Time to play Lego on the brand new carpets: Why I would buy a new build home

We’ve just received an offer on our house. Hurray! After three months of scrubbing, weeding and furious activity with the Dyson Handheld, it seems someone is genuinely interested in both living in our home and paying a proper amount of money for it. Thanks, guys. We’re over the moon.

Now we have to find somewhere new to call home. We’ve seen a place, actually, which may just work. It’s not our dream property, but it’s in the right location, with a great garden and has stacks of potential to improve, ‘stpp’.

‘Stpp’ – Subject to Planning Permission – in this case would mean a large extension through the loft and out behind the house to create more space. It would mean finding the right architect, builder, and case officer. It would mean making the kids bunk up together, microwave dinners, molecular clouds of dust and previously undiscovered galaxies of cash. Mess, money and more mess.

Nevertheless we may just decide to make that giant leap and offer. But what if the sales in the chain fall through? What if, come winter, the house is damp? Will the wiring be ok? Are the neighbours friendly? How on earth are we going to get it clean? Wouldn’t it be easier to just buy a new build?

Ah new build. No complicated chains. We could choose our own fixtures and fittings before we moved in. There would be shiny, fresh bathrooms, a kitchen with appliances which still have their stickers on and nicely fitted wardrobes, all personalised for us, rather than by us.

Our bills would be lower, too; new builds are energy efficient, with the latest heating and hot water systems, double glazing and high levels of insulation. Noisy neighbours or roads wouldn’t be a problem due to better sound insulation. Hmmm this is getting tempting…

New builds have electrical circuits designed to meet the demands of hungry iPads and Nespressos, and no dodgy wiring worries as they would be inspected before we moved in. No sticky kitchen units to clean, stained bathrooms to scrub or scratched and damaged fittings to paint. Window frames and skirting boards wouldn’t need maintenance or repair. We would avoid the gravitational pull of dated decor and under-maintained exteriors into a cash-rich black hole.

Our evenings and weekends wouldn’t be filled with DIY. There would be nothing to do once we had moved in except sit back, play Lego Star Wars with the kids on the brand new carpets and enjoy it.

So, thanks for the offer. We’ll take it. We’re off to discover what lies beyond the world of ‘stpp’ and dust. If we are lucky, our dream property could end up being much less astronomical.

Lucy Smith is a PR Consultant working with clients in the property, regeneration and development sectors. Twitter: @lucysmithuk

New homes are important – but we mustn’t lose sight of the romance of regeneration

Time was, back in the pre-credit crunch days of the late nineties and early noughties, when the media was full of good news stories about the regeneration of tired old Britain. Companies like Manchester’s Urban Splash led the vanguard by regenerating whole swathes of the North West, from mills to dockyards and beyond, creating new places and reviving entire areas successfully in the process. It was the same story all across the UK; Sheffield, Liverpool, Newcastle, Birmingham, Cardiff, Bristol – most major cities benefited from proactive investment in urban decline. It was heady, exciting stuff.

Yet in these sad, austere times, and despite the continuing successes of Urban Splash and their contemporaries, all the talk is of housing, the lack of it and the lack of building of it. It seems that the romance of regeneration, and of place-making, has all but faded and been replaced by the gloomy mantra ‘We need more homes’. While this is palpably true – research has found that the UK is facing a housing shortage of more than a million homes by 2022 – wouldn’t it be an idea for the UK to retain a vision for development which encompasses both housing need and regeneration?

Regeneration used to be a key focus of the now disbanded Regional Development Agencies (RDAs), whose remit was to rejuvenate struggling areas in all parts of the UK in terms of housing, business investment and infrastructure. Their reach incorporated areas not conventionally seen as declining, such as parts of the South East, yet where there can be real need for inward investment. Projects like the award-winning mixed-use regeneration of Oxford Castle benefited from the input of its local RDA. Other projects like the old HMS Daedalus site and East Cowes on the Solent now come under the auspices of the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) which is working to bring these development projects forward, just as the RDAs did.

The HCA recently held a meeting of local authorities, providers of social housing and private developers to discuss what should be done to accelerate housing growth, and published the minutes. They make interesting reading. On the subject of regeneration and the perceived current focus on housing growth, the HCA said; “While we are clearly operating under very different economic constraints than in years past, place-making remains very much at the heart of our work when engaging with local authorities, developers and land owners. The conversations are always centred on place-making as it is key to developing the growth agenda; we must create places that people want to live, otherwise people won’t buy the houses we build.”

While building new towns seems to present one good solution to the current housing problem, it doesn’t have to be the sole answer. If the five new towns currently being proposed within the first five years of a Labour Government are built, they ought not to be developed at the expense of the regeneration of existing brownfield areas. The UK is famously, historically, a culture of the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. If the cost of building new towns comes in not regenerating what we already have in terms of current brownfield land and infrastructure, don’t we run the risk of ghettoising the country further?

