Many home-owners are swapping their trendy homes for less expensive places to live, and gaining space and a better lifestyle in the process. By Ginetta Vedrickas
IT'S WHAT the property market is all about: low interest rates tempt buyers to try to throw a six, climb the ladder and find themselves ahead of the game. But some are trading down, not up, and they don't seem to mind the snakes. The early Nineties saw down-shifters rejecting Eighties- style consumerism in favour of quality of life; but are down-shifters still around?

Robyn and Malcolm Rolls have owned their five-bedroom detached house in West Dulwich for only two years, but are now buying a three-bedroom terraced property down the road. Malcolm runs his own successful company, so why the downwards move?

"It's been a gradual thing over the years," says Robyn. "As the children have left home we've traded down into smaller properties, but the next jump is a big one." This will see the couple buy a house in Australia, but they also want to keep a small UK base: "We considered Italy or France as good spots with better weather than in the UK, but were put off by the complex buying laws."

Robyn and Malcolm are atypical of down-shifters, who mostly wait until retirement before making their move. Why are they trading down now? "Our decision is based on the pound's strength. Australia's economy has been affected by the Far Eastern crisis and we can now get much more for our money," says Robyn. She believes that Britain's economic position is tempting many of her generation to make the radical decision to sell up earlier.

The Rollses' home is on the market for pounds 405,000 and the purchase of the smaller place in the UK will cost pounds 150,000. However, Robyn is "less convinced" than Malcolm is about their plan. "It's been sad and difficult looking for something smaller," she says. "I've been noticing all the lovely things about our house, and none of our furniture will fit the new place."

Buyers often tolerate the torturous moving process in the knowledge that their purchase is an improvement on their sale, but down-shifters have no such reassurances. "I'm apprehensive about the change of lifestyle and I'm worried about leaving my little doggy," Robyn adds.

Polly Ghazi opted for a better quality of life 15 months ago. Co-author of the down-shifter's bible Getting a Life - which devotes a chapter to the question of property - Polly was environment correspondent at The Observer, but took redundancy in order to freelance and spend more time with her family. Her decision inevitably meant trading down - but in location, not size.

"We owned a two-bedroom flat in a lovely Georgian house in trendy Highbury, but decided to move to south-east London," she says.

Admitting to initial hesitancy about New Cross, "which I associated with riots", Polly and her husband, the director of an environmental group, are settled in a five-bedroom house and each now has a study. Polly believes that down-shifters who want flexible working need separate work space: "It is psychologically very bad to try to work from the kitchen table, surrounded by the washing-up."

Their house cost more than their flat - not an obvious down-shift - but by choosing a larger home in an inexpensive area they can work from home, and earn less but live more cheaply. Polly sees others in the area she now lives in who have made the same choice: "There are lots of people here with one, sometimes both people working flexibly, so we don't stand out, but we would have done in Islington, which is full of yuppies on the up."

Polly's book offers alternative suggestions to would-be down-shifters in large properties, who are unsure about selling. "Think about renting out a room, or even part of your house; rental income can be very useful to a down-shifter."

Polly estimates that her house is worth pounds 210,000, but would cost pounds 450,000- plus in Highbury. Does she worry about losing out? "No. This area will rise in value anyway, with the Millennium Dome."

She admits that she couldn't have taken the traditional down-shifter's route of moving out of London, where property is cheaper: "We are both city people, and property is such a good investment."

The Henley Centre for Consumer Consultancy estimates that around 13 per cent of us have the capacity to work from home. This could grow to 30 per cent by 2000 and 52 per cent by 2010, its researchers claim. It adds that down-shifting has gathered momentum in the US and predicts that it will be a "major development for the new century".

Lynda Clark, of the Trading Spaces agency, which specialises in loft- living, now sees many of her clients down-shifting - not necessarily in financial terms, but in search of a "new way of living", particularly with the current vogue for living/working environments.

"Many clients are tired of traditional houses with their increasingly redundant dining-rooms." she says. "Some are selling six-bedroom houses and buying two-bedroom lofts."

Surely Lynda's clients are high-earning professionals on their way up, not down? "We have got a real range. Some want a change of lifestyle because of a marital split or even a mid-life crisis, but we find many in their forties and fifties who are free of the kids and want to do something completely different."

A Trading Spaces client, Andrew Gottschalk, fits this description. Describing his family as "at a transition point", he and his wife Margaret have decided to sell their traditional, much-improved five-bedroom home in desirable Dulwich for about pounds 750,000. This will fund two separate homes for themselves, "Giving each of us space", as they say, and will also help their three sons on to the property ladder.

The realisation that "there was nothing more that we could do to this house" and the need for personal space have resulted in Margaret buying a small terraced house nearby and Andrew's more unusual choice: converted industrial buildings around a courtyard in East Dulwich.

"I wanted something visually and environmentally totally different that says: `I'm standing on my own feet now'," he says.

Rejecting traditional Edwardian houses, which Andrew calls "tunnels with lots of unused space", he has chosen a loft-style home featuring open ceilings with enormous timber rafters and imaginative use of concrete. Andrew, a consultant, enthuses over the privacy and security the space will bring, but admits to buying for two reasons.

"The south-facing courtyard reminds me of a friend's Paris home and the separate studio space means that I will have to cross the courtyard to work, so that at the end of the day I can walk away, giving myself more balance," he says.

Trading Spaces: 0171-277 4994; `Getting a Life' is published by Hodder & Stoughton (pounds 5.99)