Buying a church conversion

Is modern day hum-drum housing your idea of a living hell? Is living in a converted church your idea of heaven above? If it is, you may be surprised to know that you're not alone in this world - there is a whole congregation of converts and experts out there ready to help you make the leap of faith.

If you are looking to buy a church conversion, then this step-by-step guide may just be the answer to your prayers. Here you will find all the information and advice you need to escape from limbo - from how to find a church conversion to hints and tips on separating the winners from the sinners, we have all the answers under one roof. For your benefit we have divided this guide to buying a church conversion into several easy to read sections:

  • Why buy a Church Conversion?
  • How to buy a Church Conversion
  • Financing a Church Conversion
  • Potential Pitfalls and Problems

Why buy a church conversion?

A recent survey conducted on the website propertyfinder.com found that church conversions were the most popular choice among users for a converted living space, with 60% preferring to live in a converted building rather than purpose built accommodation. The survey brought to light some worrying issues also, with church conversions listed among the worst buildings in terms of value and layout. Bear in mind then, that a church conversion is not carte blanche to an exotic, original living style, but that each one must be assessed on its individual merits just like any other property.

Increasingly, cash strapped ecclesiastical bodies are selling off more and more churches. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) says that in the last 5 years around 500 London churches have been turned into homes. There is no need to jump to the conclusion that the entire country has completely lost its faith. The Victorians have a lot to answer for, apparently they simply built too many - even in their time the churches were half-full but, with money pouring into post-industrial Britain, the building went on unabated.

How to buy a church conversion

Having decided that a church conversion is for you, the next step is to find a church that is suitable for you and your family. For the purposes of this guide, there are two different approaches to living in a church conversion:

  1. Buy an already converted Church
  2. Carry out your own bespoke conversion

If you plan to buy an already converted church, check out estate agents in the area of your choice. Some churches have been converted into several smaller apartments others have been transformed into a single home. In the quest for originality, character and charm more and property developers are converting churches for habitation. The internet is always a good place to find properties - you can see church conversions currently for sale on:

Alternatively, if you wish to undertake your own church conversion there are a variety of ways to go about this:

  • Anglican Churches - Closed churches are described by the Church of England as those no longer required for public worship and thus formally closed under church legislation (the Pastoral Measure of 1983). The aim of the Pastoral Measure is to find alternative uses for those churches in order to avoid their demolition and preserve our national heritage - conversion into housing is just one such alternative use. The Church of England publish a list of closed churches which you can see here.
  • Methodist Chapels - In the last 75 years, somewhere in the region of 8,000 Methodist chapels have been closed. There are presently around 100 or so scattered across the UK but with a greater concentration in Cornwall, where the sect was most popular. Many of these were constructed in the 19th century and being smaller than Church of England churches are more suitable to conversion as a single home. You can find more information at the following website.
  • Buildings at Risk - If you have an excess of time and money and want to take on a really spectacular project then you might want to check out the Save Buildings at Risk register at savebritainsheritage.org.

Making an offer on a disused church

Anglican churches are mostly marketed by Estate Agents who refer any offers to the relevant ecclesiastical bodies. A draft pastoral (church building disposal) scheme is drawn up and, for this to be implemented, there are many legal hurdles to overcome.

To make the necessary changes that will convert a dis-used church into a home, you may have to apply for planning permission, listed building consent in addition to approval from the Church body and the Local Authority planning office. Luckily, the scheme also deals with deconsecration. The process involved in buying a Methodist chapel is less complicated but you will need the agreement of the trustees for the sale to proceed.

Getting a building survey done on a church conversion

Closed or disused churches may have been unattended for a large amount of time before final decommissioning. They can subsequently come with a variety of structural problems typical to older buildings and exacerbated by neglect. It is essential that you contract the services of a specialised surveyor. If you are converting from scratch, you will most likely need the advice of a specialised architect to plan your conversion as well. Before going ahead, you should have a good estimate of the total conversion cost.

