Just become the owner of a derelict mansion? Here’s six things to do now!

There are many ways to become the owner of an eerie yet structurally-sound mansion. It may have been left to you in the will of a relative you only heard mentioned in whispers between your father and his family. You might have seen it advertised at a ridiculously cheap price and rushed to purchase it from an oddly well-spoken estate agent who still hasn’t sent you the historical records he promised. Or you might have happened to find yourself at a property auction and felt strangely compelled to bid on this crumbling yet oddly familiar property, the others in the room falling silent as they noticed your presence, the auctioneer raising an eyebrow as you told them your name.

However you’ve come into possession of a building whose majesty is only concealed but not destroyed by the ravages of time, we want you to have many years of enjoyable ownership of it. This guide will take you through some of the many problems you might face in owning a building that feels as though it has stood unchanged for centuries yet might contain secrets yet to be told.

1) Know your history

It’s important to have an understanding of the history of your darkly magnificent building before you begin any works on it. Ideally, you’d carry out this process before purchasing, but we understand that the process of derelict mansion acquisition often takes place at a bewildering speed that leaves you standing at a rusted gate, keys in hand, wondering just how you got here and amazed that you now own this fading masterpiece.

The understandable urge in this situation is to go take a look around your new property just to get an idea of the place, but we strongly advise you to turn around and get some information about the place first. How you find this information will differ depending on where your crumbling but still impressive pile is located (see the next section for more on location) but we strongly advise consulting multiple sources. That surprisingly knowledgeable journalist or really helpful librarian might get you some impressive files on your new property, but listen to the historians here: get multiple sources and cross-reference them. If there’s something that seems important but it’ll take a bit of effort to get, then put that effort in, don’t deny yourself a crucial piece of information about your property that you might need now.

We’ll look at some of the physical information you should be looking at in later sections, but when you look over the house’s history, make sure you’re looking out for any repeated patterns. This could be anything from noting that local land taxes are paid every decade, to noting that once every twenty-eight years, strange howling is heard coming from deep in the ground beneath your eerie new residence that seems to take on a darker hue in the full moon. All this will help you be prepared for the rituals of mansion ownership.

Take special note of repeated dates, especially in newspaper reports mentioning the house and its new owner, recently arrived from out of town, and consider those as suggestions for the best time of year to take a holiday as far away as possible from the brooding south facade that almost feels alive. Look out also for any photographs or paintings of old balls and parties, especially if any of the people present in them bear a curious resemblance to the icy estate agent, overly polite local law enforcement official, or even yourself. In the latter case, we suggest you take note of the clothing the obviously-not-you-but-how-curious lookalike is wearing and burn anything that even vaguely resembles it if you discover it in the house.

2) Location is everything

This lesson applies to oddly-acquired abandoned houses just as much as it does to any other property, and a lot of how you deal with your new possession will depend on what type of ambiguously ancient property you’ve acquired.

The most common type is the classic derelict mansion set on the edge of a small village that has very poor phone reception but makes up for the lack of communication with the outside world through a wide range of traditional events and festivals. We suggest you politely decline all involvement in these events until you’ve seen them safely conducted.

In some cases, the house may be far away from even the nearest village, though in this case there may be one or two cottages nearby containing people who work on the estate. We suggest asking for a complete list, with photographs, of everyone who lives in one of these cottages so you’re not surprised by one of them turning up in the middle of the night. If the house is described as being on the moors, you will need to invest in extensive windproof and wet weather gear, which will be especially useful should you be required to leave its apparent safety during the night of the worst storm to hit the area in years.

Similarly, if you’re in a country where you’ve found yourself owning a sand-scoured expanse on the edge of a desert, make sure you stock up on large supplies of bottled water and sunscreen. While these problems of travel to and from may not occur if you’ve come into possession of an urban property, do make sure you get to know your neighbours so they can assist you in identifying the source of the sound that keeps you up all night.

3) Dealing with locals

As the new owner of the most well-built yet notorious building in its location, you’ll find you now have many new neighbours to deal with. Even if your house is miles away from anywhere, you’ll likely be surprised by just how may people might wish to make your acquaintance.

Many of them may wish to know you purely out of curiosity, often because the place you’ve now found yourself in is rather dull and so any outsider will liven the place up a lot. Take the opportunity to ask them questions too, and find out about the social life in the village. Take note of any warnings they give you about people and places to avoid, but do beware if a number of people are keen to invite you to a particular festival, especially if they make mention of the previous resident’s attendance there as a singular event.

Your dilapidated manor may also attract attention from people connected to the previous owner. This can take many forms, from previous workers looking for continued employment, through lawyers seeking to ascertain the nature of your claim to the property, to an angry man or woman convinced such an esteemed dwelling should have been his and determined to cast you out of it. In some circumstances it’s possible that this claimant will have a son or daughter prone to brooding and with poor communication skills. We suggest you ignore the dramatic and even dangerous attraction you feel towards them, as it will only complicate matters.

