Property: Look behind the perfect style and check out the substance

You can't judge a book by looking at its cover - and the same applies to property. By Penny Jackson
RARELY DOES someone walk into a new apartment and ask what is underneath the pristine wooden floor and gleaming stainless steel. If they did, a few developers might have some uncomfortable moments. As it is, it still surprises many in the business how little curiosity the public shows.

Buyers have been swept along in the rush to buy new properties, particularly in London, sometimes suspending critical judgement so that they could move fast. But the price of getting in at all costs only becomes apparent after a few years, as poor workmanship and low quality finishes begin to tell.

At present, developers are having a much harder time selling anything that is not of a high quality. Heavy advertising and the kind of offers we have not seen for some time suggest they have more on their hands than they are comfortable with.

Buyers should look around and make careful comparisons, advise agents. Nick Sutton, managing director of Crown Dilmun, which has converted five listed houses in fashionable Notting Hill, west London, into 20 apartments, says it never pays to save on the quality.

Nick Sutton says: "I have seen some disgraceful work. People should ask to see other work a developer has done and they should not rely solely on a homebuyers' pack. Ask precisely what method of insulation is used between floors, for instance. If it is poor, everyone's life is made a misery."

At Chepstow Place, solid timber floors and wood fittings have been used throughout the building. "It might be tempting to save thousands of pounds, but those details are what make a property a good investment, even if you are going to let it out. Tenants are far more discerning than they were."

But how can anyone be sure that the apartment that looks so good now will be equally saleable or lettable in four years time? In the narrow streets of Shad Thames, an area just south and east of Tower Bridge, the experience of two buildings, completed within a year of each other, tell very different stories.

The first, Boss House, a warehouse conversion, was completed in 1995. A spacious two-bedroom apartment would originally have sold for about pounds 175,000. Thames Heights, slightly closer to the river and restaurants, was a newly built, and a smaller two-bedroom apartment was around pounds 100,000. Today, the Boss House apartment would sell for at least pounds 100,000 more, while at Thames Heights, there is no evidence that the flat will sell for even 30 per cent more.

Location is not enough to cover its shortcomings, which include gloomy communal areas with worn carpets, and a vast expanse of brick wall. Significantly, it was sold almost exclusively in the Far East. "People should remember that it was common to buy on the basis of a brochure, a model and a few English estate agents. Quality is only put to the test when it comes back on to the market," says Tom Marshall of Cluttons Daniel Smith.

It therefore makes sense for buyers to ask whether a flat being resold for the first time was part of a large number sold abroad, since the owner may never have even set foot in it.

Marshall's advice is to check every detail of a new apartment. Is the wooden floor solid or a thin laminate? Is the tiling done well, regardless of the cost of the tiles? Are the door surrounds going to chip and discolour or wear well? Are the light fittings cheap plastic or robust?

"People who are buying new resent spending pounds 500 on a survey, but in the end, it could be well worth it," he adds.

Walking past developments in Bermondsey a few months old, it is possible to spot wood missing from balconies, main entrances with ill-fitting doors, and paint that seems only one layer thick. These are the signs that warn of an uncertain investment. If the common areas have defects, it does not inspire confidence in the quality of workmanship in the flats.

Even in Mayfair refurbishments, there are no guarantees. Linda Beaney, of estate agents Beaney Pearce, has found the most ostentatious of developments can hide a multitude of sins: "When we walked into one, it was obvious that, on the surface, no expense had been spared, but when I looked at the window frames there were tell-tale signs of problems to come.

"The curtains are worth about pounds 20,000 but within a week the windows could be leaking," she says.

"I have also seen expensive carpets put down on terrible floors, covering grease and even greater horrors, like dry rot. Within two years, those sort of properties will be looking terrible."

Beaney Pearce offers buyers a check list when buying new, but there are some hitches that even she has not considered.

A prospective buyer at Chepstow Place was horrified by the kitchen floor. "It is not all the same colour. It will have to be changed," he demanded.

When Nick Sutton explained that the floor material was natural slate, and that's the way it comes, the buyer responded with: "Well, that's not good enough."