Why buy a barn conversion?
Buying and living in a barn conversion is something of an idyllic dream for many of us; we feel a longing to lead a simple life within rustic stone walls emboldened with ancient timbering and topped with a hefty golden thatch. A simple dwelling, rough-hewn from the very skin of the earth that surrounds it - with nothing but fields and trees at every vantage point.
Barns and barn conversions are hugely sought after pieces of prime real estate, able to fetch a tidy price even before conversion. With our rich, varied tradition of dependable rural construction techniques and innumerable market towns in commuting distance to major UK cities, more and more people are opting for the simple life and going back to basics in the countryside.
In the case of the barn conversion however, the animals have long since been relocated, leaving a sturdy construction full of history and character that makes it an excellent home. In this guide we are going to take an in-depth look at the types of barn conversion on offer, where you can find these and what to look out for when you find the barn of your dreams.
The history of UK barn conversions
Although living in a converted barn is currently all the rage, this trend is nothing new. Indeed, there were many conversions undertaken in the 70s and 80s whose unwanted legacy was net-fringed PVC dormer windows, crazy paving and interior box-room butchery, attesting to the questionable taste of suburbanites moving from the outside of town to the outside of a village.
As a result of this all too often irreparable loss to the UK’s rural heritage, planning authorities are now extremely strict on exactly what can and cannot be done with a barn. Although local authorities are under governmental pressure to preserve historic rural buildings, primarily by finding new uses for them - converting these into individual dwellings is fairly low on their list, coming in behind community centres, schools and other amenities that enrich the local community.
Nevertheless, there are still many barn conversions on the UK property market and many as of yet un-converted barns with planning permission ready to go. If, on the other hand, you have discovered your dream abode where no one else had thought to look you may well be able to undertake a conversion yourself. First of all, there are many things that you need to be aware of - some of which we will be covering in this article.
Types of barn conversion
Barns were constructed for a variety of reasons and from a range of building materials. In the all too short working life of a rural peasant, form was a servant to function, even more important was practicality, so only local building materials could be used. This gives rise to regional and stylistic variations resulting in a rich variety of barns and barn conversion to choose from.
To name just a few, we have Sussex Sandstone and flint barns in Sussex, stone barns in both the Cotswolds and frosty Scotland, clay lump barns in East Anglia, oak barns on the Welsh borders, and pine barns in Surrey, while in East Anglia barns were made from both local timber and weatherboarding.
Barns built for the processing and storage of agricultural produce will have high doors to allow cart access and windows placed both to shed light on the work that was undertaken within them such as winnowing (the separation of wheat from chaff) and to create a healthy through draft - making them far from easy to convert into human dwellings! Smaller barns were used to shelter livestock from the winter elements, while the Church built vast tithe barns to horde their parish taxes. Within these regional and functional variations, UK barns can be divided into three main architectural types:
- Box Construction Barn. The four walls of the building support the entire structure.
- Cruck Framed Barn. Internal timber A-frames support the roof of the barn as do the walls.
- Post and Truss Barn. An internal timber frame supports the entire weight of the roof by adjoining with vertically placed posts.
How to buy a barn conversion
Well, now that we've whet your appetite with all the glamorous possibilities of barn conversions, building materials and hinted at some choice locations, you will be keen to find out exactly how you can go about getting your hands on such a piece of historic real estate. This section will be divided into two parts and will be more or less relevant to you depending on what level you wish to enter the conversion process - either fully complete i.e. Buying a converted barn or starting from scratch in, Converting a barn.
Buying a converted barn
How do you buy a barn conversion that is already complete? Easy! There are loads of estate agents offering barns around the countryside, simply head out and peruse their locations or search online. An excellent service to help you find UK barns is Barnsetc.
As with other historic and / or converted buildings you must make sure that your mortgage lender is willing to make the investment. Many have special rates for this kind of building so check first before making any kind of commitment.
Converting a barn
Unless you are lucky enough to have chanced across your dream barn conversion already you will need some help in locating one. Check the links section later on in the article for conversion bodies, auction houses and specialist companies who deal in barn conversions.
Even an unconverted barn can fetch 6 figure sums - if it has the correct planning permission and other amenities. The price of an unconverted barn should be around 40 percent of its worth after conversion - this takes into account the risk and work that you, as the purchaser and renovator, will undertake.
Estate Agents arrive at their asking price by taking the end worth of the barn conversion, subtracting the cost of conversion and then taking the percentage.
If you have located a barn you wish to convert then you must take care to research it thoroughly before making any financial commitment.