4) Common structural issues

This guide is aimed towards those who’ve recently come into possession of a derelict mansion (those who’ve acquired a pristine one are catered for by our guide So, You’ve Got More Money Than Sense) and there will obviously be much work involved in making it properly habitable again. Though in many cases it may well be the case that one set of rooms (or even an entire wing, should the formerly palatial mansion be large enough) is still suitable for you to live in, allowing you to move in immediately. This living arrangement has the advantage of allowing you to hear the noise every creaking floorboard, leaky roof tile and draughty room within your crumbled palace as you attempt to sleep at night, letting you know exactly where you’ll need to fix up.

While researching the history of your sprawling new dwelling, make sure you get copies of any plans or blueprints for it that you can find. These can be good ways to spot what sections of the house are part of the original design and which are later additions. For instance, rooms may have been knocked together, new doorways added, secret chambers could have been added or unknowingly hidden behind a new wall, and in some places you may have entire basement levels in which unspeakable evils were trapped and should never be released.

Seek professional help for the work you’ll need for the house, starting with a good surveyor or architect. They’ll be able to advise on different options according to how much you’re willing to spend. For other works, it may cost more to hire the specialist contractors you need to work on such an ancient and powerful symbol of power so do ask for the credentials and references of any builder, plumber, electrician or exorcist you hire. It’s best to get it right first time, and not leave an even bigger, bloodier and more expensive mess for the next team to have to deal with.

5) Exploring the grounds

Many monumental tributes to wealth and power will have extensive grounds and other lands belonging to them. When you acquire your property, examine the title deeds and registration documents carefully to be sure about what you own, and understand what responsibilities might come with it. For instance, if you now are the landlord of many acres of farmland around your property, the local farmers might blame you should there be some issues that lead to the crops failing.

Do take the opportunity to tour and examine your new lands as soon as possible, even if they are nothing but an old copse of gnarled and tangled trees which it appears no one could enter, or if they did find a way in they would surely never leave. You’ll want to be looking for old features that might benefit from some restoration, like decorative gardens, ornamental fountains, or a small, secluded temple, now almost buried in leaves and moss, but containing sculptures that appear to exist in more than three dimensions. Restoring these may be expensive, but there are many things you can deal with yourself, particularly if you have some experience of gardening and are careful not to disturb any graves you discover.

As this is now your property, anything you discover in the grounds does belong to you but it’s worth checking any major discoveries, particularly curious looking fossilised remains, with the local authorities to see if they need to be registered. If the grounds are extensive, you may be able to sell or develop sections of them to help raise capital for restoring the main house, though do make sure any works like this are discussed with your neighbours before you submit the paperwork and begin building. They may have knowledge about long-forgotten hazards buried in the grounds like unexploded wartime ordnance, gateways to infernal realms and disused water or sewage pipes.

6) Friends and family

Finally, although you are obviously going to be distracted by the prospect of owning a once-opulent country villa, try not to forget the life and people you’ve left behind. At first, it’s worth striking a balance between these two sides of your life so make space for your old friends and don’t spend all your time alone in the vast echoing and empty spaces of your new abode, roaming the halls by candlelight, searching for the source of that strange foreboding noise.

That said, it is best to make sure you’ve got a good idea of the house and what it’s like before inviting a demographically-balanced group of your friends for a visit for a weekend. That way you can make sure that the rooms they’re sleeping in are comfortable and safe, you can clearly indicate which parts of the building they shouldn’t enter, and if you’ve done your research, you’ll be able to explain to them all the legends about what happened previously within the house. We do advise making sure that they are considerate to your new neighbours, and again, be wary of invites to any local festivals.

If you’ve inherited a property, this may be an opportunity to discover new branches of the family connected to the long-forgotten and possibly scandalous relative who passed it on to you. Indeed, it may well be that the angry local seeking to dispute your ownership is a cousin you’ve never met before, though be careful when asking for any details or explanation of why the split in your families occurred. We would remind you that if someone requests a test of whether you are a member of the family, this is best and most accurately done by DNA testing through a reputable laboratory, and blood samples should only be given for this purpose.


This can only be a brief guide to the issues involved in owning a derelict mansion, but we hope it’s given you some useful pointers to your next steps now you have acquired one. It can be a complicated business, and you may often feel you’ve stumbled into areas of knowledge that no human is meant to know and cannot fully conceive of without being driven insane, but a calm and confident approach to your new home can bring with it many lifetimes of pleasure.

(All inspired by this tweet — the building is the Sobanski Palace in Poland if you’re interested, though someone is already renovating that.)

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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