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Can you live in a commercial property?

Jan 13, 2023 | Uncategorised

Can you live in a commercial property?

It depends.

Are you hoping to convert a commercial property into a home, or bring a sleeping bag to the office and camp out in a disused stationery cupboard? Do you have to live at your workplace to do your job properly?

Let’s look at a few scenarios to see what’s doable. (Don’t pack your toothbrush just yet.)

Sleeping at the office

Rents and property prices skyrocketed a good while ago. By now, they’ve long cleared the Earth’s atmosphere and are cruising somewhere near Alpha Centauri.

With this in mind, we can see how it could be tempting to drop your digs and shack up at your place of work instead.

Your boss might not be too happy if they found out. But then again, maybe you are the boss.

So leaving aside the risk of a disciplinary, is sleeping at the office actually illegal?

The answer is tied up in a web of legalities, contracts and torts. For instance:

  • Contractual breaches: while you dream under your desk, you’ll almost certainly be breaching a contract or two. Freehold and leasehold contracts often contain covenants that directly forbid using the property for residential purposes. You may also be in breach of your own employment contract.
  • Insurance invalidation: sleeping at your workplace – even for just one night and even if you own the property – is likely to invalidate the terms of its buildings and contents insurance. If the insurance company finds out, it could have dire consequences for your business.
  • Breach of planning use restrictions: properties in the UK are assigned “use classes” that determine what they’re allowed to be used for. If the council discovers you’re using a commercial property as a home, they may take enforcement action.
  • Breach of trespassing laws: if you don’t own your office building and you sleep there without permission, you’re trespassing. This is considered a tort (a wrongful act) in English and Welsh law.

Long story short: you probably shouldn’t do it.

Converting a commercial property into a residential property

“Commercial-to-resi” conversion was already a trend before the COVID-19 pandemic devastated British high streets. Now, with residential space at a premium and many commercial premises lying disused, many more developers are considering it.

It makes sense. Commercial properties are often more affordable than their residential counterparts – and they often come with vast, airy rooms and prime town-centre locations to boot.

Indeed, in August 2021, the government enforced new rules that made it easier than ever to convert commercial properties into home sweet homes.

Properties in the UK are categorised into “use classes” depending on their intended use. This is so local authorities can balance, say, the number of kebab shops compared to homes. Or stop a noisy factory springing up next to a primary school.

Typically, changing a property’s use class (from an industrial building to a residential property, for instance) requires planning permission. But the new rules bring a wider set of “permitted development rights” (PDRs), which allow developers to do the use-case switcheroo without seeking permission.

Under the new rules, Class E commercial buildings in England can quickly become residential (Class C3) properties. Class E includes most kinds of shops, as well as banks, building societies and – ironically enough – estate agents.

There are some stipulations. To name a few:

  • You can’t extend the property or play fast and loose with its external appearance.
  • The property must have fewer than 1,500 square metres of floor space.
  • It must meet minimum standards for habitability.
  • The rules only apply in England.

In addition, you must apply to your local planning authority so it can determine whether “prior approval” is required. Prior approval is somewhat similar to planning permission but is typically simpler to obtain.

And, as with most construction projects, you’ll probably need building regulations approval from the government too.

However, if your heart’s set on living in a (former) commercial property, the good news is that it’s never been easier. Just make sure you sniff out a Class E property – it won’t be so simple if you want to convert an ice rink, say, or a swimming pool.

Living at work as a service occupier

Of course, some jobs require you to live at your place of work. This includes roles like live-in nannies, carers, gardeners and hotel employees.

If you live in accommodation provided by your employer – and your employment contract stipulates that you must live there to do your job properly – then you’re considered a service occupier.

Service occupancy can feel like a somewhat shaky existence. While you get to live at your workplace – and may enjoy favourable rental fees as a result – your right to live there is tied to your employment status. If you leave your job, you’ll usually have to leave your home too.

That’s not to say service occupiers have no legal protections. Most have “basic protection from eviction”, which means their landlord must apply for a court order to evict them if they refuse to leave.

As well as service occupiers, there are service tenants. You’re a service tenant if your landlord happens to also be your employer, but you don’t have to live in the accommodation to do your job. Service tenants enjoy more rights than service occupiers.

Working from home

A few years ago, working from home was a luxury. Now, it’s often expected.

With this in mind, you might be wondering if you could get into trouble for using your home as a live-in workspace.

The answer, thankfully, is no. At least in most cases.

If you’ve outfitted your spare room with a desk and a comfy office chair, then you shouldn’t run into any issues.

However, there are some circumstances where planning permission is required. This applies when a “material change of use” occurs – in other words, if your house becomes more workplace than home.

This could be the case if:

  • You only visit the property to work.
  • Your business activities mean that people regularly visit the property (for instance, if you’re running a chiropody business or doctor’s surgery).
  • Your business activities cause a disturbance to your neighbours.

If in doubt, you can apply for a “lawful development certificate” from your local authority. This will confirm whether the property is still considered a home in the eyes of the council.

Got more questions about commercial property law? Our expert solicitors are on hand with smart, straightforward advice that gets to the root of your issue. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch for a free consultation.

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