Class Q: Understanding a new route to creating a rural home.

Current rural planning policy precludes residential development in open country except for Agricultural Occupancy Restricted Dwellings (in theory necessary to accommodate agricultural workers) and class Q of the General Permitted Development Order. Development is directed to sites within defined “settlement limits” of rural villages. Not only does this go against many people’s desire for ‘no near neighbours’ but these opportunities will mostly be for plots of ½ and acre or less and will be fiercely competed for by local builders and developers looking to cram as many dwellings per acre as they can squeeze in.

The very few opportunities that do exist in open country will either be the demolition of AOC bungalows or Class Q.  If you feel you could comply with AOC conditions or be willing to battle to get them lifted, then this could be a way forward. However the new class Q of the GPDO rules can provide larger plots in rural locations for the conversion of modern, usually steel framed agricultural buildings. These are often isolated and can come with several acres of land which gives the opportunity for privacy and seclusion in a contemporary energy efficient dwelling.

In essence, if a farmer or landowner has redundant modern agricultural buildings they may be eligible for conversion to homes through Permitted Development Rights contained within the General Permitted Development Order. PDRs generally allow building works and/or changes of use to be carried out without full planning permission. The class of PDR permitting the conversion of modern agricultural buildings to dwellings is known as Class Q.

Introduced in 2014, Class Q initially provided that any buildings used solely for agriculture on or before 20 March 2013 and now redundant, may he converted into up to three dwellings with a maximum cumulative total floor space of 450 sq.m. subject to certain prescribed limitations and conditions. However, with effect from 6 April 2018, Class Q development may now comprise of:

  • Up to three larger homes within a combined maximum of 465 sq m or
  • Up to five smaller homes each no larger than 100 sq m; or
  • A mix of both, totalling no more than five homes, of which no more than three may be larger homes

These new thresholds are a welcome amendment to the rules relating to the redevelopment of farm buildings and should provide a much-needed boost to rural housing. However, any Class Q development requires prior approval from the Local Planning Authority; in 2015/16 half of all such applications were rejected. Therefore anyone considering this interesting route to a new rural home should obtain professional advice at an early stage.

General

The predictions of the Bank of England’s agent for the South West, for the region’s prospects have been proved spot on. The West Country economy, which stalled briefly after the Brexit vote, seems to be stronger than ever now.

The latest national data bears this out with a weak pound stimulating economic activity, particularly in the manufacturing sector. I am also intrigued to see European firms acquiring some UK ones now that they are looking rather cheap. Our local Taunton based Ministry of Cake being a prime example. In that case acquired by a French conglomerate.

The BOE are clearly determined not to let the economy fall in to the same stagnant ditch as Japan’s, so penalties for banks that do not lend, bond purchasing, more quantitative easing, in fact anything in the tool box will be used to keep the economy buoyant including Hinkley Point.

What does this mean for residential property? In the provinces, the effect will be most pronounced. Buyers have had more reasons than ever before to procrastinate. But you cannot hold back demand indefinitely; it will eventually overspill the dam of indecision.

This, in conjunction with historically low interest rates and a weaker £ must mean that over the next 12 months we will see a tightening of supply.  

In the meantime our clients, who are mostly pragmatic discretionary purchasers, are carrying on buying in a market with a wide choice and we are getting discounts for them of between 6 and 18%.

I have been predicting for a while that London property fence sitters are missing an opportunity as the gap between London and the West Country prices had never been wider. With the softening of London prices accelerated by the stamp duty changes and West Country prices fairly solid, the gap is closing. In years to come frustrated escapees from the capital will look back at 2018 as the year they should have moved.

The message is clear, if you are contemplating selling or downsizing in London and grabbing some life quality in the West Country, do it now before everyone else realises the gap is only going to get smaller.

For a refreshing change some really interesting off market properties became available this year. My favourite is an early Great Hall house, hardly touched for 50 years and with a good parcel of land. It sold, thank goodness, to a great couple who are up for the challenge of it’s restoration and are in tune with the West Country.

