What lurks in the small print
Property deeds can contain all sorts of curious and cumbersome clauses. Andrea Marechal Watson finds some of the oddest
Amedieval lord enjoyed all sorts of privileges over the people who lived on his estates, among them rights over fishing, hunting and mining. We might assume all these feudal ties had vanished by the 21st century, but not so. Strange deeds survive to this day.
Restrictions on what you can and can’t do in your own home sometimes lurk at the back of title deeds and come to light only when a property is sold. These covenants are usually negative, regulating antiquated activities such as making bricks, operating a steam engine, keeping goats and pigs, running a leather tanning factory, and using the premises for “immoral purposes”. In new, high-end gated developments, more modern problems are addressed: you might not be allowed to advertise your trade, hang out washing, put flowerpots on the window sills or park your beloved caravan on the drive.
Historical rights over your property may be enjoyed by a local church or ancient manor. If you live near a church you could be hit with a bill known as a Chancel Repair Liability, and solicitors often advise you to insure against this. Since October 2013, manorial rights can no longer be registered, but this deadline to lodge claims led to some strange cases. Homeowners in Solva, a village in Pembrokeshire, received letters saying that Doreen Bowie, who bought the title Lord of the Manor of Dewisland in 1987, was claiming the rights to the minerals under their properties (giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “being undermined”).
Covenants such as these often date from the break-up of great estates. A freeholder in the Wirral found she was not allowed to make soap or candles on the premises because the land on which her home was built had once belonged to the Sunlight Soap baron Lord Leverhulme.
The Althorp Estate in Northamptonshire is another that has specific rules for its homeowners. Local estate agent Richard Greener lived in a cottage on the estate and worked as a managing agent for its owner, Lord Spencer, father of Diana, Princess of Wales. “Among the covenants on property sales there was one prohibiting the planting of brassicas in the garden, and another preventing the keeping of a gun or ‘noise machine’ as well as caravans.”
It’s not uncommon for clauses to verge on the bizarre. Greener recalls selling a property near Northampton where the owner has to pay £10 a year to the “poor” of Boughton village. Pam Erskine, who lives in a thatched cottage in Surrey that once belonged to WE Johns and was where he wrote the first of his famous Biggles books, is obliged by her title deeds to keep a set of the adventure stories in the house. And there’s the case, as told by James Wyatt of estate agency Barton Wyatt, of the Surrey landlord who, in lieu of charging a peppercorn ground rent, demands 100 red roses a year (which he then gives to his wife).
Some covenants are so old that they are unenforceable. A £3.3million house in Coneyhurst, West Sussex, has deeds stating that part of it is freehold and another part leasehold, with the leasehold portion being for a “term of 10,000 years from the Feast of St Michael the Archangel 1580”.
“No one knows which part is leasehold, or why,” says its agent, Mark McAndrew of Strutt & Parker. “There are, however, a few thousand years left to solve the mystery.”
Spencer Cushing of Abbotts estate agency is marketing a house where the Queen can claim a stake if you develop on the site. Whitegates, a £450,000 house in King’s Lynn that borders Sandringham, has an overage agreement on part of its garden that dates to when the Crown Estate sold the land. “The Sandringham Estate is entitled to up to 50 per cent (subject to negotiation) of any development profit made on the entire plot,” says Cushing.
These so-called “hope” clauses or overage agreements are increasingly common thanks to the rocketing price of land. They arise when someone sells an option on part of their land to a developer. If planning permission is obtained, the owner shares in the increased value. Mary Gold, a writer, only discovered that her husband had agreed a hope clause on a three-acre field at their property in Kent when she came to sell after his death. She
In lieu of ground rent, a Surrey landlord demands 100 roses each year
was forced to pay the developer, who had taken the option, £34,000 to relinquish his rights.
Estate agents and solicitors should spot any curious covenants, as they can affect the value of a property. In a Surrey house that has been split down the middle into two units, the owners have agreed to offer each other first refusal if they sell – but this could affect the value going forward, as the clause is without end.
An agricultural tie, meaning a property can only be lived in by a farmworker, can also depress the value of a property, but they can be removed if no one has lived there for 10 years. Hill Farm in Barnardiston, Suffolk, on the market for £4.815million with Cheffins, comes with a three-bedroom detached barn conversion that has an agricultural tie on it. The agent is therefore offering to sell the property in separate lots, as the main farmhouse has no restrictions.
Searching for these covenants before purchasing a home can be a chore. Take Glebe House, a former rectory near Exeter listed with Jackson-Stops & Staff for £1.25million, which has a reciprocal covenant with its neighbour. The clunky clause in the contract reads: “Not at any time to do or cause permit or suffer to be done on or in the Property anything which may be or become a nuisance, annoyance, danger or be detrimental to the Adjoining Property” – typical of the Dickensian language that can cloud the issue in matters such as these.
But finding restrictive agreements before handing over your deposit could prevent a nasty surprise further down the line. Grade II listed The Manor, near Beaminster in Dorset, is on the market for £2.1million with JacksonStops & Staff. It might catch the eye of a buyer looking to start a wedding business, as the 20-acre estate comes with a church, but there’s a catch: it can only be used for eight services per year.
Black Horse Cottage, a 15th-century house near Cambridge for sale with Cheffins for £650,000, used to be run as a pub. When the publican went bankrupt in 1850, a restrictive covenant was placed on the property forbidding the sale of any “intoxicating beverages including perry and cider”. It’s a sobering thought for any would-be buyer, and serves a strong reminder of the need to scour title deeds for any lurking nasties. After all, you never know when you might want to launch a soap-making empire or a mini brewery from your kitchen table.
Letter of the law: Pam Erskine, left, must keep a set of Biggles books in her house; Glebe House, right
Small print: part of this house in Coneyhurst, West Sussex, has a leasehold (but no one knows which), cover and main; Glebe House, above, has a reciprocal covenant with its neighbour