There are many pitfalls to be avoided, so consider the following points.
- Is it near to local amenities such as schools, shops and healthcare? If your barn is really and truly in the middle of nowhere, can you be sure that you will survive the winter months in comfort or that anyone will want to buy the property after you? If not, you may have a hard time in getting a mortgage on it or moving on afterwards.
- Does it have hot water and electricity? It was never a problem for the cattle but you will need to connect to these services in order to live a normal life. Depending on the location of your barn conversion this could be a costly affair.
- Is the barn listed? Listed buildings have far tighter building restrictions and this could really hamper your efforts to convert it to domestic use. Even if you do finally get planning permission on a listed barn, far greater restrictions will be placed upon what you can and cannot do - leading to higher costs as you search out vintage materials and specialist labour. On the up side such a barn could turn out a truly splendid affair and more than make you your money back in the long-run.
- What is the barn’s planning permission status? If it has been granted planning permission for change of use then you are in the clear. However, with all the difficulties this automatically avoids, be prepared for a higher price tag.
- If your barn conversion does not already have planning permission, then do not part with any money for it until you have had an architect draw up detailed conversion plans and discuss these with the planning officer. If you jump the gun and outlay cash before you get the planning green light you could end up with an unusable barn that will remain empty and be hard to shift afterwards.
- Again, get a detailed costing before you commit to the purchase. You will need this if you intend to get a mortgage on your barn conversion anyway. You may have to pay for all sorts of strange extras, like protected species surveys (Bats and Barn Owls for example), so you will need to budget for a big reserve.
- Fallen in love with a quaint, old crumbling barn? Make sure that it is not too crumbly to support a renovation. Otherwise, to meet minimum safety requirements you will be forced to tear most of it down and build from near scratch - which kind of defeats the purpose.
- Remember that planning officers will only grant permission for change of use if it is in keeping with the barn's original character. Flashing Santas, PVC windows and bright yellow front doors will get you more than just barn doors slammed in your face.
- Budgeting for authentic building materials will win your brownie points and increase the value of your barn in the long-run.
Getting the most from a barn conversion
Barns were built for pigs, cows, goats, sheep, sorting wheat, storing apples or collecting the harvest - they were not built to be lived in by humans! Their large, lofty internal spaces, lack of insulation, swinging double doors and intentionally draught-inducing, small windows make them far from ideal for human habitation. Converting a barn therefore takes a special touch and you are best contacting a specialist to help you get the most from your project - see our useful links section at the end of the article.
Arguably, the two most important aesthetic values in any house are light and space – let’s take an expert look at how to get the most from both of these in a place that was never intended to come under such rigorous scruples!
Maximising light in a barn conversion
- Install glazing in cart openings to maximise the available sunlight while preserving this fabulous feature of many old barns.
- Subtly widening existing windows may be permissible, especially if they are less visible from the outside.
- Use pale colours to lighten up the dark internal space of your loft conversion.
- Modern glass and steel furnishings will reflect light around the barn and offset nicely against the barn's original rustic features.
Making the best use of space in a barn conversion
- Do not divide the huge internal space into small box rooms, this was a mistake of decades gone past and is usually no longer permissible.
- If your barn is part of an agricultural complex, then these other buildings (stables, outhouses, etc.) would make ideal bedrooms, preserving the main house for communal living space.
- Mezzanine levels can be installed to make novel use of your 'vertical floor space'.
- Enclosed partitions at one or both ends of the barn conversion can be constructed in such a way as to not interfere with a grand central space. Here you can house bathrooms, bedrooms and other private spaces.
To help you onto the next step in your search for the perfect barn conversion, here is a list of external links to specialist companies and organisations.
- The Scottish Civic Trust: The Scottish Civic Trust has a register of at risk buildings and information on acquiring them.
- English Heritage: Is the official organisation taking care of listed buildings.
- Save Britain's Heritage: Is an additional body providing support for the threatened listed buildings.
- Ulster Architectural Heritage Society: UAHS keeps an online register of at-risk Northern Irish buildings.
- 1st Locate: Provides a service to find absentee owners of abandoned buildings.
- Unique Property Organisation: Advertise barns and other real estate curiosities.
- The Federation of Master Builders: The FMB details specialist builders in all areas, including barn conversions.
- The Royal Institute of Charted Surveyors: RICS is the leading source of land, property, construction and related environmental knowledge.
- Heritage Funding Directory: The Heritage Funding Directory is a complete guide to finding funding for historic building projects across the UK.
- Antique Buildings: Architectural consultants specialising in ancient oak-framed buildings.