Farms and mixed use properties make up a significant proportion of the acquisitions we advise on and it is important to bear in mind that these attract a much less aggressive rate of stamp duty. On a £2m “farm” the stamp duty bill will be £68,500 whereas on a £2m house it will be £153,750. Establishing the status of a property can bring huge savings.

However with so many properties in the West Country still being offered at unrealistic guide prices a lot of the property “on the market” is not really for sale. An overpriced property is actually just window dressing for agents and a fantasy trip for the vendor. For the rest of us it distorts the market by littering it with properties that cannot really be bought unless a purchaser is mad enough to want to pay more than it is worth. To my mind these properties are not for sale but rather stage props in a comedy/tragedy.

There are within the market always a number of forced sellers, usually probate, divorce or over-borrowed. Apart from these exceptions, it is worth remembering that the vast majority of vendors of quality property in rural areas are discretionary rather than compulsory. If these people do not like the look of the market or it’s prices they will not offer or sell their property. This has a distorting effect on the market by making it appear that values are higher than they really are.

The word “quality” really is the nub of this matter. The vast majority of the property that makes up the statistics we read so much about in the press is ordinary. It is easy, after constantly reading stories in the press, either boom or doom, to think that these generalised commentaries apply to all property. They do not and they are particularly inappropriate for more valuable rural property. My clients do not want ordinary, they want quality and the small but important sector of the market represented by “best of type” properties is not going perform in the quite same way as the rest.

There are three principal reasons for this. The supply is very finite; for my clients these are almost invariably discretionary purchases and, as I have said previously, for the vendors often discretionary sales. Thus average house prices, whilst a useful barometer of a trend, are less relevant than people think when assessing a rural property, particularly as these rural properties not only by definition represent a tiny proportion of the total housing stock, but also represent an even smaller proportion of the total number of transactions in a given period because they are traded less frequently than urban properties.

Analysing statistical evidence is important provided it is not applied too rigorously to non standard properties. This is just what is happening in some sectors of the mortgage market where more and more mortgage applications are being assessed by computers rather than experienced local valuers. The result can be that properties outside the statistical norm are being disadvantaged. It is therefore very important to establish, when applying for a mortgage, who is actually going to value the property and whether they have the appropriate experience and local knowledge in that market sector. Getting this properly organised before it is too late is key.

An equally important part of my job is assessing the vendor. My clients are not buying a generality, rather a specific property and the price at which that property can be purchased depends as much on the vendor and their circumstances as anything else. Bear in mind at all times when approaching a property that there are three variable figures:

  1. the sum that the agent is asking,  2. the amount that it is worth and 3. the price at which the property can be bought. These days these three figures are very rarely the same.

Thus whilst it is important to establish, before submitting an offer, the exact situation of the vendor and ascertain whether they have to sell or would merely like to sell if the price is appealing, I need to know whether my clients purchase decision is based on price or value. Looking purely at the price of a property can be misleading; the value of a property is much more than its’ financial cost, it is the well being and quality of life it brings to the purchaser and their family over many years.

The effect of these factors on my market depends on area and asking price. Different sections are performing in very different ways. Better properties, particularly those with land are selling well when correctly priced. By contrast properties that are dull, ordinary, blemished or overpriced are not selling at all, or at large discounts. In the middle and upper sectors of the market in this area, the majority of vendors are discretionary; their reason for selling a good house is often a lifestyle decision rather than financial compulsion. Many of these vendors remain uncertain whether current market conditions are right for their sale. Agents, faced with an acute shortage of turnover, are occasionally answering this question by resorting to fanciful valuations for prospective vendors in order to win instructions.

One consequence is that some new stock is still coming the market overpriced at a time when the market is particularly price sensitive, resulting in disappointed vendors and confused purchasers.  A second consequence is that an increasing amount of prime property is being offered privately off market. A third consequence is that much more stock is being offered “To Let” if it fails to sell rather than having the price reduced to a sensible level. The overall effect on the public is one of confusion.

In conclusion, a dearth of correctly priced prime property is making it difficult for amateurs to read the market and for estate agents to accurately establish values. This presents an unusual opportunity for buyers, particularly now that the London/West Country price chasm is starting to close. Fence sitting at this interesting phase of the market will, in my opinion, prove to be expensive.

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