rear of cottage in Hertfordshire after painting

Essential maintenance for older, historic, important and listed buildings

If you own and live in an older building, generally something built before 1800, chances are it could be a wonderful place to live, but potentially a total nightmare to manage it’s upkeep.

Many older homes of a certain age, style or history are also protected under UK law and overseen by a body such as English Heritage, or CADW in Wales.

Historic Scotland looks after properties north of the border.

We look at the typical problems that may arise from owning a special home and suggest some solutions to problems and we also offer some advice for essential ongoing maintenance to keep your home intact and problem free.

All over the British Isles there are buildings of special interest, some open to the public, some in commercial use and some are occupied as private homes.

They range from Castles, to cottages, follies, industrial relics and everything in between.

For our readers overseas, in the USA, Canada, Australia and more, this article relates to the various historic homes, palaces, gardens, railroads, ancient monuments, castles and churches in the United Kingdom.

What’s so special about these “special” buildings and why is looking after them so important?

They are often (but not always) “listed”, meaning they are placed on a special register to acknowledge their value, but in this case, we refer to value to the wider community and not value in monetary terms as the latter often falls at the owners feet.

What levels or categories of listing exist?

According to English heritage, listing can be one of three categories; Grade 1, Grade 2 and grade 2*.

Grade 1 is often something of exceptional special interest, such as a castle or grand stately home.

Grade 2 is the most common and can include houses but also industrial buildings, bridges or churches. Finally Grade 2*, which are more often than not, very high quality buildings, mostly in original condition, and often with an interior of special interest or the former home of someone very famous.

The photo at the top of the page shows a house we painted a few years back.

It was Grade 2 listed as not only was it a lovely house,  it was also the family home of the chap who eventually went on to run the White star shipping line, of the Titanic fame, a certain Mr Ismay! (Watch the movie, you will see who I mean!)


english heritage blue plaque thomas henry ismay titanic
The former seaside home of the owner of the company that built the Titanic, amongst other ships.


It was very important when doing the above job that a suitable, approved masonry coating was used, one that allowed the structure to breathe, whilst keeping the damp outside.

It is clear that living in a historic and/or listed house has certain responsibilities above and beyond just living there and careful attention must be made to the various planning restrictions and covenants that are related to an older building.

Caring for something very old can bring immense challenges so let’s briefly look at some problems and solutions related to older buildings.

Typical problems encountered by very old buildings.

The big take-away here is that, rather surprisingly to some people, you do NOT need listed consent every time you carry out work, but, and it’s a really BIG but, whatever is done must be an almost exact like for like job, and must NOT alter the look or layout of the house.

What I mean is, if you wanted the outside walls of your listed cottage painting, you do NOT need to apply, in most cases, for consent, as long as the colour of paint is exactly the same and has been previously applied to the house.

This could mean owning a white washed Devon cob house and having it repainted with the exact same whitewash, usually a lime based paint.

decorating a listed building in Essex
decorating a listed building in Essex. Image courtesy GS decorating

An asset or a home?

English heritage emphasise most strongly the notion of a listed house being an “asset”.

OK, everyone’s house is their asset but with a special building, it is also considered an asset to the local area or even the country and owning one is a responsibility that is not to be taken lightly.

This is especially true if you do not heed advice, or the law, and go ahead with works that alter the appearance, size, structure or shape of your home.

“It’s my house, I’ll do what I want!”

Oh no, you won’t!

If this is your attitude, you don’t deserve to own a house of historic interest!

Going ahead with unapproved works, such as replacing wooden sash windows with modern UPVC units, or getting someone to apply a heavily textured coating in bright orange would NOT go down well with the powers at be if the walls were smooth and white beforehand.

