Seven things leaseholders need to consider before extending

Leaseholders must be aware of a mix of specific considerations you are likely to encounter at various touchpoints in the house extension process, e.g. the number of party wall notices you may need to serve. Before we dive into the joys of building, let’s summarise these leaseholder-specific issues in one place. If you are a freeholder, you can ignore this post!

In brief, there are seven things that leaseholders need to consider before building an extension.

row of town houses - leaseholders extending property

Permitted development rights don’t apply

Unfair as it is, flats and maisonettes do not benefit from the same generous permitted development rights as freehold properties enjoy. This means any form of extension – loft, kitchen, garage, etc – will require a full planning application to be prepared and submitted for consideration by the local planning authority.

Furthermore, in most councils, the planning guidelines are set to encourage less generous extension footprints than are afforded via the permitted development route. It is therefore advisable to initially engage an architect only for the planning approval stage, before going on to further design work. Then, when you are satisfied the approved scheme gives you the space you need, proceed further.

Acquiring the space

Before getting emotionally involved in the idea of that dream extension, check whether you own the space you intend to build into. Obvious though it is, many leaseholders wrongly presume that garden space and garages are demised to them when they are not, and or that they have automatic air rights for an upward extension, when in fact the airspace above the roofline belongs to the freeholder. Check exactly what you own, and if you do not presently own the space in which you propose to build, you will first need to acquire it.

Restrictive covenants within the lease

As a leasee, one of the first things you need to check for are any restrictive covenants prohibiting major alterations to the property.

Flat and maisonette leases will likely have clauses to prevent leaseholders carrying out major works without the freeholder’s permission, in which case a licence of alteration would be needed. Indeed, it is increasingly common to see houses built on new estates (say, year 2000 onwards) with restrictions preventing any increase in a property’s footprint. These would have been imposed for aesthetic reasons to preserve the look of the estate or imposed as a condition when planning approval for the development was granted by the council.

Licence to alter

According to Brady Solicitors, it is likely the leaseholder will require the freeholder’s express consent to carry out any alterations to their flat, as this is commonly a restriction set out in the lease. An application is made to the freeholder, who will require a full specification of works. If agreed, the freeholder’s solicitors will draw up a licence for alterations and sometimes a deed of variation of lease, which formally records the changes made to the property, to maintenance responsibilities and service charges, and substitutes a new plan, which is then chronicled at Land Registry.

The leaseholder will have to pay the freeholder’s legal and other costs of drawing up the licence and deed. This can also be a convenient time to extend the term of your lease.

Insurance implications

The creation of an extension to your flat or maisonette probably won’t affect your ground rent or service charge, but it will have implications on the insurance contribution you make towards the upkeep of the building.

Say, for example, you own the garden flat of a converted Victorian terraced house and enjoy a 50% share of freehold, which you share with the flat above. Your insurance contribution would also be around 50%. If you obtain planning to extend four metres into the garden, then you should expect your insurance contribution to rise in proportion to the enlarged footprint. Any change to your contribution would be negotiated as part of discussions with fellow building residents and freeholders.

Upgrading communal areas

As a result of horse-trading between you and the (share of) freeholder(s), you may concede to giving a little TLC to the communal areas in the building.

Upgrades can take many forms. As quid pro quo for placing your scaffold footing in the downstairs flat’s garden, for instance, you may offer to replace the shared front door. Or in compensation for blocking the shared drive, you may agree to repaint the communal hallways.

Opportunistic neighbours may try to ride the gravy train and put in for unreasonable work requests, so consider carefully how much you are willing to budget for if the communal areas come into discussion.

Fire safety

Since the 2017 Grenfell disaster, building control has rightly tightened up on fire-safety requirements. The prevention of spread of fire is of paramount importance in blocks of flats, where a ‘block’ is two or more flats in a shared building. In fact, in May 2021 the London Plan, which forms part of the core planning criteria for the capital’s local authorities, was updated to include a new requirement to submit a fire-safety strategy as part of a planning application. As such, depending on the proposed scheme and design of the building, it is possible that homeowners might be required to complete fire upgrade works inside other properties within the building. It is advised you involve building control as early in the process as is practical, so you are aware of your obligations in good time.

In conclusion: if you own a flat or maisonette and have ambitions to renovate, be aware of these considerations specific to leaseholders before building any extension. They can have a weighty bearing on whether a project is viable.