Conservation areas are more widely spread than you think they are, and they can turn up anywhere from rural backwaters and olde worlde market towns to city centres and apparently unremarkable residential suburbs.
Essentially, a conservation area is just somewhere the local authorities have taken steps to preserve the visual character of the environment, which normally means limiting development to some extent. The rules will vary depending on the authority, as will their strictness in enforcing them.
What’s good about them?
The pros and cons of living in a conservation area all stem from the lack of development potential. In many ways, this can be a grand thing. It usually means you’ll live in a good-looking area which will stay that way. Your neighbour is unlikely to block out the sun with an extension the size and shape of a flat-roof pub, while the unsightly batteries of borderline-illegal student gulags will probably be thrown up elsewhere.
Conservation areas are often more desirable, and the lack of development may help to keep prices stable. You might also find there are grants available to help with maintenance, or to restore the property's traditional appearance if a previous owner has done something ugly.
What’s bad about them?
Of course major building work is going to be tricky, but you might also need permission for much more trivial things, like redoing your gutters or sticking on a satellite dish. And general maintenance can be more costly. Often there are rules about replacing things ‘like for like’, so when it comes to redoing your timber windows, you can’t cut costs by using UPVC. Plus the trees are almost always protected.
Inevitably, nothing moves quickly in the world of municipal bureaucracy, and there can be lengthy waiting times to get a decision. Historic England recommends allowing six weeks if you want to prune a tree on your property.
Making sure you know what you're getting into
You need to know what your obligations are before you commit to the purchase, and this is where your solicitors and surveyors should be earning their money. Have the current owners recently breached any of the conditions, and if so, are you likely to have to fix it? While you shouldn’t plan on bending the rules, it's also worth seeing what the neighbours are getting away with (have other houses got discreet satellite dishes on the back?) Assuming you go ahead with the purchase, you’re going to have to be reasonably careful about doing things by the book. Generally, if you're doing anything that's going to cost a decent amount, it's worth running it by the local authority first. It’s a bit of a hassle, but it’s usually free for small-scale works, and it saves you the expense of having to do a job twice if they take exception to the way you've done it the first time.
For further information about conservation areas, check out Historic England.