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Everyone Knows A House When They See One – Or Do They?

Houses are for living in and most people would say that they would know one if they saw one. However, the use of buildings frequently changes over time and a Court of Appeal decision in a leasehold enfranchisement case revealed just how tricky it can be to define exactly what is, and is not, a house.

The case concerned a large Edwardian townhouse and mews annexe that had been jointly used as a home until shortly after the end of the Second World War. The property was later used partially for residential and partially for office purposes. It had been vacant for 13 years before its tenant sought to acquire the freehold in reliance on the Leasehold Reform Act 1967. The right to do so could only be exercised if the building fell within the statutory definition of a ‘house’.

It was agreed that the building was, in whole or in part, designed or adapted for living in and the tenant argued that it was thus a house. The freeholder, however, argued that the last use to which the property was put before it fell vacant – primarily as offices – was determinative. The tenant’s arguments prevailed before a judge and its right to acquire the freehold was upheld.

In dismissing the freeholder’s challenge to that decision, the Court noted that the real issue was whether the building was a house, with traces of past office use, or a disused office building. It was not always possible to squeeze types of property into watertight compartments and the fact remained that buildings are infinitely variable in character and function, affected in part by the uses to which they had been put in the past. In finding that the building was a house, the judge had carried out an exhaustive factual analysis and accurately applied the relevant legal principles. In the circumstances, the Court saw no reason to interfere with his conclusions.