Barn Conversions: What you need to think about

Why are barn conversions so popular?

With a bit of imagination, a barn conversion can be a great way to achieve a very beautiful, unique home. Barn conversions can give you access to idyllic rural settings where you’d never get planning permission for a new build. That means they don’t come up for grabs too often. They often offer a lot of space and the scope to design either a contemporary home or more traditional, rustic finish to suit your style.

The very essence of converting should be around retaining the original features and working as closely as possible with the existing building. The very best ones combine the drama of the original building with the practicality and comforts of a new build. Achieving this usually requires major building work, and that can take a lot of time, patience and money. As such, there are quite a few things to think about before undertaking a barn conversion project.

Planning permission for barn conversions

If you only take one piece of advice from this article, let this be it: make sure you have planning permission in place as early on as possible, preferably before you purchase the barn. Never assume that you will be granted permission, even if there seems to be a precedent set by other buildings in the immediate area. You may also need to get listed building consent, and if it’s in a conservation area there’s likely to be other restrictions.

Your best bet is to consult some experts (architects, surveyors, builders) to help you through this process. Get the building surveyed before buying will help you gauge how much work and money is involved – although until you begin work you can never be sure. Planners generally won’t want to see significant changes to the outside of the building; they don’t want you trying to turn the barn into a conventional house by adding rows of new windows, for example. Any new additions might need to be reversible.

If planning permission has already been granted and is being sold with a barn you are looking to purchase, make sure the plans fit with your own – you may not be able to deviate from them when work gets underway.

Things to think about when planning a barn conversion

  • Access: is there already a suitable access road to the property or will one need to be built?
  • Proximity to working farm: if the property is on a working farm, how much will you be impacted by the activities, sights and smells of the farm?
  • Utilities: is the barn already serviced by water, electricity, phone line and sewer or will you need to get these amenities added? Can you use any modern technologies to get around any lack of conventional supplies and also improve the energy efficiency of your home?
  • Neighbours: is the barn stand alone or will your home be part of complex with an element of communal living (e.g. a shared courtyard space)?
  • Local amenities: how far are you from the nearest shop, school, pub? Do you mind having to get in the car to reach anywhere?
  • Heating: a large, open plan design might be expensive to heat but there are lots of options to consider (solar panels, underfloor heating, ground source heat pumps, Woodburners)
  • Light: planners usually insist that you only use existing openings as windows so think about how you can make the most of existing doorways and cart openings to allow light in. With artificial lights, think about how you’re going to change a light bulb in high ceilings!
  • Original features: most people buy a barn conversion because they are looking for original features (beams, peg work, vaulted ceilings) – plan how best to make the most of these
  • Materials: can you reclaim and reuse original materials, or other local materials, so the barn retains its relationship with the landscape? This is often particularly important for the roof which is likely to require a lot of work.

How much does a barn conversion cost?

The best answer I can give here is a simple one: more than you think!

Although every project is different, people often get caught out during conversions where costs can spiral. You’ll need to have a flexible approach to budgeting.

As a guide, costs vary between £600 – £1,250 per m2 to convert, which is more than a typical new build. Stone barns tend to be the most expensive to convert, followed by wood and then brick barns as the cheapest, although this obviously depends on the starting condition of the barn and your plans for it. One thing to bear in mind: getting finance might not be as easy as for a straight forward renovation.

Private individuals can reclaim VAT paid on labour and materials on a barn conversion. If you use a VAT registered builder, they will invoice their work at the reduced rate of 5%. Any materials you buy directly will be charged at standard VAT rate. On completion of the project, you can submit your receipts and claim your VAT refund – this claim must be made no more than three months after the conversion work has finished.

A few tips if you’re planning a barn conversion

Hopefully this article will have given you a few pointers to think about if you’re considering taking on a barn conversion. Projects vary hugely but one thing’s for sure, it always pays to plan the project carefully, working with experts, to make sure you end up with the home you’ve dreamed of. A few parting thoughts:

  • Do your research before buying and think about how isolated you might be. Does that suit your way of life?
  • Be aware of any limitations attached to the barn – make sure you get a good solicitor involved to check for any odd covenants that might prevent future plans
  • Work with an architect and builder who have experience of similar projects in the local area
  • Get planning permission before you do anything else, and check that the structure is sound (otherwise the whole thing might need to be pulled down)
  • Be clear what land (if any) comes with the barn – it might be very difficult to secure any more from the farmer/landowner if it’s still in commercial use
  • Be sympathetic to the original building when planning materials and finishes for your conversion. Often keeping it simple brings the best results
  • Take lots of photos before you start conversion work so you can put as much as possible back where you found it
  • Make sure you have sufficient barn conversion insurance before you start work
  • Don’t underestimate the cost – a barn conversion is always more expensive than you initially think it’s going to be!