Living in a historical building: Special features of listed properties

Buying a listed building. What you need to know beforehand.

Whether it's on an idyllic farm or in a townhouse from yesteryear, living in a historical building offers a unique atmosphere. However, buying a listed building also involves assuming obligations for its preservation. This is why, when buying such a property, prospective buyers should take into account potential renovation or refurbishment work they may want to carry out later. Find out what you need to know as the owner of a historical building.

Monument preservation must be taken into consideration during any renovation work.

The usual procedure for a house purchase is for the interested party to buy a house and redesign it to suit their wishes and ideas. This may be obvious, but the situation changes when it comes to listed properties. Depending on the scope of protection, the cantonal monument preservation office must approve any renovation measures to ensure that the historical character of the building is preserved. So, prior to purchase, talk to the vendor or municipality to find out about the extent to which the desired property is subject to monument protection provisions.

Grades of protection

BBuilding inventories provide information on whether a building is protected and
serve as a basis for making decisions regarding construction and for site planning. The
inventory lists are available in the municipalities in each canton and can be consulted at the relevant monument preservation office or municipal administration. Depending on the canton, it may be possible for owners who wish to carry out renovations to request evidence to justify the inclusion of their property in the building inventory. The terms used for the different grades of protection vary from canton to canton.

Properties meriting preservation or protection

Buildings that are at least 30 years old can be designated in the building inventory as meriting preservation or protection. In the case of renovations to properties meriting preservation, responsibility lies with the municipality and it has the final say on the construction project.

Cantonal properties

If properties meriting preservation are considered part of a group (a group of buildings that have a spatial or historical connection) they are deemed to be cantonal properties. In principle, properties that merit protection are all cantonal properties. The cantonal monument preservation office is responsible for cantonal properties and must be involved in renovation work.

Listed properties

The "listed" designation is used only for buildings that have been formally entered in the land register by contract or cantonal council resolution. They are protected by the canton or the federal government. The cantonal monument preservation office must also be notified of any renovation work to these buildings.

Preservation of monuments depends on individual factors

It can be difficult to predict what conditions the cantonal monument preservation office may impose. These are specific considerations that are as individual as the property itself. For example, the cantonal monument preservation office can prohibit any modification to a building's structure or the replacement of historical windows. If the facade is protected, the specialist office may only allow the outer walls to be painted in the original color. Requirements for the interior fit-out are usually less stringent. For instance, owners are generally permitted to upgrade kitchens, bathrooms, and technical facilities to meet new standards, but fireplaces, stairwells, or special wall coverings may also be given protected status.

Planning renovation work: The recommended approach

  1. Contact the cantonal monument preservation office at the beginning of your planning process. Consultation is free of charge and will help you to identify which modifications are compatible with monument protection – and which projects have no chance of being granted planning permission. You can also apply for financial support.
  2. Seek advice from an architect who is familiar with monument preservation requirements. The architect will draw up the documents necessary for filing the building application.
  3. Submit the building application to your municipality, which will examine it and forward it to the cantonal monument preservation office. The latter will prepare a specialist report.
  4. If the building application is granted, renovation work can begin. A specialist from the monument preservation office will remain on hand during renovation work to advise you and your architect, free of charge.
  5. The construction project is completed and then finally approved by the municipality.

Renovation costs should be estimated by specialists

Since the course of a refurbishment is difficult to predict, choosing a flexible financing solution like a construction loan is advisable, as additional cost items can soon mount up. For instance, refurbishing hardwood floors in a historical building can turn out to be more expensive than expected. While warped floorboards and cracked surfaces are easily detected and are relatively straightforward to eliminate with a sanding machine, other faults may only become apparent later.

For example, if you later notice that the gaps between floorboards are excessively wide, this requires a lot more work and you should bring in a specialist craftsman. Cold drafts can enter the building through the gaps, considerably reducing your quality of life and driving up heating costs. To avoid this, an insulation layer should be placed under the floorboards, which requires removing and subsequently relaying all the floorboards correctly.

Owners of listed buildings can apply for subsidies

Builder-owners who cooperate with the monument preservation office during renovation work almost always receive financial support. This support is based on a professional assessment, since the owner has no legal claim. The subsidies apply for work that preserves value, but not for work that enhances it. For example, the cost of specific prescribed building material or the work of a specialist can be covered. To inquire about financial support, you must submit a request to the cantonal specialist office before building work starts.

The degree of financial support ultimately depends on the individual decisions of the cantonal monument preservation office. Depending on the property and the location, it will cover a certain percentage of the costs incurred. This can range from 20% to 100%. The full costs will be covered if the work is required solely for the purpose of preservation rather than being necessary from the owner's point of view; for example, if the office commissions the restoration of an inscription on a facade. Value-maintaining work that is not covered by monument preservation subsidies is tax-deductible.

Keeping energy in mind when renovating a listed building

Listed properties are usually old. Such buildings sometimes do not meet the current federal energy requirements and if they were purchased recently, they often have to be made more energy efficient. Precisely in such cases, however, is where you see the complexity of protecting historical buildings: for example, insulating the facade of the building can be subject to various requirements, such as the facade may not be visually altered. The best way to find out more in such a case is to contact the relevant historical buildings preservation authorities your canton. Nevertheless, there are positive aspects: There are various grants for energy renovations that can be applied for.

Living in a historical building: Unique, but not for everyone

Living in a historical building means making compromises. If you are interested, you need to decide whether the property is right for you, because a complete conversion is not legally possible. Think about this: Would you fit a vintage car with the latest gadgets, or would you restore it to its original condition and lovingly care for it?

Would you like to find out more about financing renovation projects?

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