PROPERTY; Bargains that come of blight

A small eyesore like a business park shaves pounds 100,000 off a house price. An ugly aerial or a motorway will save you a small fortune.
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The Independent Culture
THE SIGN pointing to Tranquillity Cottage, on the road from Stoke Poges to Gerrards Cross, raises a wry smile from passing strangers. All too close to "the madding crowd's ignoble strife", it stands under one of the busiest sections of the M40, between London and Oxford. The noise of traffic hurtling overhead rattles your teeth.

The name isn't meant to be sardonic. The two-bedroom bungalow once had peaceful views across Dukes Valley, a prime piece of open south Buckinghamshire countryside. Then the M40 was built almost on top of it. The Department of Transport was obliged to pay compensation to the owners of the house, which has a double garage and a large garden. About to come on the market, it should, says local agent Trevor Kent, fetch pounds 60,000-pounds 70,000. If it could be moved a mile and a half away, the price would double.

"Clients with blighted properties will sometimes say 'You won't mention the problems, will you?'," says Kent, "but I find that counter-productive. When the viewer turns up and sees for himself, the disappointment factor is so great they will take an instant dislike to the property. They won't even cross the doorstep." But one man's blight is another's delight. By accepting some form of inconvenience, it's possible to buy twice the house for half the money - or even the period country house you've always wanted.

Barbara and John Figg moved into Westbere Court with their six children 18 years ago. Finding a home big enough for a large family is not easy in a "2.5 kids" society. The Figgs were leaving a three-storey Georgian house in Exeter, and hoped they would be lucky enough to buy a spacious home in Kent. Westbere was perfect. The Grade II listed farmhouse dates from the 17th century, and was possibly - according to a local historian - built by a farmer as a dowry for his daughter. A heart shape is incorporated into the brickwork.

The house had a third of an acre of land, and the Figgs were able to buy the next-door paddock. As well as six bedrooms, it has a sitting room with inglenook fireplace, a dining room, an enormous playroom and a 17ft kitchen with a solid fuel Aga. There are fruit trees, a kitchen garden, a stable and a barn. Idyllic. Almost. There was also a plan to turn the adjoining land into an industrial estate, which had been talked about for years.

"We decided to take the chance," says Barbara. The Canterbury Business Park did eventually open, and it shares a lane approach with Westbere Court. But the Figgs were not unduly worried. They owned a lovely old farmhouse, and the children had plenty of space to play in.

"It has built up a bit," concedes Barbara. "There is a crane business, a ready-mix concrete depot and a transport company, but we don't notice them much. The lorries go out in the morning and come back at night. There are a few cars, but we are off the main road. You can occasionally hear the noise in the evening if you are sitting in the paddock."

Now that their six children are grown-up, the Figgs have decided to sell. Agents Cluttons are asking around pounds 168,000 for Westbere Court. "If you lifted it up and dropped it in Ickham, or Wickhambreaux just a few miles away," say Cluttons, "you could add another pounds 100,000 to the price."

Most agents won't admit that a property is blighted, in case clients take umbrage and flounce off, taking the commission with them. But it's impossible to ignore something like a 20ft communications aerial plonked in a back garden. Wimpey Homes, which operates a part-exchange scheme (taking customers' old homes as part payment against a new one, and selling it on), decided to go for the "hands up" policy. They advertised their secondhand, three-bedroom house near Bristol as if the aerial were a positive feature. It worked. They had a queue of viewers and sold the house at the full market price of pounds 65,000. In what must have been another satisfying moment, Wimpey even sold a first-floor flat to an estate agent for pounds 30,000. Its sitting room was 6ft from a railway line - but it was almost new, had double glazing and was just what he wanted.

East Anglian estate agent David Bedford also decided that honesty was the best policy, when he was asked to sell a three-bedroom cottage sitting at the end of an RAF runway in Suffolk. "It was when the RAF were flying Tornados, which are particularly noisy," says Bedford. "I went to value the house and the noise was unbelievable. As we couldn't hide the problem, we decided to meet it head-on." The property was advertised as being suitable for a "Deaf Russian spy". Bedford's chutzpah paid off. Local and national publicity followed, complete with photographs of the Tornados. He was inundated with enquiries and managed to find a buyer.