While we may not be able to regain that heady, pre-credit crunch positivity of more than a decade ago any time soon, we urgently need to generate a renewed sense of national pride and individual purpose in the UK house building and development industries. Brownfield or green, urban or rural, new or regenerated; the development sector must be enabled to build homes and make places where people want to live, and as soon as possible.

Would you live in no-man’s-land? Why infrastructure must be central to the debate on new housing

In towns and cities all over the UK, there are housing developments which local people refer to as being in ‘no-man’s-land’. Perhaps that scheme of expensive “Stockbroker Tudor” built on farmland up the hill in the 1980’s, or those three storey townhouses which went up near the river during the 1990s, or even the shiny new development recently squeezed onto a postage stamp of brownfield land on the edge of town. They all have one thing in common: being built without any concession to infrastructure – in the middle of ‘nowhere’.

‘Nowhere’ is a place where you have to get in the car rather than walk to run errands within a reasonable amount of time. ‘Nowhere’ doesn’t have its own doctors’ surgery, or a parade of convenient shops. In ‘Nowhere’, you don’t have a good local school which your child is pretty much guaranteed a place to attend. There’s no library, no playground and definitely no pub in ‘Nowhere’. Yet if the issue of infrastructure is not made central to the debate on UK housing, thousands of us may reluctantly end up being resident there.

Many commentators believe that the UK is in the middle of a serious housing crisis. We need to build more homes. Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests that Britain could face a property shortage of more than a million homes by 2022 unless the rate of house building is increased. There is some good news – house building starts in England were up by 8% in the third quarter of 2013, at an estimated 32,230, and the annual figure to September was up 16% year-on-year at 117,110. The number of new homes started by private builders stood at 28,580, up 29% on the same period last year and the highest number started in a quarter since the start of 2008. However, the number of homes completed was down by 8% to 107,950. Whichever way we evaluate it, both local authority and private developments need to be constructed fast if we are to ease the pressure of too many people needing too few homes.

Yet how many of us have secretly bemoaned the planning permission granted for the new development around the corner, not because we are soulless, change-averse NIMBYs but because we cannot see how the existing roads will support an increased flow of traffic? How many families have wondered how the already oversubscribed good schools will support a greater influx of children? How many of us have sat in doctors’ waiting rooms or on the end of the phone waiting to make an appointment and wondered – how much harder is it going to be when the new residents move in?

So what’s the solution? As reported in The Guardian, within the first five years of a Labour Government five new towns will be built in order to ease the shortage of housing nationwide, in a reprise of the rapid house building schemes of the post-war years. It’s an ambitious pledge – some may claim overly so – yet it comes as a welcome chink of light in the gloom currently encircling the problem of lack of housing. New towns mean new infrastructure; new roads, new schools, new libraries, new jobs and new communities. Although it wouldn’t solve the housing problem everywhere, the idea is heartening because the alternative to such a grand plan is often housing developments built to leech off the overcrowded and overstretched infrastructure already in place.

The bottom line is that homes need to be in the right location in order for people to want to live there, and the right locations have good infrastructure. This means they should have good road systems which allow for increased flows of traffic without creating traffic jams, access to good local schools which are not oversubscribed, and convenient shops and services. Relying on existing communities alone as ‘hosts’ upon which to develop new homes is a short-term measure which, without the required investment in infrastructure, ultimately may not help anyone. Perhaps, rather than what some claim is the sticking-plaster housing market solution of ‘Help to Buy’, Governments ought instead to be focusing their collective minds on the more enduring concept of improving housing and infrastructure via ‘Help to Build’.

We’re all living in ‘A Christmas Carol’: Why Ed Miliband’s ‘cost of living crisis’ is bang on the money

A few days ago, a glossy homes magazine posted a message on Twitter entitled something along the lines of ‘Every child deserves a gorgeous bedroom’. The tweet linked to an article outlining all of the various things people might buy to make their little one’s bedroom stand out from the rest.

Unfortunately for this glossy homes magazine, they chose to tweet this message on the very morning that housing and homelessness charity Shelter launched its Christmas Emergency Appeal highlighting the 80,000 children in the UK who will be homeless this Christmas.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister David Cameron recently gave a speech about his commitment to the cause of permanent austerity for the nation. He spoke at a white tie state banquet for the new Lord Mayor at the Guildhall, using a golden chair and a golden lectern, after having partaken in a champagne reception, and a four course meal with wine, port, whisky and brandy.

Rarely have there been such poignant examples of the current polarity of the haves and have-nots in the UK in evidence in today’s media. The above tweet was obviously pulled, as it disappeared without trace presumably as soon as the glossy magazine felt its shame at sitting side by side with such shocking statistics.  No such red-faced humiliation yet from the current Government.   

