Wood burners and open fires, what to consider when buying a new home

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Legal guidance on the rules for burning solid fuels

A wood burner or open fire is an attractive feature in a property, especially as the nights draw in and temperatures drop. If you are buying a property with one, or you plan to install a log burner in your new home, there are important things to consider.

Most people know gas boilers and electrical wiring need to meet certain standards but are less aware about the rules for solid fuel. This can cause problems further down the line, especially as the regulations in this area are becoming more stringent.

Smoke control areas

When you buy a property, your lawyer will make pre-contract searches which will show whether it is in a smoke control area. These tend to be in urban conurbations. Tell your lawyer if the property has an open fire or burner when you instruct them, as their local knowledge may mean they can give you an early indicator of whether restrictions apply.

If the property is in a smoke control area, you can usually only burn certain smokeless fuels, such as anthracite. Failure to comply could mean a fine of up to £1,000. You could also run into trouble with your neighbours, especially as people are becoming more sensitive to smoke and air pollution.

These restrictions do not apply to newer eco-friendly stoves, and if it is a model specifically approved by DEFRA, then you may still burn wood even in a smoke control area.

New controls

You may have heard rumours about a prospective wood burner ban, but there are no plans for this at present. However, the Government has recently introduced changes aimed at reducing air pollution.

For example, from 2022 appliances must meet standards for efficiency and CO2 and small particle emissions. This should not affect the legality of existing burners but will apply to the purchase of new ones.

If you are specifying fixtures and fitting for a new home, it is important to check it meets the latest requirements. The clearSkies mark, for example, is an industry-run scheme which certifies compliant products.

In addition, regulations now restrict the sale of traditional coal and wood. While they do not ban their domestic use, you should follow the Government’s guidance on using cleaner fuels. For example, only burn seasoned wood or coal approved for use in smoke control areas to help reduce emissions and health risks.

Planning permission

Unauthorised development risks the local planning authority taking enforcement action. In a worse-case scenario, it could force you to remediate or even to return your home to its original state.

The installation of a wood burning stove and associated work is unlikely to require planning permission in most cases, unless your home is a listed building or in a conservation area.

Before starting any work, you should check the position with your lawyer, or the local planning authority. Your proposals must satisfy certain conditions. For example, any flue should not protrude over a public highway. In a minority of cases, you will need permission.

If you are buying a home with an existing open fire or solid fuel burner, then your lawyer will ask the sellers about its installation. They will ask about any alterations or additions they have made, and for details of planning permissions or other consents. Coupled with their pre-contract searches, this should reassure you there are no planning breaches.

Building regulations

Building regulations cover all aspects of construction, and their aim is to ensure standards for health and safety are met. As with planning obligations, failure to comply could mean expensive remediation or reinstatement works. Unlike planning obligations, the installation of a solid fuel appliance or work on a fireplace or chimney will almost certainly require building regulations consent.

There is a defined process for obtaining building regulations approval. However, if a qualified person, like a HETAS registered installer, has done the work, then they should supply a certificate which is evidence of compliance. If you are buying a home with an existing wood burner or fire, your lawyer will check it has the necessary consents. As your lawyer, we would also ask for details of any warranties and the service history, so you can make a realistic assessment of the need for any upgrades or further investigations.

Safety and surveys

If the seller completed the work years ago, the risk of enforcement action may be small, and a title insurance policy could offer you protection against that possibility. However, lack of consent could suggest wider safety issues. Moreover, compliance with building regulations in the past, when standards may have been lower, may not meet today’s recommendations.

You should ask your surveyor to pay particular attention to the stove or fire, and its surrounds, and consider any comments or recommendations in their report carefully. No two properties are identical and as your lawyer our advice would always reflect the individual circumstances of your purchase.

For example, if there is an open fire, we may ask the seller how often the chimney has been swept. Depending on the response, we may then recommend a CCTV camera survey, or a suitably qualified person certifies its condition.

This way, you will have a better idea of what you are buying before you commit yourself. You can then factor any remediation work and the cost into your plans and discuss responsibility with the seller.

Fixtures and fittings

Another reason to tell your lawyer about a wood burner, or any specific features such as a fancy fire surround, is so they can ensure it is included in the sale. In a small minority of cases, buyers have moved into their new home and discovered the sellers have taken the wood burner or even the mantelpiece with them.

This type of feature will usually be a fixture, so it should stay with the property. The parties can decide differently though, and it is important to check exactly what the sale includes. Your lawyer can then ensure the documentation reflects your understanding, avoiding any disappointment or disputes in the future.

How we can help

For further advice on the issues discussed, or on buying or selling your home generally, please contact Pippa Woodcock in the Residential Conveyancing Team on 01832 273506 or email [email protected].

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