News & Insights // Hidden costs of owning a home

A couple who are being forced to sell their home because of an ancient law requiring them to pay for major repairs to the chancel of their local church has highlighted the liabilities homeowners can take on.


Sarah Routledge asks how other homeowners can avoid the same fate.


Adrian and Gail Wallbank own Glebe Farm in Warwickshire and 18 years ago were asked by the Church for £6,000 under their obligations to pay for chancel repairs. They took their case all the way to the House of Lords but will now have to pay the £230,000 repair bill for the chancel at St John the Baptist church in Warwickshire.


When added to the £250,000 legal fees the couple ran up in taking their case through the courts, it means they will have to sell their farmhouse, inherited from Ms Wallbank's father which goes to auction later this month.


It is a little known and ancient law that makes the couple liable for the repairs to the chancel of the parish church and can be traced back to medieval times, when every parish had its own priest or rector, and the Church could charge parishioners for the upkeep of the chancel through tithes.


Although the tithe rent charges have been abolished chancel repair liability never was.


The law represents "tens of millions of pounds" to the Church and it is no surprise this case was pursued to the highest court, says Sam Cherry, director of Conveyancing Liability Solutions (CLS).


Fortunately, a simple online search performed by solicitors acting on behalf of a buyer (or seller) can highlight a potential liability and insurance is available to cover the risk.


"ChancelCheck is a low cost online search which shows whether a property is within the medieval parish boundary of a parish church that continues to have the potential to charge for chancel repair liability," Mr Cherry explains.


"If you are, you can then purchase a ChancelSure insurance policy – it takes about three minutes to find out whether there is a

problem and insure it."


Policies start from around £45, which would provide for £100,000 worth of cover.


However, Mr Cherry warns, not every solicitor will do this search – despite the fact that there are 15,000 parishes in England and Wales, and around a third of these are liable for chancel repair.


The danger is if your solicitor does not carry out the search and relies on local knowledge. They may know where the modern parish boundaries lie but not the medieval ones and sometimes the Church to which the property is liable can be up to 15 miles away.


But the situation has been dealt with through the Land Registration Act 2002 which states that the Church must register all liable properties by October 12th 2013 in order to ensure they can continue to claim for chancel repair liability on a property indefinitely.


If chancel repair liability is not on your title deeds when you buy a property after this date then you cannot be claimed against so that there is complete transparency. Until then, insist on a search to be on the safe side.


Other potential problems to look out for


Defective title


A title is 'defective' if something is missing or includes some clause that could cause problems in the future. Along with the searches, this is something that the buyer's solicitors should identify during the conveyancing process – and offer a solution.


A lack of a right of way, usually where access to the property is from a private road or another person's land, is a typical example of title defect.


Often the owner of the road cannot be traced but there is still a possibility that one day the road owner could turn up and assert their right to block access. This can also apply to any pipes or cables running across private land. If the buyer can prove that the road has been used for 20 years there should not be a problem, but if this is difficult, the buyer can purchase indemnity insurance.


Another common title defect is a lack of planning permission. Where a structure, like an extension or porch, has been added to the

house, it may have been built contrary to building regulations, or without permission from the local authority.


The local authority could potentially order the structure to be demolished, at the homeowner's cost. Indemnity insurance can be bought at the time of purchase to cover this risk.


It is not always necessary to buy indemnity insurance and the buyer's solicitor should be able to advise on the issue.


Riparian owner


Does a waterway run through your land, or borders it? Then you are probably a riparian landowner, which comes with its own rights and responsibilities.


Usually your area of the water extends to the centre of the river or stream up to the borders of your land.


Being a riparian landowner gives you some fishing rights and the right to remove up to 20 cubic metres of water for household use a day, and generally you will be allowed to build a dock and moor boats, although you will need planning permission.


But you will also be responsible for passing on the flow of water without obstruction, pollution or diversion affecting the rights of others. This means clearing out any debris, including litter and even animal carcasses.


You will also be responsible for maintaining any flood defences required to protect your property and control any alien species, such as Japanese knotweed. Failure to live up to these responsibilities could end in legal action from the Environmental Agency.


Homeowners who are found to have caused flood damage to other properties because of debris in their part of the stream could also face a hefty bill from their neighbours.


Water supply


Many homeowners are unaware they are responsible for the water pipes leading to their property but water suppliers are only liable for the main pipe that runs along the public road. The pipe that supplies each house is the homeowner's responsibility and they will have to pay for the repair of any leaks themselves.


This becomes more complicated if the supply pipe is shared between neighbours, in which case there is a joint responsibility.


It also applies to the drain out of your house leading to the sewer, which is the homeowner's responsibility until it reaches the main sewer pipe. Where many drains connect with neighbouring properties before reaching the main network, this is known as a private sewer and is again a joint responsibility.


Charlene Stevens, spokesperson for the Consumer Council for Water, explains: Water companies are responsible for the water mains. "If you have a meter and stop tap, this will generally mean that any pipe work between the meter and your home is your responsibility. If your meter does not have a stop tap you may be responsible for pipe work up to the company stop tap.


"For unmeasured customers, you have responsibility for all pipe work from your house up to the company stop tap."


Ms Stevens says water companies do operate schemes to subsidise the cost in repairs but the important thing is to identify any leaks as soon as possible to avoid a large water bill as well as the repair costs.


"Ensure internal water appliances are in good working order, consumers should note leaking taps, toilet cisterns that run constantly, and overflowing header tanks," she suggests.


"If access to their meter is practical, consumers should take an interest in their weekly consumption patterns. The average UK consumers uses 150 litres of water per day. So on a meter, this is one cubic meter (or one unit) per week per person."


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