Homes: Two for the price of one (well, almost)

In the Eighties houses were hacked up into flats: now they're being stuck back together. KATE WORSLEY on the trend for deconversion
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The thousands of period houses that were converted into flats in the Eighties are getting a new lease of life in the Nineties by the trend to deconvert. People who can't afford to trade up to a house in their area are opting to double their living space by buying up a neighbouring flat and knocking them together.

"I don't know if it's a Zeitgeist thing, but the idea of staying near friends and family seems right at the moment," says Mariella Baker, 37, who is "deconverting" two flats in north London.

The fierce state of the property market is contributing to the mood. Estate agents in popular areas are favouring first-time buyers more than ever, so if you have a property to sell you are likely to be left behind. But the flat that is a millstone round your neck could become a stepping stone to a more spacious future.

Deconvert, and you get to save thousands of pounds in estate agents' fees, design the home you want and continue to support your favourite local takeaway. Your neighbour may be keen to sell up while prices are high. And unless you're planning to convert a house full of bedsits into a palace, which would dramatically alter an area's social mix, you should have the local authority on your side. Councils are acutely conscious that too many flat conversions lead to parking problems, noise pollution and a transient population.

"We welcome it with open arms," confirms the Haringey council planning office in north London. "A council in any built-up urban area would say the same, especially if it positively improved the local amenities for the neighbourhood in terms of easing congestion and so on."

Transforming two flats into a single house also goes down well, since it counts as restoring to original use. If you are lucky you may live in an "area of restricted conversion" which councils are eager to see revert to larger units.

Most importantly, you get the home you want without having to move. Jo Driscoll deconverted last year, having outgrown the one-bed second-floor flat in Notting Hill, west London, she bought when she was 24. "The area has improved immensely since I've been here. I'm within minutes of all the groovy stuff, and as a single person I can't imagine moving."

She was looking around to rent when she heard the flat upstairs was for sale. Now she has a stunning two-bed, two-bath maisonette in an area where flats with good proportions and quality detailing are highly sought after.

"To buy a place like this would cost a huge amount of money and you would be paying for the work that someone else did," she says. "It wasn't bad before but now, because of the incredible proportions, it's got that wow factor."

Driscoll, who is head of design at BAA, had strong ideas about how she wanted the place to look. Luckily, she also had good contacts who provided her with builders who turned the job around in three months for pounds 35,000. Even for a design professional it was still a stressful process. "Making a million decisions by day and coming home at 8 or 9pm and having to make more is not to be embarked upon lightly," she warns.

Actor and theatre director Cal McCrystal, 40, decided to deconvert because he couldn't find another flat he liked as much as the one-bed garden flat he had already lovingly done up in Muswell Hill, north London. After his partner moved in last year they looked for something larger in the N6 enclave known as the Miltons. But properties there were moving so fast they soon found themselves priced out. McCrystal tried and failed to buy the flat next to his on the ground floor, but is about to exchange on the small one-bed flat upstairs, which had been let out for years, for pounds 105,000.

He plans an "operatic" staircase linking the two floors on the site of his current cubbyhole kitchen. His total budget is pounds 20,000, bringing their mortgage commitments up to pounds 155,000. To save money he plans to do another pounds 10,000 worth of work himself. "Like most actors I can turn my hand to just about anything," he says.

Deconvert and you avoid dealing with estate agents and removal men, but still risk the misery of the chain purchase and the British builder. "The whole process took weeks longer because of someone further up the chain. And we've had five sets of builders in but only one phoned back, with a vague quote that made no sense," wails Mariella Baker, who has just bought the two-bed maisonette with garden to the rear of her one-bed ground- floor flat near Hampstead Heath, north London. Despite the fact that no work has been done yet, they've still made money: while her flat had been on the market for pounds 90,000 and the other flat cost pounds 120,000, the joint valuation is now pounds 215,000.

She is relieved that she didn't have to uproot herself just to get a few more bedrooms. "And this way we end up with somewhere quite quirky too, which appeals to us."

EXPAND UPSTAIRS

n Whose flat do you have your eye on? Check out the owner. Perhaps the property is let and they want to cash in. (Remind them they avoid estate agents fees this way.)

n If both flats are leasehold, buying the freehold will give you more freedom.

n Planning permission isn't always essential, especially if there are no exterior changes. The district surveyor needs to make sure you conform with building regulations.

n Your mortgage will get complicated so find a good broker. One solution is to remortgage your property to fund the deposit, get a second mortgage on the new property; then when the deconversion is complete, replace both with a new mortgage.

n When working out your final mortgage, your lender may undervalue the newly joined properties. More realistic quotes from local estate agents may change their minds.

n Notify utilities, and check your council tax band for any changes.

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