Thousands of homeowners run the risk of paying for repairs to their local parish church under a little known chancel repairs law.
Chancel repair is a law dating back to the Middle Ages and demands homeowners in a parish pay a contribution towards the upkeep of the church.
The law changed on October 12, 2013, but many property investors who bought a home before that date could be landed with a hefty bill out of the blue.
The church can ask for repairs to the chancel – the area where the altar stands in a church.
Until the Reformation in the 16th Century, the rector had to raise the funds for the repairs, but after that date landowners in the parish were landed with the bill.
Now, the land has often been sold, divided and sub-divided many times, but the law still stands.
In 2003, the House of Lords ruled on a chancel repair case where a church looked to a homeowner to pay £100,000 to repair the chancel. The homeowner argued against the bill, but the court found in favour of the church.
The homeowner then had to sell the property to pay for the repairs and legal fees which came to more than £300,000.
The Church of England reckons chancel repair bills could be levied against more than 5,000 homes in England.
As almost half of churches are Grade 1 listed, even minor repairs can run to significant costs.
From October 13, 2013, the chancel repair liability does not apply to homeowners unless the church registers an interest at the Land Registry when a property is sold.
Legal experts are urging homeowners to check their title deeds for a chancel repair liability.
If the interest is listed, one solution is to take out specialist insurance, which may be expensive, depending on the state of repair of the church and whether it is a listed building.
Landlords should beware that the church has the discretion to ask one or more wealthy local landowners to foot the bill.