Paul Williams, negotiator for Holden Matthews estate agents, in Upper Street, Islington, north London, is currently marketing a two-bedroom flat on the Essex Road for pounds 225,000. Unusually, the property has enormous roof terraces - one is 50ft long - yet it is also above a vacant shop, and so far there are no takers. "These flats tend to be on busy roads, and people worry because it can be an unknown quantity. Buyers should check planning applications to make sure there can be no A3 use," says Paul (for bureaucracy novices, A3 means "restaurant").
However, he advises buying property above shops for investment purposes. "You get a good yield for your money and a bit more space. You may not get the growth of other locales, but some tenants aren't fussy about their location."
Ninette Farache, director of HAM estates, in north London, finds that properties above shops do take longer to sell or let, but seasons play an important role. "Spring is the worst time to let, but in August you can rent out a shed." Ninette has a one-bedroom property for rent above her offices, but has had little success so far; is the estate agency itself off-putting?
Fellow agent Marcus Kemp, of King's Road, in central London, defends the profession: "At least we go home by 7pm. If the shop turns into a late-night video shop, then you've got a problem." Marcus has sold many properties in the popular King's Road, but some have proved harder than others. "A flat above a kebab shop was a nightmare," says Marcus, blaming high insurance premiums for buyers' reluctance, as flats above restaurants can face fire hazards. Mortgage companies pose further problems, with their traditional aversion to lending on these properties.
Marcus perceives two categories. "Mansion blocks over businesses sell well in contrast to traditional little shops with flats above." The reasons seem obvious, yet Marcus holds an alternative view. "The benefits of living above a shop are enormous. In a block you can't do anything without annoying the neighbours but above a shop you can party all night long."
Walk around any high street with an eye to the spaces above and you see them: dingy curtains, boarded windows, signs of neglected and forgotten spaces which are hard to visualise as homes. Housing associations and insightful local authorities have long developed policies to transform retail space into homes, but, with developers catching on to the benefits, competition for space is tough.
Retailers must also be persuaded of the advantages. John Lett, assistant chief planner for the London Planning Advisory Committee (LPAC), is convinced that one way to revitalise town centres - particularly at night - is to get people living in them again, and this would also make them more economically viable. John also believes that the planning system should be more proactive: "It should shake up housing colleagues and the Chancellor of the Exchequer."
LPAC is partly funding a study, currently at draft stage, looking at potential capacity and demand in London for dwellings in and over shops and the mechanisms necessary for improving them. The Civic Trust, which is being consulted for the study, has identified a need to promote the benefits for small shopkeepers and is considering incentives to encourage converting and refurbishing retail spaces. Some large retailers are already convinced. Martins Newsagents was paying pounds 250,000 in empty property rates and now finds it can get an annual rental income of pounds 400,00 from the previously vacant space.
People living above shops seem to be divided in their enthusiasm. Stephanie West rents a two-storey maisonette above William Hill bookmakers in South London. The location sounds unappealing but the enormous roof terrace with its leafy views, and Stephanie's ardour, dispel any distaste you may have for urban living. Did she specifically choose a flat over a shop? "I absolutely lucked into this. I was in New York and was used to noise, 24-hour shopping and decent weather; I was dreading returning to London."
Stephanie arrived back with no cash (her last pounds 50 went on quarantine fees for her Doberman pinscher); she found her "incredibly cheap" flat through a friend. Three doors down from a Seven Eleven, she has all-night shopping; she also has occasional good weather. She takes full advantage of the situation.
"I can put my coat over my nightie, slip out and get a bottle of bubbly and a video and be back in bed within three minutes," says Stephanie, who has better plans for her disposable income than mortgage payments. She is minutes from her bank, a dry cleaner's, a delicatessen and restaurants: "People are always dropping in," she says. "It's just the most wonderful, convenient space; you can hop out and catch a bus or taxi within minutes."
Stephanie was single when she moved in but now lives with her partner Simon and son Alexander.
Are there disadvantages? "Living above a bookie's brings smoke and noise. 'And they're coming up to the third fence!'" shouts Stephanie, in a passable imitation. However, she prefers bookies to estate agents. "They employ young men with posh cars, so you can never park."
The family feels secure in their flat. "Alexander is adept at urban living and would never lurch off a pavement," she says, and the entrance is overlooked, which deters burglars.
Your safety may depend on the type of business below you. A friend once spent several harrowing hours tied up with a gun at his head thanks to a raid on the sub-post office below his flat - but that's another story. Next time you're out shopping and spy a woman with a nightie under her coat, don't despair. She's not symptomatic of urban societal breakdown; she's part of that happy breed who live over the shop.