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Property: Conversion traumas

Creating a family home from separate flats is harder than it seems
In the middle of winter, Ed Cunningham looked from the basement of his Georgian house through the gaping roof to the sky. His wife was expecting a baby and in three months' time, when it was due, they could all expect to be homeless as the owner of their rented house wanted it back.

If there had been an easier way to find the kind of home they have now created, the Cunninghams, would surely not have pursued the most difficult path of all. Like many others who have taken on the same challenge, the re-conversion of a house from flats to a single family home, it was far more of a challenge than it appeared on paper.

But the search for an unmodernised house with one careful lady owner, requiring only a new kitchen and bathrooms is likely to be fruitless. Ed Cunningham knows. He works for estate agents Douglas & Gordon and he was renting because he had no choice.

As he and his wife SarahJane describe the state of the house when they first came across it in Camberwell, south-east London, it is almost impossible to imagine as they point to the once rubble-filled tip that is now a garden through the lovely replicas of the original windows. They bought from a developer who was struggling with the same project.

"You may do it better but never imagine you can do it more cheaply," says Ed Cunningham. "Squatters had been living here in three flats and to move them on the council took away all the original floor boards. Instead they took all the doors off and used them as flooring. Nothing could be saved. Even the roof, which we thought was all right, had to be replaced as there had obviously been a fire there at some time."

At a time like this the most important relationship is between the owners and their builder. Get that right from the start and few problems are insurmountable. Ed Cunningham knew that and thought he had the perfect builders in mind. He trusted them and had recommended them to numerous friends.

"Lesson number one, if you have a good builder don't tell anyone," says Mr Cunningham. We aren't talking to ours now and half the trouble is that instead of getting on with our house he was working for other people. In hindsight our biggest mistake was not to employ someone to oversee the project. It may have cost us about 12 to 15 per cent extra but it would have been worth it. If the owner is out at work all day, there is no way he or she can keeps an eye on things. In our case the so-called foreman was the carpenter who had no control over any of the men."

By the skin of their teeth the Cunninghams, by now with two children, managed to squeeze an extra month from their landlord, giving the builder a chance to at least make the house habitable. But pressure of time plays havoc with budgets and everyone, says Ed, should be prepared to spend some 15 to 20 per cent more than the original costings. "And after any discussion with the builder about changes to the plans, put it in writing."

The ramifications of "reversions" are far greater than most people realise. Drains, wiring, plumbing usually need replacing completely since any modifications mean complying with modern regulations.

Chris Avery, a chartered surveyor, specialises in turning large period houses back into family homes. "Buyers walk in and see only surface work. Most people underestimate the physical size of the job. If they are up against deadlines they often don't allow enough time for preparation. On one hand they are looking at a fixed price and at the same time want to be on the site tomorrow. The two are not compatible."

As he speaks, he has a client's house shrouded in scaffolding, minus windows and with a deadline of two weeks. But he also has a team of workmen who will work late and at weekends if necessary - unlike Ed Cunningham's builder who never darkened the doors on a Saturday.

Avery acts as a managing agent, employing men he trusts directly as and when he needs them. "You have more control over a project as it enables you to change the shape as it unfolds. You may think you want to knock this or that wall down and it isn't until half way through you have an exact vision in mind. If a builder has given a costing on detailed plans it is expensive to change them."

It also cuts down the potential areas for dispute because unless is a job is done well the workman will not be paid and there will no further work on offer. Ed Cunningham, on the other hand, paid the builder an agreed amount but did not know to whom it was going.

His struggle to get a floor re-done is an uphill one and his advice is always to keep back a reasonable amount for snagging. As frustrated buyers cruise the streets for signs of a decaying house in multiple occupation it is not a foregone conclusion that local authorities will give permission for its gentrification.

Chris Avery says they may refuse permission if they have a shortage of low cost housing in the area whereas in a conservation area they regret their earlier decision to allow flats to mushroom. It may not always be such a tedious exercise. One family applying for permission to turn their newly acquired flats back into a house discovered that the politician from whom they had bought it had never notified the council of its original conversion.