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Property insights: Buying and selling religious buildings

Posted: 07/11/2023

As one of the more unusual property types to be listed for sale, director Paul Diakiw explores the reasons which bring religious buildings to market, the potential challenges to overcome and the alternative uses for these properties.

What brings churches and religious buildings to the market?

From a commercial agent’s perspective, there hasn’t been a sudden influx of churches or religious properties being brought to market. Instead, we have seen a steady flow of listings over the last 15/20 years.

The only real marked increase in properties needing to be sold correlated with the Covid-19 pandemic, this due to decisions being made to either close a church or merge with another congregation.

Overall, however, a key reason behind many church closures is due to a dwindling congregation, predominately made up of elder members, and reducing support for the management and upkeep of the religious building. There isn’t an abundance of volunteers within the younger generations willing to take over this responsibility, which, in turn, can lead to the building needing to be closed.

Another determining factor has been the significant increase in running costs of large religious buildings, particularly utility costs and this coupled with dwindling congregations has become unsustainable in many cases.

Of course, these aren’t the only factors, but in our experience have played a predominant role in why religious buildings are sold.

What are these buildings being used for once sold?

Churches and religious buildings tend to be large premises with a flexible, open-plan layout which inevitably makes it easier to transform the space for alternative use.

In some instances, the building is retained for religious use, however we see a lot of cases where it is modified for commercial usage.

This can range from anything such as dance studio facilities, day nurseries and community based uses, to offices or hospitality uses. The size and flexibility of the space enable it to be converted to meet the demands and requirements of these varying sectors.

Additionally, religious buildings are purchased for residential purposes, whether that is as a conversion, or wholesale redevelopment for new properties.

Constraints and challenges of buying and selling religious buildings

Depending on which denomination is selling a religious building, there may be obligations or restrictions imposed by them, contained within the title of the building, or within the local area itself, which must be adhered to when buying or selling the property.

Walker Singleton undertakes a lot of work with the United Reformed Church, and the vast majority of its buildings come fairly free from restrictions or obligations.

In contrast, buildings under the jurisdiction of the Church of England can have more rigorous obligations and restrictions which must be upheld during a sale.

If a buyer doesn’t want to meet the obligations set out by a particular denomination or the local area, it can cause a sale to fall through.

Many churches are listed buildings, which can bring challenges through the buying process and bring with it constraints around planning if a buyer is looking to adapt or extend the property. In particular, internal features within a church such as balconies, pews and organs may have particular protection and cannot be tampered with, which may impact on how the building can be utilised.

Unlike other properties, churches or further religious buildings often come with unique features within their boundaries. Graveyards are an example of this and in instances where this is prevalent, obligation clauses are put in place as part of the sale to ensure families and visitors continue to be allowed access to graves.

There are also obligations and responsibilities from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for the upkeep and maintenance of war graves, which also must be adhered to in any sale.

Above all though, any church or religious building must be sold in compliance with the Charities Act 2022.

A wealth of knowledge in selling religious buildings

At Walker Singleton, we are experienced in working with a wide variety of religious and charitable organisations when it comes to selling properties.

Our team has a great understanding of the market for these buildings, as well as the needs and requirements of all parties involved in a sale, in order to maximise a realisation and secure the best outcome.

We are also highly experienced in not only working in compliance with the Charities Act 2022, but also in adherence with the restrictions and obligations set out by the respective denominations, in the titles of the building, within the local area and the War Graves Commission.

Additionally, we have the knowledge and experience of advising on listed buildings and the potential constraints in dealing with a sale.

Currently on the market:

Salem Methodist Church, Halifax
Ebenezer Methodist Church, Halifax
Northowram Methodist Church, Northowram, Halifax

Previously sold religious buildings

• Hall Gate United Reformed Church, Doncaster – Grade II listed town centre church building and church hall sold for a mix of community use and residential conversion
• Clayton Heights Methodist Church, Bradford – detached church building in a semi-rural location sold for conversion to 3 residential dwellings
• St Mary’s in the Wood United Reformed Church, Leeds – substantial Grade II listed town centre church building sold for conversion and refurbishment for community based use