What to watch for when buying a flat converted from an office building
Flats that have been created from converted office buildings are not always of the same high standard as traditional new housing due to a lack of planning control. Here we look at why and what you need to watch for.
July 23, 2020
Earlier this month, the government announced planning reforms which allow property owners to convert a wider range of commercial buildings into homes without requiring planning approval for a change of use. While it used to be just offices that could be converted under permitted development rights (PDR) under the new proposals, retail and industrial buildings can now be turned into new homes as well.
But now this week, a damning independent report to Ministers about the policy of converting offices to residential using permitted development rights has been published.
It said just a fifth of the resulting homes met national space standards. Some flats were just four metres by four metres, and 10 of the units surveyed appeared to have no window at all.
Seven out of ten of the units didn’t have adequate light or ventilation.
It concluded the scheme has created worse homes – “affecting the health, wellbeing and quality of life of future occupiers“.
This is worrying stuff. So we’ve asked Julia Park, an architect and Head of Housing Research at Levitt Bernstein to explain what this means and tell buyers what to watch for.
What are PDR flats?
Since 2013, a new ‘Class O Permitted Development Right’(PDR), has allowed developers to convert office buildings to residential use without acquiring planning permission. Developers only need to gain ‘Prior Approval’ before starting work. This leaves planners with very little control over the design and quality of the conversion.
While the work must still comply with Building Regulations, developers have free rein over important issues such as internal or external space, daylight, external noise, air quality and location. And in the areas that are covered by the building regs, conversions are often subject to lower requirements than newly built homes.
The pros of office to residential conversions
For buyers and renters, the main attraction is the price. PDR flats are often the cheapest homes available in any given area. Buyers are also attracted to the new furnishings and fittings.
The cons of office to residential conversions
- Size. As the government’s own minimum space standard can’t be imposed under PDR, flats in former office buildings are often considerably smaller than the 37 square metres (m2) minimum set by the standard. Studio flats are therefore very common. While most are around 20-25m2, a 13m2 flat (the area of a typical double bedroom) is not uncommon. Some are even smaller.
- Limited mortgage options. Many lenders are unlikely to lend on homes less than 30m2 and some now make 37m2 their threshold.
- Leaseholder restrictions. As is the case when buying a new build, buyers need to look carefully at the details including the length and terms of the lease, service charges, metering arrangements, council tax – and ensure their conveyancing solicitor can confirm that Building Regulations have been formally signed off.
- Location: Offices are often on busy roads or in light industrial parks – check out the traffic noise and intensity on different days of the week and at different times of day, including rush hour. Offices were often built around the car; it was assumed that everyone would just drive to work and back. Where are the nearest pubs, cafes and parks, is there a sense of community and does it feel safe?
- The condition of the building: External changes are not permitted under PDR. Many office buildings date back to the 1960’s when external cladding panels started to become the norm. If the building you’re looking at has panels get written assurance that they are safe. Check out the windows too; they may be in poor condition – possibly only single glazed or with limited opening lights. Offices often rely on air conditioning; if the air-con units are still there, it’s bad news for the planet, but if they’ve been removed, summer overheating is a serious risk, particularly in south or west facing flats.
- Repair bills. If the building looks run down, you could be faced with a bill for repairs within a few years – will you see that money back when you move on? On the other hand, if it’s left to deteriorate further, it might it be difficult to sell at all.
- Value for money: Don’t trust photographs or visualisations; make sure you visit. Compare the room sizes and proportions with spaces you know well. Establish the total floor area of the flat you’re interested in and work out the cost per m2 on the asking price. If it’s very small, calculate the cost per m2 of larger flats for sale in the area; the difference may surprise you.
- Liveability: When does ‘compact’ become ‘claustrophobic’? Lockdown has been hard for all of us, but much harder for people in small flats or studios; particularly those without a balcony. Home-working is here to stay; will the ex-office space you’re looking at, work for you? Will your stuff fit, is there enough storage space for the main spaces to stay clutter-free, and, if it’s a studio, can you cope with your bed and your kitchen being in the same space? Check out the internal soundproofing too – it’s often not as good as it should be.
Finally, the law recognises that very small homes can be dangerous to our health and wellbeing. It’s much less obvious than the risk from fire, for example, but it can be just as devastating. Councils have powers to inspect a home that may be unsafe, and in the most extreme cases, they have a duty to take enforcement action. Take a look at the ‘Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation Act) 2018’ and mention it to your solicitor if you are concerned.