Need more space? Building up into the roof could well be the answer - but it's not always plain sailing
WE HEAR a lot about lofts these days. For some urbane creatures, the term refers only to aspirational apart- ments nestling somewhere in the city's choicest enclaves. For the rest of us "loft" is merely a home for our more eclectic possessions.

Where else can a footspa live next to some old skis and a beer-making kit? Property owners with multitudinous hobbies and children frequently move in search of space. But is it cheaper and more convenient to convert the loft?

Shelley Russell and Andrew O'Sullivan bought their Edwardian three-bedroom house in Brixton Hill eight years ago and, with two children, always knew that one day they would need more space: "It didn't have as many rooms as we wanted, so we made a mental commitment to converting the loft."

They got quotes from various firms, talked to friends who had had successful conversions and eventually chose Roy, a builder who had worked for friends, and was cheaper than most specialist companies.

It was a sound choice: "They were brilliant, fantastic characters who were fun to have around," says Shelley, who believes the process was lengthier this way. Was it very disruptive? "No it was minimal and very clean. They put up scaffolding and went through the roof."

Shelley and Andrew extended their mortgage and took out a short-term loan for the conversion, which cost pounds 16,000 for an L-shaped space, plus a much-needed second bathroom at an extra cost of pounds 4,000. They replaced the roof as it was convenient and cheaper while the scaffolding was up.

Originally they planned to open up the room into the roof space but building regulations were restricting and frustrating: "We had to have fire doors into the bathroom and bedroom, which aren't very pretty, and we've ended up with a fairly redundant Velux which we had to have as a fire exit." There was never any suggestion of using the newly converted space for the children: "We're not stupid. We want to be tucked up out of the way with our TV."

The conversion has added around pounds 10,000 to the house's value. More importantly, the family does not have to move: "We love our house, and now we're not going anywhere."

Not all loft conversions are as successful. Peter Breed and Jan Stanton bought their three-bedroom Victorian house in Tooting in 1985, and decided on a conversion 10 years later: "It seemed like a good idea, as we had four children and knew there was a lot of space in the roof."

For the next two years they researched the subject and got quotes from specialist loft conversion companies and builders. Peter found the business of trying to select a company unsettling: "Some just never turned up, others offered to do the job for 10 grand, without even visiting to see how much work was involved."

Eventually they chose a company which had successfully converted a friend's loft: "We thought it best if a specialist firm was responsible for the whole process, and we didn't choose the cheapest as we'd heard so many stories." The deciding factors were the clear breakdown of costs and a "wonderful design with the best use of space". The company also promised a prompt start.

In the end, it was three months before the work started. But, unlike Shelley and Andrew's experience, the process was not straightforward. The long list of complaints includes horrendous plumbing problems - such as permanently leaking radiators and showers, and an unconnected overflow - caused by someone who Peter is "still unsure was an actual plumber - his work was so bad."

When council officials inspected to see if the work complied with planning and building regulations Peter and Jan discovered their loft was potentially dangerous and had illegal pipe work: "They'd tried to cut corners and it was impossible to get them to put things right," says Peter, who felt caught in the crossfire between the company and "very ropey" subcontractors.

Peter explains why the project was doomed: "The company were basically surveyors and architects, but little more." The family resorted to legal redress and have now settled, but the company has disappeared, perhaps to trade under a new name.

Peter admits to ending up with a "wonderfully designed space" despite its problems, but he would do things differently next time: "We went through what we thought were the right channels, but my advice is to have an architect draw up plans and sub-contract the work yourself, choosing your own plumbers, electricians and carpenters. Get more involved; it will be better and cheaper."

Peter and Jan's conversion cost pounds 18,000, and he believes that the added value to their property is perhaps twice this: Tooting prices have risen by around 50 per cent in the last two years. "We could never find a five- bedroom property in this location for an extra pounds 20,000."

Jeremy Galloway, of south-London agency Galloways, cautions against expecting instant returns on conversion costs: "You will not immediately make a profit or get your money back. There are ceilings that buyers will not cross, even if you installed an indoor swimming pool."

He agrees that loft conversion inevitably adds to a property's attractiveness, provided the standard of work is high: "People like nice things, so make sure work is sympathetic with the original layout."

Above all, Mr Galloway advises employing a good carpenter: "Finishing is the most noticeable thing, so make sure the work is of an excellent standard and that the staircase is in keeping with the house, and has the same architraving and spindles."

Like many others, Mr Galloway feels that conversion can be a cheaper, less stressful way of attaining extra space: "Moving now can easily cost pounds 25,000 of dead money in stamp duty, agents fees and legal bills. You may find yourself paying pounds 150,000 more for a house in this area [North Dulwich], which only has an extra room and a few feet more of garden, whereas a conversion costs from pounds 20,000, and gives you the same amount of space."