Just what is a chancel search?
24 February 2011
It may seem medieval that even now a private householder can be personally liable for paying for repairs to the chancel, being the eastern part of their local church, but it is a very real possibility.
To discover whether the property you are interested in purchasing has such an obligation placed upon it, a ‘chancel check` will be carried out on your behalf, which will indicate whether such a risk exists, and if it does, how severe it is likely to be. Indemnity insurance is almost always available, and for most purchasers relying on mortgage funding, will almost certainly be required by the lender before permitting exchange of contracts.
The amount of money requested can be high - and even more costly if you contest it and lose. In 2003 Mr and Mrs Wallbank`s refusal to pay such a demand received from the Parochial Church Council of Aston Cantlow reached the House of Lords. They lost their case and because the repair costs had gone up considerably during the time the case had been through the courts, they had to pay a repairs bill for £200,000 instead of the original £95,000 request, plus the expenses incurred by the Parochial Church Council.
The searches are complex as they inevitably require interpretation of data obtained from whatever sources are available, including obscure records and historical maps. It is not a straightforward matter. This uncertainty, however, should be cleared for new buyers by October 2013, as this is the deadline to register chancel interests with the Land Registry. From this date such an obligation will appear in the Land Registry`s records, and your lawyer will be able to advise you on this. If it does not appear on the Land Registry`s records, any subsequent demand on a new owner of the property may be invalid.
For anyone purchasing a property not currently registered with the Land Registry (increasingly rare but still possible), as long as a ‘caution against first registration` was created through an alternative device (a ‘Land Charge`) before the deadline, it will still be accepted as a valid entry upon completion.
Not all churches are registering their rights with the Land Registry, having taken the decision not to encumber their local parishes with what is increasingly considered an archaic and unfair obligation.
If you are considering selling your property you may discover during the conveyancing process that your home is liable for chancel repair, even though you have never received such a demand, and your buyer may insist upon you paying for indemnity insurance as an inducement to continue with the transaction. This is not unusual, but the insurance does tend to be relatively cheap, depending on the level of risk. On a positive note, once you have sold the property the liability leaves you and passes to your buyer.
There is no shortcut to finding out whether a property is likely, or unlikely, to be encumbered with such an obligation, although if you are considering purchasing a house with an ecclesiastical name or in a street called something along the lines of "Glebe" or "Tithe" this may be a hint that the land has been considered part of the historical parish. There is no hard or fast rule, however, and no substitute for a professional search carried out on your behalf.
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