In most cases, a perceived blight signals a real bargain. In Bayswater, Knight Frank & Rutley is selling a four-bedroom house with parking for two cars, for the price of a three-bedroom flat in the same area. The three-storey house in a cobbled mews is the only newly built property in a conversion of an old dairy. It has two 20ft roof terraces (one includes a hot tub on the deck), a 19ft sitting room and a kitchen most Londoners can only dream about. It's for sale at pounds 275,000. The catch? It is 10 yards from a vent to the Circle and District Line, from which a faint but discernible rumble can be heard. If my waits for the Circle Line are anything to go by, it can't be that much of a problem.

The rumble heard by Barbara Moorhouse and her partner, Mike Brittain, comes from the A31, a mile-and-a-half from Junction 1 of the M27 running through the New Forest. But they have become accustomed to it since buying Stoney Cross Lodge a few months ago. The five-bedroom, 1920s former hunting lodge stands in 20 acres and was on the market at pounds 400,000 through John D Wood.

"We did consider the road noise when buying the house," says Barbara, a finance director. "All houses have a profile of strengths and weaknesses. In this case, the strengths outweighed the weaknesses. We have three horses, and this house has lovely stables and land. There is even an underpass, so we don't have to ride down the road. I did wonder if the noise would be a problem, but now we find we just block it out."

What if the lodge had not been within earshot of the traffic streaming towards Bournemouth? "Add pounds 100,000 to the price," says John D Wood's Kevin Allen, crisply. He hopes he can find a similarly canny buyer for Castle Malwood Park, half a mile closer to the start of the M27. A rather stately four-bedroom house with staff flat, triple garage and over nine acres, it is for sale at pounds 375,000.

In the case of Munday Farmhouse near Ashford in Kent, the problem is still waiting to happen. The Grade II listed three-bedroom house, with paddock and stableyard, stands in five acres of pretty Kent countryside. It has two inglenook fireplaces, exposed beams and a garden stocked with plum, apple and walnut trees. But the local authority has given outline planning permission for the 750-acre Ashford Great Park scheme to be built directly opposite.

The project, if it ever gets off the ground, will include a development of 1,500 homes, 138 acres, a leisure centre, two schools, a 100-acre business park, a superstore and a library. "Who knows if it will ever be built?" says estate agent Nigel MacLean, of Calcutt MacLean, who is trying to find a buyer for Munday Farmhouse. "It could be in 10 years' time, or 20, or not at all. The difficulty is that it is an unknown quantity. Meanwhile we're selling the farmhouse for pounds 179,500, which is a very good buy." For a family looking for a period home, plus the possibility of sports, library and shopping on their doorstep, it could be the best offer they ever make.

Bellamarsh was built long before Thomas Gray sat down to write his Elegy written in a Country Churchyard in far off Stoke Poges. These days, you would need abnormally sharp hearing to catch the curfew toll the knell of parting day. The hum of traffic is a constant reminder of the house's proximity to the busy A38. Nevertheless, the listed Elizabethan farmhouse - which is in need of modernisation - at Chudleigh, in Devon, has five bedrooms and a large orchard with views towards Hay Tor on Dartmoor. The dining room is believed to be the original medieval kitchen and has a massive timber chimney piece and Ashburton marble slabbed floor.

All this for just pounds 95,000? "If it weren't for the dual carriageway," says agent Marchand Petit, "we'd be asking at least pounds 150,000."

! For further information on the properties mentioned above, contact: Cluttons, Canterbury (01227 457441); John D Wood, Lymington (01590 677233); Knight Frank & Rutley, London W8 (0171-938 4311); Calcutt MacLean, Ashford (01233 812060); Marchand Petit, Kingsbridge (01548 857588).

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