Barn conversions have gone from lowly to luxury over the last few decades, but it pays to know your onions when buying an old farm building.
The appeal of a converted barn is easy to see: lofty ceilings, timeworn materials, glorious rural location. But, as anyone who has been involved in a conversion will tell you, achieving the dream – a home that resembles the love child of country cottage and loft apartment – will inevitable take a lot of time, patience and money.
For this reason, if you can find one that has been sensitively converted, you will probably be asked to join an orderly queue.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, modern farming methods left many farm buildings redundant and, in order to preserve them from decay and decrepitude, planners agreed readily to residential conversions. But these conversions often came at a cost.
Matthew Denyer, managing director of Masia, the barn conversion experts, says, "A lot went up very quickly but structurally they weren't as closely observed by Buildings Regulations as they might have been."
Cheap fittings, UPVC windows and even incongruous dormers are common with older conversions, but they can also have problems that go beyond the aesthetic. "There can be issues with foundations because some of them weren't underpinned," says Matthew. "And the amount of insulation was minimal so they tend to be uncomfortable and draughty."
Thankfully, however, the new buildings regulations in 1996 changed everything for the better, and today's barns tend to be both beautiful to behold and luxurious to live in.
Despite decades of conversion frenzy, a wonderful variety of farm buildings remain that appear ripe for renovation. And, because they were all made for a different purpose, such as storing grain, stabling, or threshing, each building is likely to be unique, allowing for conversion into an interesting and totally individual home.
But this doesn't mean that every old farm building would make a good house, and there are certain things to look out for when viewing a potential renovation project.
1. First of all you must like it pretty much as it is already. Planners will want you to retain the building's agricultural character, and will not want it to end up looking like a house, so you have to be happy with its appearance, because cosmetic changes are unlikely to be allowed.
2. It must be big enough. Extensions and garages are also frowned upon in planning departments, so make sure you can fit in it as is.
3. Think about light. Inadequate natural light can be a real problem because barns tended to be built with small openings for ventilation and large openings for cart access.
Just what should you pay for an unconverted barn? It, of course, depends on many factors, but a realistic price is often said to be around 40 per cent of the value of the finished project.
But Neil Rose, from Savills in Harpenden, believes that the increased costs now associated with conversion should actually make that percentage lower.
"You have to bear in mind that it's going to cost £200 per square foot for a barn conversion compared with maybe £150 for a new build," says Neil. "So be careful not to overpay for the barn at the outset."
Mathew Denyer agrees, and says that this is because much of the expense is incurred before you start on the main structure.
"You have to go back a long way before you start building with a barn. You can spend two and a half months just underpinning it if it's a large project."
Then there are the utilities to factor in. And they don't come cheap. "A client of mine has just had to pay £27,000 to get electricity up to his barn," says Matthew. This is not unusual. You are unlikely to find easy access to electricity, telephone lines or mains drainage in remote rural locations and gas is never going to happen. Septic tanks are rarely allowed so you will have to pay for a small-scale treatment plant.
Then there are the various ecological surveys that ensure that your renovation will not impinge on the lives of local bats, newts and barn owls. "All these can cost several thousand pounds," says Matthew. And, because the wildlife surveys have to be carried out in the correct season they can also delay your project, which can, in turn, cost you even more money.
Add in the soil samples that will need to be taken, and, says Matthew, you can have spent £20,000 to £30,000 before you've even started building.
The anything-goes heyday of barn conversions has gone, and local government planning offices continue to raise the bar for residential conversions ever higher.
"If you buy a barn without planning permission in place you are taking a big risk," says Matthew. "You have to ask yourself why the owner didn't apply for it themselves.
"An estate agent may tell you it will be fine, but get a planning consultant in before you make any decisions."
Local professional advice is invaluable in such cases, so try to find a planning consultant or architect who already has experience in dealing with barn conversions in the area.
Matthew also suggests trying to put an option on a property, which means that you put in an offer subject to getting planning permission.
Ideally your barn will come with planning permission already in place. Naturally this will cost you more money, but it does remove the element of risk from the process.
Neil says yes. "You get the best of both worlds – a modern interior in a character building. Ancient timbers and bricks alongside modern design. And there's the feeling of space. Even if it's a relatively small barn you will have vaulted areas that can feel glorious. Definitely worth all the trouble."
Despite decades of conversion frenzy, a wonderful variety of farm buildings remain that appear ripe for renovation.