If you dream of owning a unique, characterful home in a country or village location, then a converted non-residential building could be the answer. Barn conversions are a common sight in rural areas, but other disused properties, such as old mills, schools, pubs and chapels, do sometimes come on to the market and can be turned into great individual homes through conversion.

In addition, disused rural buildings often contain large spaces, so if you like the idea of open plan living in a rustic shell – which period houses don’t always lend themselves to – then a conversion is ideal.

Buying a ready-converted property doesn’t hugely differ from a standard house purchase, but taking on a project yourself can be a challenging endeavour requiring a good deal of patience, imagination and flexibility. The end result, however, will be well worth the effort.

Open plan living in converted tin chapel

Where the property originally consisted of a large open expanse, it’s usually best to avoid creating lots of smaller rooms, and embracing a more open plan living arrangement 

How much does a conversion cost?

Every conversion is unique and so you can’t estimate build costs until a survey has been carried out and you have an idea of the design. Expect to pay anything from £600 to £1,200 per square metre, dependent on the building’s condition, your design and the level of work needed. Stone properties tend to be the most expensive to convert.

Getting finance for a conversion isn’t always simple and you’ll likely need a bigger deposit than if buying a house. Your best bet may be to target self-build mortgage firms who specialise in lending on out-of-the-ordinary projects.

The good news is that conversions are largely free of VAT. At the end of the project you can make a claim on eligible materials and labour. The latter should, in the first instance, be reduce rated to five per cent. You cannot claim VAT paid out in error, so study HMRC Notice 431C before starting.

Do I need planning permission?

Don’t buy a property on the assumption you will be granted permission for a change of use – first make enquiries with the local planning department. If possible, negotiate the purchase subject to gaining permission for a change of use.

Recent updates to planning laws have meant that some agricultural conversions can be carried out under permitted development rights. These have previously only allowed homeowners to carry out minor improvements without applying for planning permission, such as loft conversions and small extensions.

There are limitations on factors such as the size of the house and garden, location and amount of structural alteration required, and there is a prior approvals process. This means that many converters will still need to apply for full planning permission to get what they want.

Before granting permission for a conversion, the planners need to ensure that it meets the local plan and there isn’t a preferred viable use for the building, as well as looking at issues such as access. On top of that, there are separate laws related to endangered species, and if any are present, steps will need to be taken before work can start.

Minimalist glazed link connecting outbuildings

Use minimalist glazed links to connect other converted buildings or an extension

How to find a conversion opportunity

Ready-converted properties are sold through the same routes as any other type of home. However, if you are seeking a building to convert yourself, you will have to look beyond the obvious marketplaces.

  • As a starting point, use online house-finding websites, including specialist services such as Plotfinder and Barns Etc.
  • Check adverts in local papers, view auction listings and enquire with estate agents.
  • Also keep your eyes open for properties with potential that aren’t currently for sale, as if a building looks redundant and the location is right, it’s worth seeking out the owners to discuss the idea of selling.

The design route

Redundant agricultural buildings and the like were not originally intended to be homes, which means that successfully converting one needs a strong creative vision. In almost all cases it is best to hire an experienced architect or designer to come up with ideas and prepare plans.

The architect will work alongside other professionals, such as a structural engineer, and consult with the local planning department to come up with a scheme that works both aesthetically and structurally.

Unless you have a lot of time and experience, you will need your architect, contractor or an independent project manager to oversee the work. This will involve hiring and managing tradespeople and ensuring the conversion goes as planned. It will add around 10 per cent to the overall cost, but is more likely to result in the home of your dreams.

Rooflights in first floor of converted barn

To bring in more natural light, rooflights are usually preferable to adding new window openings

What does converting involve?

Conversions can throw up a whole host of challenges – both anticipated and unseen – but clever design solutions often yield the most appealing features. Important original details that point to the building’s previous purpose, such as mill wheels, bread ovens and ironmongery, are desirable elements that should be retained and made a feature of.

Old barns can have small window openings, making maximising natural light a priority. Planners are often reluctant to allow for the creation of new apertures, so low-profile rooflights are usually used. Large cart door openings present the perfect opportunity for floor-to-ceiling windows, and minimalist glazed extensions can be used to link an extension or separate smaller building.

While village schools, for instance, may have smaller separate rooms, agricultural, industrial and religious buildings tend to contain large spaces. To divide them up into lots of smaller rooms is to fight against the character 
of the property. So while you will need to include bedrooms and bathrooms, you should be more accepting of at least a semi open plan arrangement in the main living areas.

Adding an upper storey can present a challenge. Dividing tall windows in half is generally avoided, so light on both floors needs to be considered. Many converted buildings have vaulted ceilings and double-height areas to make the most of them, with a semi-first floor or mezzanine level providing bedrooms. A view to the upstairs landing with a feature staircase will add to the wow-factor.

Barn conversion with original cart door openings used as feature windows

Original cart door openings on barn conversions can make for stunning feature windows

Connecting to services

  • Some buildings will already be connected to mains water, power and drainage, but more isolated properties might be completely off mains.
  • Getting services to site can be costly, and you may need to install your own sewage treatment plant, for example, so you would be wise to investigate the situation and get quotes before completing the purchase.
  • Converting a building from scratch provides the ideal opportunity to install renewable technologies, which will make your home less expensive to run in the long term.
  • Investigate options such as ground- and air-source heat pumps, which can provide underfloor heating, and solar panels to contribute towards hot water or electricity.

Photographs: Andreas Von Einsiedel, Alistair Nicholls, Jeremy Phillips