Homes: Find more rooms to breathe

Calling in the builders may be a better option than moving. By Penny Jackson
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The Independent Online
It is difficult to know which is worse; the agonies of house-hunting, or living with the builders. Given that buying and selling at present are likely to take longer than even a builders' overrun schedule, it is not surprising that so many people are choosing to extend or convert, rather than move.

In the days when everybody was playing musical homes, it was a simple matter of waiting for a larger house down the street or in the next village to come on to the market. If a first choice was lost, there would be another close on its heels. Now, though, the months tick by with nothing on the horizon, and all the while prices are creeping up.

The arrival of the builders this week at Sally Palmer's home in the village of Sonning Common near Reading marked the end of a fruitless house-hunt and the start of an extension. She and her husband had spent a year looking for a larger family house in the area. "We had several offers on our house, but there was nothing on the market. We were looking for an older, larger place, in the same school catchment area but a bit more rural."

Frustration began to shed a rosier light on their rather unprepossessing Sixties home. "It's a concrete box built by the Home Office for prison governors, with a mean kitchen and a dining room you can't swing a cat in," says Mrs Palmer, listing the reasons why they wanted to move. "But because it is in a good location, backing on to woodland, with a big sitting room and a very large garden, it is worth spending money on to get the space we need." In a few months, the Palmers should be able to swing their three children in the kitchen and dining room, while the first floor will have sprouted a new bedroom and bathroom. "It would cost a huge amount more to buy a house with this kind of space. We are also getting exactly what we want," adds Sally Palmer.

In times of shortage, as in times of recession, the number of people adding space to their homes increases. Ben Stagg, of Goldschmidt and Howland's Hampstead office, saw it happening during the clamour for property in the Eighties and during the recent recession. He also sees an overall trend for more living space and fewer bedrooms. But he warns of the dangers of not using an architect or surveyor, particularly in the case of conservatories. "If it is properly integrated and can be used all year round, then it will add value to the house. But they can be a terrible headache. It must be well insulated if you are to avoid baking in the summer, freezing in the winter, and problems of condensation."

In cities, burrowing up is the most obvious way to accommodate more of the family. Deborah and Anthony Brunero didn't want to move from London's leafy East Sheen, but with a small son and another baby on the way they did not have the space in their three-bedroomed semi-detached home. "We had the loft converted and now have an entire new floor - a big bedroom, a bathroom and my office. The wonderful thing is that it means my son uses a bedroom as a playroom, so we are not tripping over toys downstairs," says Deborah Brunero. "It was hell while the work went on, and it took three times longer than it should have done, but now we don't have to move. We remortgaged for another pounds 30,000 but that amount of money wouldn't have bought us a five-bedroom house."

Agents are always cautious about the value a conversion adds to a property, and it does depend on the prevailing trends of an area, and the dimensions of the house. In Parsons Green, west London, for instance, the Peterborough Estate is a parcel of streets in a popular conservation area where loft conversions are the rule rather than the exception. Robert Stewart, of Hamptons' Fulham office, also sees an increasing number of basements being dug out - a messy job, often requiring underpinning - which can give a family a large playroom and utility room.

Mr Stewart recently valued an unchanged two-storey house, three-bedroomed house in one of the popular streets at about pounds 425,000, whereas transforming top and bottom would push it closer to pounds 575,000. The cost of a conversion, he reckons, after redecoration, would not leave much change out of pounds 100,000, but is clearly worth it. However, in the streets of Victorian terraces in Battersea, known as Little India, spending money on a loft conversion is a questionable enterprise. A two-and-a-half-bedroomed house with a through reception, small kitchen and tiny garden would be unbalanced by adding another floor and would be of little use to a family, whose living space would still be cramped. According to Hamptons, it would cost about pounds 15,000 to convert the loft, and would not increase the saleability of the house. The best anyone can expect is to get that sum back.

Extensions: what the builders say

Take professional advice from an architect and/or a surveyor. Apply for planning permission, and make sure the plans are communicated to the authority. It is not to your advantage to have them pared down to such an extent that the conversion fails to meet your needs. Do not unbalance a small house with inappropriate extensions. Do not have work done if you simply want to move. It is not an investment. Get builders to provide a proper schedule and give regular reports on progress. Word of mouth is invaluable. Check out loft conversions/extensions by neighbours. If adding a conservatory as extra living space, make sure it is well insulated and can be used all year round.

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