Man in a conservatory undergoing renovation. He is wearing a high-vis waistcoat and sawing a length of wood balanced on a frame made from the same wood.
Before work starts, talk to your contractor about their plans for carrying out the work and where they will store materials. © Historic England Archive View image DP325478
Before work starts, talk to your contractor about their plans for carrying out the work and where they will store materials. © Historic England Archive View image DP325478

Practical Advice for Home Improvements in Older Houses

Practical tips and advice for anyone preparing to make alterations or improvements to an older building.

Understand your building

Research your house before you start. It will help you understand its history and the features which are important to its architectural or historic interest. It may even help you avoid delays during the project.

The National Heritage List for England records all listed buildings. In some cases, a building's entry on the List will include information on what is architecturally or historically significant about the building:

Your local planning authority will have a list of conservation areas and may also have their own local heritage list.

If your home is a listed building or you live in a conservation area, you may need to apply for extra permission before starting work.

To maintain and enhance the character of your older home, you need to understand the historic and architectural features which give your home its character. This can be anything from the materials used, to the design, its age or the people who lived there previously. If it is a listed building, there may be information about your home in its list entry description.

If you know how the building has been constructed, and what materials have been used, it should give you an idea of what changes are viable and what materials are appropriate.

Why do construction materials and techniques matter?

It is also helpful to be aware of what changes have already occurred over your building's lifetime.

Alterations and extensions of different periods can contribute to the property's character and interest. However, if not done in a considered way, past changes can be the cause of long-term problems. They may even have damaged your building.

You can check with your local planning authority if there are old planning or listed building approvals and building control approvals, which can help identify what has changed.

New changes can provide an opportunity to sensitively enhance your home.

Old photos of your home may provide clues to earlier alterations and extensions. 

Search archives for evidence 

Get professional advice

A professional can help you understand your building and steer you away from carrying out unnecessary or inappropriate work on it.

Professionals who have experience of older properties should be able to undertake a historic building assessment that will answer the questions listed above, if you don't have the time or inclination to do that yourself. They should also be able to suggest cost-effective and well-designed solutions to any problems you encounter.

Tasks that are best dealt with by a professional leading on the project include:

  • Obtaining consents such as listed building consent, planning permission and building regulations approval
  • Writing specifications that detail what works are to be undertaken, which materials to use and what standards should be met in the construction
  • Advising on health and safety
  • Finding suitable builders/contractors
  • Tendering works and deciding on a contract
  • Monitoring the building work and administering the contract and payments

Tip: If you are making changes to your home anyway, consider what energy-saving measures you could take at the same time. For example, you could lag hard-to-reach pipes, or draught-strip your windows. Installing some types of insulation can be quite disruptive, and doing this when you are already working on a particular area could not only minimise the disruption but also be cost effective.

Make your home more energy efficient

Check what permissions you need

It is important to remember that you may need consent for various types of works to older buildings and that not having consent when it is needed is a criminal offence.

You may also need planning permission and/or building regulation approval for the work that you are planning.

We advise you to speak to your local authority planning department if you are in any doubt about whether you need permission or consent to implement any changes to your property, particularly if your building is listed or in a conservation area.

Our pages about the individual types of work, such as altering windows or adding a conservatory, provide useful tips about what to consider and whether you are likely to need permission. Find advice on different types of work

Keep records

It's always worth having a photographic record of the building before work starts in case there are any problems later. 

Some kinds of work, like digging beneath floorboards or entering wall cavities behind modern wall finishes, offer an opportunity to learn more about your home. We recommend you record any historic material or features of interest you discover during the work. 

Record details of alterations you carry out. All this information will be useful not only to you, but also to any professionals or contractors who have to carry out work on your property in the future, and to the next owners if you move on.

If you live in a listed building, you could also provide a copy of your findings to the local Historic Environment Records and any other relevant archives so that future generations can share what you learned.

Use traditional materials

Original historic materials are unique and contribute to the character and significance of a building. But even the most durable material will need repairs eventually.

When working on your home, use traditional building materials and methods where possible.

Why do construction materials and techniques matter?

Get expert advice to ensure any modern materials you use are compatible with existing traditional materials. This could mean finding a joiner to make new sash windows out of a suitable wood or using new stone slates to repair a roof.

This approach can sometimes be a bit more expensive but will ultimately help to protect the character of your home.

If your house is listed, surviving historical material and objects may form part of the reason for listing. You need to apply for listed building consent if the work you are proposing will affect them.

Minimise the impact of your changes

We recommend that additions, alterations and repairs to historic buildings are capable of being reversed. This will minimise the impact of your work on historic material and will ensure the original plan, form or appearance of the building isn’t lost forever.

Plan for wildlife

You need to be aware if wildlife and habitats may be affected by your proposed works. Birds, bats, badgers, and some reptiles and amphibians and plants are protected by law. It is a criminal offence to harm or disturb many of these species.

If protected species are present find a chartered ecologist to advise, survey and recommend mitigation measures. 

You need to plan your project well ahead to allow for surveys. Find out more from our pages about wildlife and habitats.

Tip: Our wildlife is under threat and we all need to help to make space for nature. Older homes and gardens offer attractive habitats for birds, insects, hedgehogs and other wildlife. Take the opportunity of building works to create additional habitats such as nesting boxes.

Agreements with contractors

If you decide not to employ a professional to prepare a specification, tender the work or find a builder, then there are some important issues to consider.

When having building works carried out it is always advisable to have a contract drawn up that includes start and finish dates, the agreed fixed price for the work, and exactly what the price does and does not include (rather than an estimate). The contract should also cover insurance issues.

Professional institutions such as the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Joint Contracts Tribunal produce standard contracts written specifically for homeowners.

Work to old buildings can often include items that were unforeseen at the time the price was agreed but which become apparent as work proceeds and the building is 'opened up'.

Establish with the builder before starting a project how additional works will be costed, and consider what contingency sum you need to keep in reserve to cover unforeseen problems.

Before work starts, find out how the contractor is planning to carry out the work, and in what sequence. If you're ordering specific items yourself, you'll need to allow for ordering and delivery times.

Try also to establish how the site will be run. Agree on where to store materials and what measures contractors should put in place to protect them and to prevent damage to the building and your possessions.

You need to be aware of the roles and responsibilities for health and safety under the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015.