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Property: Buyers go in for old not new

Purchasers looking for a home with an old-fashioned period feel won't settle for any imitations.
It is an irony that many people who live in old houses, and express horror at the thought of buying a new home, are often among the first to say that they would love to build from scratch: "Give us a site and we'll show how we would really like to live." But take them to the homes on offer now and they will run a mile, back to the last century.

Are they prejudiced beyond hope or simply not being given what they want? A recent survey by the Popular Housing Forum concludes that the new homes market in the UK is a niche operation appealing to a small sector of the population.

Some 72 per cent have not bought, or would not consider buying, new homes, and tend to think of them as boxy, cramped and homogenous. While the vast majority of those who took part in the survey opted for a traditional facade, there was a strong demand for a re-think about the way we live.

All good developers will spend time and money on research, but it can be rather like preaching to the converted. If they focus just on their pool of customers, they will be hearing from only 28 per cent of the home- owning population.

"They need to study the occupiers who don't usually buy new homes," says Yolande Barnes, of F P D Savills Research. "These buyers have to be seduced. It is no good just matching the second-hand market, it has to be exceeded."

In leafy Wandsworth, in south-west London, a house that sells for pounds 1m no longer gives cause for comment. Buyers have moved southwards in search of space they can afford, and for a choice of good schools. Generally, this means Victorian or Edwardian, four or five bedrooms, two or three bathrooms, a garden and close to the common.

So a plot in a good street is a rare opportunity to woo buyers away from the old. Thirlstone Homes did their homework. Two red-brick, Edwardian- style, semi-detached houses mirror in almost every respect their neighbours in Lyford Road, with the extra advantage of off-street parking. The high ceilings demolish the usual criticism of feeling like being cramped.

The drawing room is comfortably large and the kitchen runs into a light and sunny family room. At the top of the house, under the eaves, is a study and studio bedroom with bathroom. As a package, these are all features that local buyers would have on their list. But just as it seems to be there, it stumbles and falls.

The "executive home" touch is the spoiler. A top-to-toe tiled bathroom and mirrored bedroom cupboards are more hotel than home. And these are buyers who are likely to want a coal fire, not look-alike gas. They have wet labradors and children with muddy boots but nowhere to put either. It is not that these houses won't sell well, but that they are unlikely to break through the old/ new barrier.

"Everything south of the river gets stamped with the Surrey mark," says Jonathan Seal, of Hamptons International. "London buyers are specialised, and know from experience exactly what they like. They are prepared to pay for houses with good hallways, high ceiling, French windows, wooden sash windows, larders, large south-facing rooms. They don't mind much about formal dining rooms or garages.

"There is no guarantee that the developer you are advising will instruct you in the end. That's the name of the game. It is tempting for some to tell a developer what he wants to hear."

Often the advice can be simple. Margaret McKenna, of John D Wood's Battersea office, has suggested that housebuilders employ a local interior designer, to avoid the inevitable clash of style that can put off buyers attracted to the area.

A great deal of money can be wasted on putting things on floors and walls that typical purchasers don't like. And if buyers find properties overpriced and overrated, it is often because they act on the valuation, but not the specifications. "We might have to say that we can't now sell their property for pounds 500,000 because they haven't done anything we suggested," says John Collard, of Robert Holmes in Wimbledon.

It is not as though buyers in the second-hand market are difficult to read. Estate agents' particulars, and glossy style magazines, give a blueprint at a glance. "You have to create an illusion of old money, of something that has been lived in," says Yolande Barnes. "The bookshelves either side of the fireplace, the fire surround, the sofas facing each other. You see it everywhere. They want period style without the period inconvenience, and not just a complete pastiche.

"Staircases can be wider, and the plumbing and wiring should make for easy living. But new London houses are more difficult to get right than flats. The one thing that really doesn't work is brand name marketing."

At Lyford Villas there is a stone plaque between the two front doors. It reads: "Thirlstone Homes 1998." Surely the last thing any buyers spending more than pounds 800,000 want is to be seen advertising a product, however discreetly.

Lyford Road Villas, priced from pounds 875,000 through agents Robert Trindle (0181-767 2222)