Once upon a time, even house buyers at the top end of the market could only dream of commissioning their perfect home, down to the last detail; what you saw was what you got. Sure, you could choose the colour of your floor tiles, but ask for an extra phone point in the kitchen and that was really pushing it.
In the last few years, the landscape has changed, with continued growth in the number of people willing to spend more money to buy "off-plan" - where an agreement can be struck before the first bricks are laid - on sites which already have planning permission. Property developers competing to attract wealthy buyers have realised that the opportunity to design your own environment can be just as big an incentive as a competitive price and the secluded garden.
Latchmoor Place, a development that borders a village common in the leafy commuter-belt of Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, typifies the trend. Estate agent Trevor Kent, in conjunction with developers Prowting Homes, is confident that he will sell each of his eight plots off-plan, and says that his purchasers - who will spend at least pounds 800,000 each and could move into their dream homes by Christmas - will see their every wish fulfilled.
"We've appointed a representative to assist them in customising their homes and to hold their hands," he explains. "This is important because of the initial reticence of very wealthy buyers to be seen to live on an estate. So you have to give it non-estate-like characteristics, and the best way of doing that is to customise."
Customers who buy off-plan have the greatest say in how their new houses will look. There are other advantages too, says Kent. "You have a commitment from the builder to produce your home within a certain time, so you have six months, say, in which to sell your old house, knowing that you've already got your purchase sewn up."
His site in Gerrards Cross, a stone's throw from the modern-day palaces owned by the luminaries of the football pitch and the television screen, lies on a private road protected by electronic gates. And, provided buyers put their money on the table early enough, there is nothing they cannot ask for. "Things like integrated vacuum-cleaning and air-conditioning are very popular," says Kent. "And people no longer want a single dishwasher; they like at least two, and tend to go from one to the other to save putting dishes back in the cupboards. Also, if you build a house without an enormous kitchen-and-family-room complex, you haven't a hope in hell of selling it these days: it's almost de rigueur."
Berkeley Homes is also now offering a bespoke service. James Rowntree, sales director, notes, "Buyers are more and more aware of their requirements. They no longer say, 'I'll just have to take what the builder gives me'. This phenomenon is entirely customer-driven."
Large family-cum-breakfast rooms equipped with enormous, American-style refrigerators are now seen by many as standard; other requests are more idiosyncratic. "We had one purchaser who wanted an all-singing, all-dancing toilet he'd seen in the Far East," said Rowntree. "Another, who'd lived near swamps in Florida, wanted bug screens on all the windows."
Bryant Country Homes was established five years ago, with customisation as a founding principle. The company employs an interior designer, who visits buyers in their old habitats to help them plan their new ones. "If the walls can take it, we'll move it," says Marilyn Porter, one of Bryant's sales managers. "For one person, we put a gardener's loo in the back of the garage. Once we changed a family room into a sauna. We've put TV points in laundries - who watches TV in a laundry? But we do what they want. A standard extras bill is around pounds 1,000, but some go up to pounds 20,000."
Prowting Homes is even piloting a removal service as its latest development to make life even easier for its customers. "We'll send in Pickfords, deliver the buyer to a hotel on Friday night, and on Saturday morning the removal men go in and unpack into the cupboards and a handyman hangs the curtains. All the owner has to do is go in and start living. People buying new homes nowadays really can't be bothered with all that hassle," says Julia Pallister, a sales director.
Other companies, such as Fairclough Homes, offer a more limited menu of extras. Gavin Clarke (who goes by the title of Homemaker Co-ordinator), says: "The buyer can choose the colours of the bathroom and kitchen, their floor tiles and vinyl. If they pay more, they can choose from another list. We don't offer customisation, merely finishing off with a sensible list of extras." Fairclough Homes also issues questionnaires to its buyers and uses their feedback in planning. "We used to offer contemporary sanitaryware, with the option to upgrade to Victorian- style. A year on, Victorian-style is standard."
Most developers operate on a credit-debit system: ditch the expensive- looking fireplace in the reception room and you can put a few extras in your bedroom. Some buyers are now even sizing up possible sites themselves and approaching the developers with their own ideas, says James Rowntree: "At Berkeley, we have a huge list of people who would like to buy one of our homes, and it's not unrealistic for us to ring peo-ple up and tell them, 'We're just about to buy this land'. Provided they exchange contracts, we'll do what we can to help."
While customisation is more widely available at the top end of the market than the bottom, first-time buyers are becoming particularly keen on the idea because in some cases, it means they can simply lump their extras on to the mortgage. "If they can just add it on to their mortgage, they have 25 years to pay," says Julia Pallister.
Nor is customisation limited to new housing developments, according to Jonathan Haward, managing director of County Homesearch, which locates "ideal" lived-in properties for discerning clients. "There has certainly been a move towards kitchen and bathroom replacement; 75 per cent of people say they'd like a kitchen big enough to entertain in. Something else that's come into vogue is large, double showers with an eight- or 12-inch head so you get a good spray of water. There's also a move away from pine towards indigenous worksurfaces, polished granite for example. It all comes down to the imagination of a good interior designer and architect, having a competent builder and a large cheque book."
Ultimately, the trend for customisation can be attributed to two main factors: the increase in house prices, with purchasers more exacting about where their money is spent; and a shift in lifestyle and, as a corollary, expectancies. Estate agent Trevor Kent identifies two particular groups: "The wealthy and successful young family with a couple of children who are looking for ease of maintenance and who haven't the time nor the inclination to modernise their existing home. The others are the empty-nesters: they don't want to lose the space, but they want everything clean and tidy and are sometimes a little bit concerned about what's fashionable. If they haven't moved for 25 years, they're attracted by the thought of having a style guru on hand to help."
Tim Garbett, a partner at estate agent Knight Frank, predicts: "There is going to be more and more pressure on devel- opers to come up with new innovations. The modern buyer is much more well-travelled, sees an awful lot of good design, and comes back here saying 'Why don't I have one of those?'"
Berkeley Homes, 01959 564644; Bryant Homes, 0121 711 1212; County Homesearch, 01962 715768; Fairclough Homes, 01923 850406; Knight Frank (Esher), 01372 464496; Prowting Homes, 01895 633344; Trevor Kent & Co, 01753 885522
Property developers are now offering a number of standard - and not-so-standard - options on a cost-plus, cost-minus basis. These include:
Concrete floors, to minimise noise
"Sensitive" showers in double units
Marble and granite worksurfaces in the kitchen
Hand-picked bathroom fittings, such as imported toilets
Televised security intercoms
Kitchen waste-disposal systems
American-style fridges, complete with ice-boxes and water-coolers
Remote control shutter systems
Integral vacuuming systems, where the dirt is sucked into the walls
Utility rooms adjacent to the back garden, to stop children running inside with muddy feet
Multiple fax and telephone points in various roomsReuse content