Converting a Church to a Residence

living room converted church

Churches provide endless design ideas when it comes to converting them to residences, but there may be some hoops to jump through first. Here are a few you should know about.


My first home was almost an old church in York, Maine. It was typical New England Cape Cod architecture with a steep pitch roof and clapboard siding – very un-church-like. Sitting on an acre on a corner lot, it was a huge square building with lots of potential inside and out for only $10,000. The main drawback for my creative, wannabe architect, remodeling, renovation freak self was that the building was situated right at the road.

I knew it was a doable project, though. Our favorite music and dance venue at the time was a renovated church, The Stone Church. The expansive wood floor was the perfect place to boogie, but the original church structure was still very visible.

More recently, when I was in real estate, someone had purchased an old church and wanted help remodeling it. Mostly it was a long, wide room with a kitchen and bath in the back. There was enough room to carve out two bedrooms and still have a good size living room. I was envious.

Design – the fun part!

Churches have become available for sale over the last several years. Congregations grow, and they need new digs to accommodate the numbers. On the flip side, congregations shrink so much building maintenance is not cost effective.

Churches were built to last, so the bones are strong and durable. To convert one, the shell and infrastructure are already in place – water, sewer, electricity and gas. They may need upgrading, but it might be minimal, saving you a lot of money instead of building new.

The open space of a church lends itself to endless design ideas. You won’t find wide open space, large stained glass windows, vaulted ceilings, arches, bell towers and steeples in the average home. So if you like one-of-a-kind, this could be your project!

Depending on your vision, your needs and your budget, you can work with the space as it is, or gut it and start new. I recommend hiring an architect and an engineer either way, since this is not an everyday remodel.

An existing kitchen and bathroom can be expanded for residential life. The open area where pews once were can be a luxurious and spacious living room. It can be visually split into separate living areas with room dividers or furniture groupings. The upstairs gallery can be a loft for bedrooms. This is too open for my liking, but the sense of freedom does appeal to many people.

Most stained glass windows are two stories or higher, so it would be hard to create a second floor. This is why an architect will come in handy. She will see workarounds that you might think of.

Red tape – the not so fun part

Before you get that far, though, consider the potential obstacles in buying a church.

First, always crunch your numbers. This will probably not be a cheap project. Figure your budget for purchase. Before you can estimate costs to renovate, find out if there are restrictions.

The parish might want the renovations to be reversible, meaning you can’t make major changes. That sounds like renting to me! But the parish may place such restrictions on the church of your dreams.

Custom door and window screens will need to be made, if you want them. Those enormous stained glass windows will be very expensive to repair or replace. This could be a big issue if you’re not allowed to make many changes, such as removing a window that gets broken.

The building might need to be deconsecrated. A consecration is a blessing bestowed upon a new church. When it converts to a secular use, it needs to be deconsecrated, which could entail a ritual and legal paperwork.

Other important questions

  • Is the former church building historical? If so, there will be conservation requirements. Check zoning and building codes to make sure you can (and want to) comply.
  • Can you change the exterior? Is it stone? If so, it might be hard to heat.
  • What uses will be allowed? Residential? Commercial?
  • Is there a cemetery connected with the church? Does it need to be moved to another place, or will the new owners be responsible for upkeep and maintenance?
  • What is the heat source? High ceilings and open spaces are difficult to heat at best. How will you light such a large area?

In hindsight

I am so glad I did not buy that church in York, Maine. It may have been a learning curve that I was not prepared to handle financially or emotionally. On the other hand, it may have been very simple to change ownership and remodel to the satisfaction of my creative bent.

I’ll never know, but I got my life lessons in construction through a house I eventually did buy. Any now I have a beautiful wood floor that’s perfect for dancing!

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