Guide to buying a council house

Council housing is public housing set aside for people that cannot afford to rent or buy in the private sector. It is called council housing because these homes have historically been managed by organisations within the local council. However, more recently a council home can be offered by both registered social landlords, and council housing associations. For this reason, the modern term for council housing is social housing.

In the 19th century, the industrialisation of UK towns and cities meant there was a large influx of workers from rural areas. Private housing builders saw this as an opportunity to make quick money. Long streets of terraced housing were built to accommodate them, without much planning. However, the vast majority rented privately, as only the wealthy could afford to buy homes before mortgages became commonplace. Populations swelled in numbers as tightly spaced housing was built to accommodate this. This led to overcrowding and a public health crisis, as infections and diseases were easily spread amongst the tightly packed residents.

Council housing was first introduced by the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act. This was the first attempt to provide affordable housing and reduce overcrowding. After the first World War, efforts were ramped up to provide returning soldiers with affordable housing. This was known as Homes for Heroes. Many of these 1920s council houses still exist today. Much of them were bought from council tenants when the ‘Right to Buy’ under the Housing Act 1980 was introduced. Within 10 years one million council houses were purchased.

Contrary to what some people believe you can still buy a council house in some parts of the UK. This article will talk about which countries the Right to Buy a council house still exists, and the rules and process for doing so.

Can I buy a council house in England?

Most council tenants can buy their council house provided they meet certain conditions. Firstly the council house must be your only or main home. The council house must also be self-contained. This means it must contain a kitchen, bathroom, and toilet that is exclusively used by residents of that specific house.

Council house buyers must also be secure tenants. A secure tenancy allows tenants to live in a rented council house for the rest of their lives if they wish. A council or housing association may also offer introductory, or flexible tenancies. Tenants with an introductory, or flexible tenancy agreement are not eligible to buy their council house.

You must have been a council tenant for a minimum of three years to be able to apply. This does not have to be three years in a row. You only have to have been a council tenant for three years in total. NHS trust and housing association tenants also count as council tenants.

You can make a joint application to buy a council house with anyone that is on the tenancy. You can also buy with up to three family members, provided they have lived with you for the last 12 months. You can still do this even if they are not on the tenancy.

You may also be able to buy an ex-council house if it was sold to a different landlord whilst you were still living in it. This is named the ‘Preserved Right to Buy.’

How do I apply to buy a council house in England?

You can apply to buy your council property using an RTB application form. This application can be made under the Right to Buy, or the Preserved Right to Buy scheme. Eligible tenants should fill out the form online and then print and sign all the relevant areas. The application form will ask you to fill in details about yourself, anyone else you are buying with, and previous tenancy details.

When you have completed and signed the application you should send it to your landlord. This could be a housing association or social landlord for example. It is recommended that this is sent as a recorded delivery to ensure it is securely delivered. Your landlord will then agree or refuse your buy application. If they reject your application they must detail the reasons why. If they have been your landlord for three or more years, they have four weeks to do this. If not they must respond in eight weeks.

If a landlord agrees to your purchase, they must provide an offer within eight weeks (freehold purchase), or 12 weeks (leasehold purchase). If a landlord fails to respond within the time constraints to reject an application, you will likely be able to purchase the property. This is still the case, even if you are not eligible for the Right to Buy scheme. This is because courts will likely rule in a tenant’s favour, as shown by East of Scotland Water Authority v Livingstone.

How much discount can I get from the Right to Buy scheme?

When you buy a property under the Right to Buy scheme you could be entitled to a substantially discounted rate. Discount on your council property is worked out by property type, location, tenancy length, and previous Right to Buy purchases.

The maximum discount in London is £116,200. Outside of London the maximum discount in England is £87,200. This discount also rises each year in line with the consumer price index. You can use the online Right to Buy calculator for a quick and efficient way to work out your discount.

You can get a 35% Right to Buy discount when buying your council house if you have been a public sector tenant for three to five years. If you have been renting council property for more than five years, this discount goes up by one percent every extra year. The maximum amount of discount you can get is 70%.