Further examples of the juxtapositions between rich and poor are appearing in the media every day. A recent report claimed that house prices being asked in the capital have risen by £50k in a month, an increase driven largely by investors from home and abroad. Meanwhile a BBC Panorama documentary ‘The Great Housing Price Bubble?’ highlighted the fact that the number of people in the UK relying on food banks to survive has tripled in the last year. Plus energy prices are rocketing way above inflation. Many people are having to choose whether to stay warm, to pay the mortgage or to eat. Even the former Conservative Prime Minister Sir John Major has joined in the debate, seemingly so ashamed at the “truly shocking” privilege of his party’s privately educated elite that he felt compelled to speak out against them.

The ‘squeezed middle classes’ are not unaffected, with the Government encouraging them to take on 95% mortgages via the ‘Help to Buy’ scheme. Moving house stimulates the economy, which is obviously what the Government wants. However, in many areas house prices have risen to such an extent that many now can’t afford to move house without this ‘help’ from the state.  With wage rises still not being in line with general price rises and interest rate rises seeming inevitable in the long term, most commentators are seeing the scheme as a short-sighted recipe for financial ruin.

The hard fact is, it’s not such a stretch for many families to imagine themselves as statistics in Shelter’s aforementioned 80,000 Homeless at Christmas campaign. Anecdotally, back in October parents at my Son’s infant school busied themselves with finding  jars of Lloyd Grossman sauces and bags of pasta to donate to the local church, who would pass them on to those in need as part of the Harvest Festival. Then an email came through from someone in the know. The store cupboard items would be sent to the local food bank, and what the food bank really needed was toilet rolls, soap, shampoo, washing up liquid and washing powder. People are not able to afford to wash themselves.  This is in ‘prosperous’ Surrey.

 So, if you will, imagine that your child is one of the 80,000 who will be homeless this Christmas. Despite all your best efforts, your children will wake up in a strange, cold place on Christmas morning, and you have very little to give them.  You love them so much but there is nothing you have been able to do. You are actually just relieved that you all have a roof over your heads at this time of year.  In the meantime, all the Old Etonians who make the decisions chatter over their festive table runners and free range turkeys. It sounds Dickensian –remember Tiny Tim? But it is Great Britain, here, now, in the 21st century. ‘Cost of living’crisis? Ed Miliband is – clearly – bang on the money.

Don’t believe the hype: why the ‘rise’ in property prices does not matter

Are you one of the lucky few inhabitants of the UK hoping to purchase a property in 2014? If so, you are currently more than likely to be occupying yourself with several things. One of them might be tapping into various house-selling websites more times a day than you would care to admit. Researching the government’s new ‘Help to Buy’ scheme and what it means for you could be another.  But over and above all that, you will no doubt be poring over the multitude of house price reports featured in the national news and media on a daily basis and trying to decipher exactly what on earth is going on.

Lately, the government and financial markets seem to have decided that after a few years in baggy jeans and shapeless jumpers, the property market is sexy again. Some areas of the media have joined in, with exaggerated documentaries on apparently dodgy estate agency practices, steamed-up news stories about house prices in the capital rising £50k in a month, and various debates about the housing shortage and whether ‘Help to Buy’ is actually going to help at all.

What all these reports often have in common is the use – some might argue misuse – of statistics. The organisations or media outlets creating these stories might appear to be purporting them for the help and general information of us all. What some of them are often actually doing is scaremongering while fulfilling their own agendas.

For example, the recent steamy story mentioned above was reported in such a way that it seemed at first glance that the prices fetched by houses had risen by £50k, or more than 10%, in a month. What the survey actually said was that prices asked by vendors had risen by that amount, not completed transactions.

It may indeed be the case that overseas investors are inflating the market in London by vast amounts, and this does create some overflow into areas commutable to London. But elsewhere regular followers of Rightmove and Zoopla and the like will see that often these asking prices mean nothing – it’s what people are actually prepared to pay which has meaning.

A recent survey from Ipsos Mori for Inside Housing found that, contrary to the political belief that British people like house prices to rise, presumably in order to feel secure about their futures, a majority believe rising house prices are bad for them and for the country as a whole. The poll showed that 23 per cent strongly disagreed that house price rises were a good thing, and a further 34 per cent said they tended to disagree. Just a fifth of the 1,470 respondents believed rising house prices were positive.

Locally to where I live, some – not all – agents are well known for adding up to £50k on to an asking price just to beguile greedy eyed vendors into signing up to sell with them, or simply to test the market, disregarding the fact that the property will have to be valued independently in order to secure a mortgage at a later stage.  After a few weeks without a proper bite they then advise the vendors to cut the asking price if they want to have a chance of selling it, even going so far as telling potential purchasers that it is overpriced.

