.

Horse Sand Fort in the Solent, near Portsmouth, on sale for £750,000, was originally built to ward off invasion by Napoleon III © Alamy Stock Photo

Whether a renovated wreck makes a tidy profit or untidy loss it will provide a remarkable home and the owner’s place in history. So, what are the current options for the intrepid renovator? We look at some historic properties that are on the market in the UK, but in need of some TLC.

First up is Horse Sand Fort, a 25-minute rib ride from Portsmouth. This 61m-diameter derelict man-made island off England’s southern coast was originally built to ward off invasion by Napoleon III, and which may or may not be a bargain at £750,000. Its sinister form looms out of the sea but, inside the high protecting walls, there’s an opportunity to create a des res.

The 100 “chambers” and living quarters are dingy, and the sailors who originally lived here were chosen for their inability to swim in order to prevent their escape. That may be a good approach for keeping builders on this challenging site.

No Man’s Fort, also in the Solent, is now a high-end holiday spot, on sale for £4.25m
No Man’s Fort, also in the Solent, is now a high-end holiday spot, on sale for £4.25m © Alamy Stock Photo

One prospective buyer was toying with the idea of converting the island into a legalised marijuana farm, according to the estate agents marketing it. Add a few chickens, and the Good Life would be complete — although self-sufficiency would need a sewage treatment plant and independent power source. Fresh water comes from an artesian well.

Anyone bold enough to take this on can get a feel for the island-fort’s potential by visiting two neighbouring ones, now high-end holiday spots: No Man’s Fort and Spitbank Fort — though both are closed due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Anyone keen on the idea of owning a fort without the hassle of renovating it will be pleased to hear that both No Man’s and Spitbank are also for sale, for £4.25m and £4m respectively, with Strutt & Parker marketing all three.

But if owning a fortified island all feels a bit Bond villain-y, there is a completely different prospect on the outskirts of Henllan, a village in west Wales. There, near the banks of the river Teifi, is an 18th-century house that is to be auctioned next month, with a guide price of £79,000.

Estate agent Dai Lewis highlights the “potential for a truly delightful private garden with its own micro-climate”. Just so but the flaws in this house are precisely that there aren’t many floors. The property has fallen into disrepair in recent years, and parts of it have collapsed.

This partly collapsed 18th-century house in Henllan, a village in west Wales, is being auctioned next month, guide price £79,000
This partly collapsed 18th-century house in Henllan, a village in west Wales, is being auctioned next month, guide price £79,000

“Due to the works required, no one must enter this property,” the agent’s website says. “External viewings are obviously allowed,” it adds.

In London, agent Lurot Brand is offering a semi-derelict one-bedroom house in Pindock Mews described as a “development opportunity”. The brochure airily continues: “Now in need of full renovation […] this freehold house could be converted into a dream home over three or even four floors and in the region of 2,700 sq ft (subject to the usual planning consents).” And the price of this opportunity? A mere £2.5m.

Daily commuting may be a bit passé, but for anyone who needs a rural escape after a day in the City there is a Grade II-listed, three-bedroom detached country house in Buckinghamshire, seven miles from Aylesbury (with trains to Marylebone), which has a quarter of an acre of grounds — all for £275, 000.

Semi-derelict one-bedroom house in Pindock Mews, London, a £2.5m ‘development opportunity’
Semi-derelict one-bedroom house in Pindock Mews, London, a £2.5m ‘development opportunity’ © James Baily

With superb litotes, the agents Michael Graham state: “There is currently no kitchen or bathroom within the property so the task will best suit someone with previous experience of undertaking a large project on a listed building.” So, good luck with that one.

When renovating a wreck, most of the experts I contacted would not be drawn on what average costs might be, because they are too variable. And scary.

When pushed, Philip Eddell, director of Savills’ London & Country House Consultancy, reckons that renovation costs on heritage projects involving leading architects and designers can climb to £2,000 or even £3,000 per sq ft. And there is no guarantee that a buyer who renovates such a property will recoup the investment, Cuthill adds.

Grade II-listed, three-bedroom detached country house in Buckinghamshire with a quarter of an acre of grounds, £275,000
Grade II-listed, three-bedroom detached country house in Buckinghamshire with a quarter of an acre of grounds, £275,000

“It’s so important to understand what you’re taking on,” says Mark Hammond, director of Caroe Architecture Ltd, who has been helping clients to renovate historic buildings for the past 25 years.

“One issue is whether or not the house is listed. If it is, that will restrict the amount of alteration as well as the type of work and materials. And you need to understand that particular listing,” An experienced project manager such as Hammond will give a clear idea of costs.

Back in Wales, Calcott Hall near Welshpool is a mellow brick c1725 Georgian pile with an exquisite ogee pediment on its west front. The property is being marketed by Roger Parry & Partners, Shrewsbury, with a guide price of £700,000 to include outbuildings and 2.4 acres of grounds.

Drone video footage shows bucolic surroundings and the parlous state of the roof. The video’s soothing background music would be needed by anybody who buys this glorious pile.

‘Mostly Jacobean beauty’ Lilford Hall, a 321-acre estate with its own island, £10m
‘Mostly Jacobean beauty’ Lilford Hall, a 321-acre estate with its own island, £10m

Lilford Hall near Peterborough, a mostly Jacobean beauty, is on Historic England’s “at risk” list but its exquisite ceilings and panelling alone would have me emptying my piggy bank. Lilford was the setting for Surrealist artist Penny Slinger’s 1970s piece On Her Mouth You Kiss Your Own, but its more conventional history stretches back to a 15th-century mansion.

The 321-acre estate includes Georgian pavilions, three cottages, stables and lakes. Best of all, it has its very own island on the River Nene. A snip at £10m.

Jane Owen took on the renovation of a Grade II-listed Jacobean house in the 1990s

Homes for sale: Jane Owen’s view

House, Buckinghamshire, £275,000

Stand-out feature: Grade II-listed, half-timbered rural retreat
Renovation difficulty: start-again territory
Agent: Michael Graham, Buckinghamshire

House, Maida Vale, London, £2.5m

Stand-out feature: fashionable London location in a conservation area
Downside: derelict
Renovation difficulty: expensive
Agent: Lurot Brand

Calcott Hall, Wales, £700,000

Stand-out feature: the option to buy 36 acres of prime agricultural land with fishing rights along the river Vyrnwy
Downside: remote
Renovation difficulty: high
Agent: Roger Parry & Partners

Lilford Hall, Northamptonshire, £10m

Mainly Jacobean with history reaching back to the Domesday Book
Renovation difficulty: fine for anyone with time and money
Agent: Savills

 House, Henllan, Wales, £79,000

Stand-out feature: beautiful, remote
Downside: beautiful, remote
Renovation difficulty: high
Agent: online auction December 14, Dai Lewis

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