Turning an empty space into a home needs imagination and money. Why not let an expert fit you up?
Buy a loft and you buy yourself a dream, is the message of the developers who are aware that the word "loft" performs a kind of alchemy on sales figures. Loft conversions have been the great success story of the last couple of years, not least to do with being part of a bigger picture of regeneration. As old industrial buildings take on a new life, so too do their neglected urban pockets.

Certainly there is nothing like an empty space to fire the imagination, and the first to embrace loft living took it on with a gusto and certainty of self-expression that blazed a trail. But there are those less sure of their dreams and with little relish for spending Saturdays in builders' merchants. Aware of this, some developers are now offering bespoke deals - complete fit-outs modelled on a show flat. Others, though, continue to organise their space the hard way.

Margaret Williams is a film director with her own production company in London. She moved into her raw "penthouse loft" in Clerkenwell, on the northern fringes of the City, last autumn - and was, at the time, on the rebound from being gazumped on a Georgian house in Marylebone. Fitting out her loft has proved to be a perfect marriage of personality and place, she says, while looking out over a jumble of rooftops towards the clean lines of Norman Foster's ITN building.

But It has not been easy or cheap. She reckons it has added more than pounds 60,000 to the price of the shell. Each stage had to be costed and fine- tuned. She had a close working relationship with her architect, Patricia Pearson.

"It was terribly important to me how the place functioned because it was to be my workplace as well as my home," Ms Williams explains. "I couldn't have done it completely on my own. It isn't just the big things you need to get right, such as having an entrance on both levels. Small things matter as well, like having a cupboard to take my tripods. The gradual approach may have been chaotic, but I haven't made any mistakes. I changed quite a few crucial designs since living here."

Nor is the loft finished yet. Until a few weeks ago, Ms Williams was clambering up a ladder from her living space to her work area. "It's taken eight months to get the perfect staircase. I don't know if anyone else could get so excited by the fact that the bottom two steps line up with the floorboards. The aesthetic pleasure is absolutely gigantic."

Living through the evolution of her home, though, has been stressful. "I'm not sure we are good about the detail of living in apartments in this country. I have hit real problems with the rubbish disposal arrangements and the ludicrously small size of our postboxes downstairs."

Neither could she avoid gettting caught up in any conflict between her architect and the builders. "Anything out of the ordinary and British builders seem to have a real attitude problem. I was driven mad at times. The bathroom was the biggest struggle. I wanted two showers - not uncommon in America - instead of a bath. Impossible, I was told. In the end I got my way, but also a bulky extra tank that I didn't want."

British plumbing has proved to be a bone of contention for David Borger, a managing and marketing consultant from Germany, and his girlfriend, who are in the process of buying a fitted-out loft from the Manhattan Loft Corporation. "We really wanted to have a toilet with an economic flush, but we were amazed to find it is not available here," Mr Borger said. "We are used to a high standard of work and fittings, and it is not always easy to find it in Britain. When we saw the quality of Manhattan's show flat, we agreed to buy the apartment only if we could use their architects. We want to walk into a completed apartment; we don't have time to bother with builders - and how would we know how good their work is?"

It was this all-or-nothing sentiment that prompted Manhattan, the first company to bring over the idea of loft conversions from the United States, to offer the fit-out service at its Bankside development. Harry Handelsman, chairman of the company, said that some people who wanted to live in a loft were daunted by the undertaking. "Our architects are familiar with the building and can come up with the answers quickly. The show flat is a point of reference; before, all we did was put in the mezzanine."

David Borger spent three weeks discussing ideas with the architects before he agreed to go ahead: "There were some major changes we wanted, such as losing a bedroom and opening up the space, but there was a lot we wanted to keep."

In Manhattan's Bankside development, close to the South Bank complex, pounds 113 would buy the shell of a studio-type loft; fully fitted-out the price is pounds 135,000. Other developers are also beginning to offer fit-outs. In Clerkenwell, Bee Bee Developments is offering apartments ranging from pounds 170,000, pre fit-out, to pounds 220,000 finished.