So if you do decide to buy in 2014, don’t be bullied by the statistics lurking in the back of your mind and instead make sure you are happy with the price you are offering. Even if you can comfortably afford the repayments on the mortgage now, there have been rumours in the press that the Bank of England could be raising interest rates in the not too distant future, so offer what you think the house is worth and think about the income required to service the mortgage if interest rates go up. It may also pay to remember that the 80’s spectacle of negative equity could also come into play if no one is prepared to offer more than you did when you come to sell it yourself.

Amidst all this current noise and debate, it’s so important to remind ourselves that houses are only ‘worth’ what people are happy and able to pay for them. Don’t believe the hype. Misleading reports and statistics may ultimately succeed only in enlarging the already increasingly swollen property bubble, and thereby stymie those members of the public who actually do really want to buy themselves a house.

No more clothes smelling of last night’s dinner: What really makes families decide to move home?

Have you ever reached for a fresh, clean item of clothing and instead of the scent of fresh laundry felt yourself enfolded in last night’s dinner?  If so then you may be a member of one of the many families in this country who are overdue their next house move and could be ready to invest in a new home.   

Whichever town or city you live in, it’s clear that the UK housing market has been largely stagnant over the last few years. The worry of being able to afford stamp duty costs, moving costs and an increased mortgage during an uncertain job market has left many of us taking Sarah Beeny’s advice and sitting tight and either extending or improving, rather than hunting out our ideal next home. 

Yet now by all accounts it seems the Government and financial markets are keen to kick start the property market. So what will compel families to actually make the move and purchase their next home?  What do families want? What makes them buy? And what should house builders and potential vendors be doing to make their homes sell successfully?

The first thing that modern families usually look for is the kitchen. Ideally it should be wide enough to sidestep small children dancing around adults’ ankles at mealtimes, with an informal eating/homework area included alongside. Families frequently state that they would rather have a more open plan kitchen area like this than a separate dining room, which can often become an unofficial dumping ground.

The kitchen should lead directly onto the sitting room, and through to the garden, so that parents can see their children from the kitchen sink. Bi-fold doors leading on to the garden seem to be the in thing at the moment, but French doors are also good as long as there is a direct line of sight from kitchen to garden. The developer Linden Homes has created a good example of this at its ‘Riverside’ scheme in Godalming, Surrey. There’s a wide kitchen, a bay window dining area and a view from the kitchen through the sitting room to the back garden.

The importance of the garden itself is often understated.  Most families want a big back garden. Too many new build gardens have just a patch of grass with barely enough room for the obligatory trampoline. Families need space for the trampoline, room to kick a ball around and a deck/patio where parents can quietly observe with a cup of tea/ glass of wine depending upon the season. One developer to have noted this is Shanly Homes, whose ‘Fairlawns’ development in Woking, Surrey is currently marketed as having houses with larger than average gardens. A front garden is nice to have but a drive to park the car in is much more important. Conservatories are also in demand as playrooms, although families won’t be put off if there isn’t one as long as there may be room to put one in at a later date.

In terms of bathrooms, it’s not essential to have three bathrooms in a three bedroom home as some house builders would have us believe. An en-suite is a luxury but it’s not a deal breaker for most families – no-one moves because they want an en suite. However a downstairs loo is a must-have, making potty training and other emergencies so much easier for all involved.  Two loos are fine for a three bedroom household –most families would rather have extra storage than an extra bathroom to clean.

Families need masses of storage; for ironing boards, hoovers, brooms – the basic paraphernalia of life. So many existing and new build homes do not factor this in, and it can be a huge deciding factor upon whether to purchase for many families. There should be room for a decent-sized wardrobe in every bedroom, and ideally a larger sized bed in the main bedroom. Families who have invested in a king or super-king sized bed are unlikely to want to part with it, especially considering the number of nights when the whole family still ends up sleeping in one bed.

There also has to be space somewhere in the house to put the washing, so that everyone’s clothes don’t end up smelling of last night’s dinner. It does not necessarily have to be a laundry room, but rather an obvious space where washing can be put while it dries, instead of picking up all the kitchen smells and cluttering up the house. This is crucial in the UK where 70% of the year is damp and/or humid. In Horley, Surrey, homes in the latest phase of ‘The Acres’ development by David Wilson Homes have convenient utility rooms located just off the kitchen dining room.

Perhaps most importantly, however, homes will not sell to families unless they are within reasonable reach of good local schools. For families – or soon to be families – who are not able to afford independent schools, the term  ‘Location, Location, Location’ is rather irrelevant, ‘Infants, Juniors, Seniors’ is the far more apposite phrase.

So house builders, vendors – take heed. The clean laundry factor, when considered along with all of the above, may just be the key which unlocks the door to a more robust, proactive property market.