If you are buying a council flat under the Right to Buy scheme you have higher initial benefits. For example, you can get a 50% discount when buying your council flat in the three to five year period. After five years the discount goes up by two percent every year. The maximum discount for flats is the same as the housing discount.

Can I buy my council house in Northern Ireland?

You can still buy social housing in Northern Ireland. However, there is a very short window of time left for some people to make an application. This is because the House Sale scheme ends on the 28th of August 2022. An application to a housing association landlord must be made before midnight on the 27th of August 2022. However, tenants of the Northern Ireland housing executive are unaffected. They can apply under the Housing Executive’s, Right to Buy scheme.

To be eligible for the RTB scheme you must have been a tenant with the Housing Executive for at least five years. You may be ineligible to buy if you:

  • Live in sheltered accommodation
  • The property is part of a group housing scheme
  • The property (other than a flat) is a ground-floor or single-story home

A secure tenant with at least five years of tenancy can get a 20% discount on the market value of the property. This increases each year after the five, by two percent. The maximum discount you can apply when purchasing a property is 60% or £24,000.

Can I buy a council property in Scotland?

On the 26th of July 2016, the Scottish government ended its Right to Buy scheme. This means that buying your council house in Scotland is not currently possible. The government said they did this to protect the existing stock of social housing. They estimated that abolishing the Right to Buy scheme would prevent the sale of 15,000 homes.

The government wanted to ensure there is enough social housing to rent for those in need. However, on the other side of the argument, this has prevented 15,000 people from achieving home ownership. Instead, it has increased the reliance on renting from a public sector landlord.

Can I buy a council property in Wales?

The Right to Buy was also abolished in Wales on the 26th of January 2019. The Welsh government did this for similar reasons to Scotland. They also wanted to protect the stock of available social housing for those in need. As stated by the Housing and Local Government Minister Julie James:

“We passed the Abolition of the Right to Buy and Associated Rights Act to protect the stock of social housing in Wales from further reduction, so it is available to provide affordable housing for people who need it. This legislation is one of a range of actions we are taking to increase the supply of housing in Wales.”

This also means that it is no longer possible to buy property from a public sector landlord in Wales. Instead, the Welsh will have to turn to mortgage lenders to buy property on the private market. Unless of course, they have the money to buy the property outright.

Guide to buying a council property: Summary

In the late 19th century industrialisation and the overcrowding that ensued, became a public health crisis. This is when the first attempts to provide affordable housing to people in need began. This social housing demand was further driven by the first and second World Wars. New homes were built to reward the service and sacrifice of these soldiers. This was known as Homes for Heros.

In the 1980s many of those buildings were sold to tenants of councils and housing associations. This is because the Right to Buy was introduced in 1980. This allowed tenants to buy their council homes at a substantially discounted price, compared to the market value.

In England and Northern Ireland, it has remained possible to buy property this way. However, because one million homes were sold in the 1980s this is not as common. Simply because there is not as much available social housing to buy. Scotland and Wales abolished the Right to Buy in 2016 and 2019 respectively. Both governments stated they wanted to protect the stock of social housing so it could be made available to people in need.

In England, most people will be eligible to buy a property from a local authority, or social landlord, if they have been a tenant with them for at least three years. Further eligibility criteria include:

  • Must be your only or main home
  • Must be self-contained
  • Must be a secure tenant

The process involves filling out an application and waiting on a landlord to decide. When they have decided they must make an offer within eight weeks. If it is a leasehold property they have twelve weeks to inform you. If you are eligible you will receive a significant discount. The discounts and limits in England are:

  • Maximum limit London – £116,200 or 70%
  • Maximum limit England – £87,200 or 70%
  • 35% Right to Buy discount on houses, plus an additional one percent each year after five
  • 50% discount on flats, plus an additional two percent each year after five

The House Sale program ends in Northern Ireland on the 28th of August 2022. This is applicable to tenants of registered housing associations. These tenants cannot buy their rented property after this date. However, tenants of the Housing Executive can purchase their social housing under the Right to Buy.

To do this tenants must have been secure tenants for at least five years. After this, they are eligible for a 20% discount on the property. After five years they will also accrue a further two percent every year. The maximum discount is 60% or £24,000.