How To Buy a Church
Get ready, because it is ridiculously complicated to buy an old church.
We were fortunate because the congregation who sold us the property was very supportive and accommodating. We had access to the property in the interim and worked our way through the 2-year title search process.
We made an offer on the church in November of 2015, and it was accepted within days. We then hired a real estate lawyer to begin the title search. I spend many hours at the local town clerk's office, picking through giant, handwritten books of deeds and comparing them to plat maps.
There was one deed each for the church property, the schoolhouse property (right next door) and the Parish house (across the street). The church and school were on land donated by the Rockville Manufacturing Company, That company was bought out by a company called Yawgoo Manufacturing at the turn of the century. That organization donated the small plot across the street.
Both the church and school deed contained reverters saying that if the building ever ceased to be a house of worship, the mill company would be given back the land. There was a law stating that an older property that had previously been sold only had to trace the title back 40 years for a clear title.
Unfortunately, our church had never changed hands, so there were no deeds to research. Most of the information I found in the town clerks office was about the mill company, which changed hands several times. I was looking for evidence that anyone had any link to the property beyond the church congregation.
Rockville Manufacturing was bought by Yawgoo Manufacuring, which was later bought by the local Boy Scout Camp seeing to control water rights to the old watermills. The Boy Scouts offered swimming and boating on a pond that raised and lowered up to 8 feet depending on the needs of the old fashioned water mills. They bought the struggling mills just to have control over the water usage, and insure a steady water sports experience.
The Boy Scouts gradually dismantled the company controlling the mill until they were just left with water rights and land. Then they sold the land. The church was still running and as long as it contained a congregation, the reverter in the deed never took effect.
In my research, I looked for any indication that the Boy Scouts had a legitimate claim on the property (they don't), that anyone else may have (the didn't), and whether there was a direct line of ownership that may lead to a person or group. Fortunately for us, the relevant businesses either sold their claims on the mill companies, or they were defunct.
Still, the title was too murky. We needed a ruling on whether there was anyone else who had a claim on the property.
In the summer of 2016, we hired a trial lawyer to bring it home. It was decided that we needed to file a lawsuit, but no one was really sure against whom. It ended up being sort of open-ended, stating that we were suing to release the house of worship restriction on the deed, but not from whom. He posted a notice in local newspapers stating the date and time he was going before a judge, and gave several months to allow for anyone involved to show up and defend their right to the church. No one did.
In the spring of 2017, the court date came, and the judge heard our case. After 2 sessions, and seeing all of my previous research, she found in our favor. We closed at the end of June, 2017.
We are now starting the similarly long and complicated process of rezoning a property that has never had to think about zoning, and tax assessing a property that has never been taxed.
These are ongoing pursuits.