Planning permission for church conversions

You will need to contact the Local Authority planning office for planning permission, listed building and conservation control advice. If the church you plan to convert is a grade 1 listed building then get ready to wait - you will need authorisation from English Heritage for alterations too! Your architect should liaise with all these officials on your behalf, so choose on carefully as his level of expertise will make or break the project.

Rights of access and restrictive covenants

Your solicitor needs to carefully study the church title deeds to determine exactly what alterations will be possible in your church conversion project:

  1. External alterations are routinely prohibited.
  2. Relatives must have rights of access to visit the remains of the deceased.
  3. In the past, Anglican churches prohibited the consumption of alcohol on the premises after conversion! Luckily, this practice is dying out.

Financing a church conversion

With church conversions increasing in number and popularity, many mortgage lenders are offering finance for the prospective homeowner looking to live in a converted property. Due to the complex nature of undertaking your own church conversion, 100% mortgages are uncommon, so you need to have a good deposit ready. However, this is less of an issue if you are buying an already converted church. Think about financing your church conversion in the following stages:

  1. An architect will give you an estimated cost of the conversion, add another 20% of the total to this as a contingency fund.
  2. Get a local estate agent to estimate the value of the property after your planned conversion - this should really help in securing a mortgage. If the figure he gives is less than the total of the conversion and original building purchase combined, you will have difficulty getting a mortgage, besides which you should seriously reconsider your project.
  3. You should now know how much of a loan you need to secure. It is common for the mortgage lender to release the required amount of money to purchase the church and further amounts will be released at predetermined stages during the conversion, after the completion of certain works for example.

The following institutions can help in providing finance for church conversions:

Help and advice on converting a church

If you are serious about buying a church conversion or converting a church yourself. You will find the following links indispensable:

Depending on the level of conversion you decide on, living in a church can throw up some interesting challenges. If you want to maintain the church’s original features as much as possible, here are a few style tips you may not have thought of already:

  • Washing machines and other domestic appliances could be hidden in original wooden cupboards.
  • Sewage could be taken care of in a tank which must be regularly emptied.
  • Domestic boilers using liquid gas can be used according to the weather along with a wood burning stove if you are in the countryside.
  • Somewhere you will need to keep a very long-ladder, because lightbulbs can be very hard to reach indeed!

Potential pitfalls and problems

When all is said and done, buying any kind of church conversion is far from an ordinary house purchase and there are many extra special factors to consider before you decide once and for all that it is the right move for you. Let’s take a look at some of the odd points you may want to consider before buying a church conversion:

  • Be sure that the church conversion has been made tastefully and in accordance with the original features. You are paying your money for something a bit special so, if it feels like you are in a normal home, perhaps the developers missed the point while attempting to maximise the returns on their own investment.
  • Check that the developer has considered practical issues like noise and heat insulation. Old buildings are notoriously hard to heat and churches were built to carry sound, if they have done their job properly you shouldn’t have to take a vow of silence just to live in your new home.
  • Keep any exterior changes to the bare minimum, preserve that sense of ethereal timelessness and the building’s integrity.
  • Churches are unique for their grandeur and scope so do not break up that dramatic internal space into smaller pieces.
  • As many alterations to churches will require planning permission, make sure it is done to your taste. Changing things afterwards can be costly and awkward. High ceilings make things tricky as well.
  • Are all your family comfortable with the idea of living in a converted church? If you have young children, it is likely that they or their friends will convince them that it is plagued by ghosts.
  • How long has it been since it was used as a church? There may be people living locally who will have some attachment to the building in its original incarnation. You don’t want them poking around your property but, in some cases ,it would be wise to consider the reaction of the local community, particularly when it comes to altering the exterior of your church conversion.
  • If there are graves still there and you intend to build upon or purchase the ground they are on, it will first have to be deconsecrated. Remains can be relocated but, if they are not, then you are bound to allow relatives access.
  • Converted churches could come with a variety of potentially costly building issues such as wet or dry rot, lead roofing issues (a frequent issue with churches) or an unstable steeple - the last two examples would require specialist attention. Always have a detailed inspection completed.

Once you are living in your church conversion, you can find online help and advice on conserving old buildings at the Building Conservation website. They also sell a range of specialist publications from their bookstore.

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