If in doubt, it’s always a good tip to double check with your local council, who often have an officer in a planning department who could advise you, usually for free.

plymouth smeatons tower rain
Grade 1 listed Smeaton’s Tower, a (non working) lighthouse on Plymouth Hoe, about 3 miles from my home in the hills in the background! It originally stood out at sea on the Eddystone Rocks, but was rebuilt brick by brick overlooking the main bay across Plymouth known as “Plymouth sound”. This is a globally recognised symbol of my city. It is open to the public sometimes, but there are 93 steps to to the top!


The good news is that many listed buildings can benefit from GRANTS available to help with the upkeep or with essential repairs.

Remember these houses have been deemed of interest to the nation as a whole, to our history, and to the importance of keeping these places alive for future generations.

Living in a listed building means you have a personal responsibility to maintain it, and not taking care of it can seriously backfire on you.

In fact you can be ordered to put it back to how it was before you started, which could prove more costly than you ever imagined.

Your local council can serve a legally enforceable notice on your home: These are a REPAIRS NOTICE and also an URGENT WORKS NOTICE and I assure you, you do NOT want to get involved in this as you will have a lot of very important, and cheesed off, people breathing down your neck.

We found this info on Stroud council’s website which sums up how severe a breach is taken and it is pretty much the same across the UK…..

“As a criminal offence, illegal works to a listed building could lead to prosecution, either in a magistrates court or at Crown Court – potentially resulting in a substantial fine, imprisonment, or both.” Source:

So if you own a listed building, you MUST comply with the law, or else!

So with that borne in mind, what are the typical problems facing listed buildings?

There are quite a few to choose from and they usually relate to the age of a building and problems such as damp, erosion, dilapidation, or even fire, because older buildings cannot have the sort of fire proofing that modern homes have.


golden-hill dorset wall coatings rendering quote
Gold Hill in Dorset, UK. Once used for a famous HOVIS bread TV commercial. The houses are listed and the street is also protected by a conservation order.


Vandals and burglars often target older homes if they are left empty, often as there is no one around the house to see the potential thief, and/or the building could be located in the middle of the countryside, meaning easy prey for ner-do-well’s.

CCTV and intruder alarms cannot generally be installed on the outside of a grade 1 or grade 2 listed property, so if you are thinking of buying a rural listed building, you must consider security: both your own security and the security of the building, but WITHOUT anything intrusive, if you see what I mean.

The actual purchasing of materials to fix a problem on a listed building can sometimes be expensive and only available from specific suppliers, however these items are generally of a far higher quality than is manufactured today and should in effect, last a very long time.

Damp is also often a problem in listed homes and if not damp-proofed when the problem arises, can lead to ruinously expensive repairs and this is one major reason why very old homes become a noose round the neck of the owner.

There are several systems to alleviate this, one being, by coincidence (LOL!) a product we stock and apply ourselves, known as clear-coat, which is a completely transparent damp-proof wall coating.

brick waterproofing clear silicone damp coatings


The product cures erosion, damp and mould, which can kill a house is left untreated.

The good thing about the system is the fact it does not change the look of the house in any way as the system soaks inside the bricks or blocks, and NOT on the outside of the wall such as a DIY waterproofing product.

Where the building requires painting, the same colour and finish must be used.

The challenge is that older paints had LEAD in them, modern paints do not, so you CANNOT go to B and Q and buy the paint, it has to come from a specialists, so there you go, LEAD PAINT is still being used and is still available to buy and not many people know that!

clear coating weatherproof and waterproof stone walls
Here is a 500 year old Grade 1 listed property in Cumbria, which had a damp problem. Now cured by our historic houses team.

Summing up..

So in summary, owning a listed house can be problematic but only if repairs and maintenance are not carried out in accordance with your local council and the guidelines set down by English Heritage or CADW.

Owning a historic building is a privilege, one that should never be abused, failure to do so could lead to you being hauled before a court.

If issues with the house are quickly spotted and remedied, using the correct materials and procedure, your historic house should be still standing in future generations and you should be proud to have played a part in the history of our country!

Our company often works on listed buildings, usually private homes over a certain age, so if your house requires some work to it, talk to the experts today and get in touch today.

Scroll to top