Beat the rush by buying off-plan

Bagging a property before it's even built can mean you have a greater choice of plot - and a better deal on price. It's a trend that's catching on, says Christopher Browne

Do you know anyone who has bought an invisible house? Off-plan properties have been bought by Brits in Spain, Portugal and France for almost 10 years, but it's only recently that people here at home have started buying homes which have not yet been built.

Londoners Roz Lock and Helen Constantinou were so taken with the plans they saw of Blue, a riverside development in Leeds, that they made an offer and bought it instantly. "We aren't too worried if it takes longer than the deadline, as we won't be living there," says 44-year-old Lock of the £185,000, two-bedroom apartment.

It's a refreshing approach, but she might not have been so chipper if the couple's previous buy - a spacious Manchester conversion apartment - had been delayed in any way. After spotting it at the 2003 Homebuyer Show in Manchester, they paid £145,000 for the flat, which is part of a Grade-II listed canalside warehouse. "Off-plan often gives you more choices and better prices, particularly if you buy at the start of a project and get an apartment in a prime position such as an end-of-building spot or one with panoramic views. It works well for renters too as they like to live in brand-new apartments with hi-tech fittings and all mod cons," says Lock.

More UK homebuyers are following the couple's lead and looking north instead of east, west or south. Simon Leak, of London-based broker Executive Mortgages and Investments, has just clinched loans for several Sheffield and Leeds investors. "Properties in northern cities with high employment, solid infrastructure, thriving industry and large companies are far cheaper than in London and the Home Counties and great for buy-to-let investment. I always advise clients, especially those who are buying off-plan, to visit the area first, sound it out and do some research, so they don't end up with an unexpected carbuncle on the doorstep," he says.

Liz Williams, the head of new homes at FPD Savills' Manchester office, says: "Anything under £150,000 gets snapped up within hours, while properties over £250,000 take a little longer. In the last 12 months we've had record off-plan sales to owner-occupiers and investors of 600 to 700 sq ft two-bedroom apartments and 400 to 500sq ft one-bedroom ones in Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle-on-Tyne."

Students are taking the homes and housing honours too, with overseas parents buying off-plan apartments a year or more before their offspring start college or university courses. UK investors, meanwhile, have signed up a clutch of mature students "wanting to live in two-bedroom flats instead of halls of residence" in northern university towns and cities.

Northern capital growth has nosed ahead of the South-east, too, with five to 10 per cent increases in Manchester city centre and even higher in the city's outskirts, wheremany first-time buyers are less inhibited by the £120,000-£130,000 price of a two-bed apartment than in the much pricier South-east, says Williams.

"Many houses and apartments cost around 50 per cent less than in London and the Home Counties, so it's not surprising we've been seeing record sales," she adds.

Lock and Constantinou's two-bed apartment is due to be completed by its developers, Country & Metropolitan, in June. Then the 60-flat, 16-storey complex will emerge as Leeds's second-highest building, towering over the Yorkshire city and its bustling centre.

The idea of moving into property sprang from a visit to the Commonwealth Games in 2002 when the pair "literally fell in love with Manchester, its laid-back atmosphere and its friendly people", says Lock.

"It was all very timely as we had fallen out of love with London, and were spending more than two hours a day commuting to and from our house in the north London suburb of Palmers Green. Now we can go to all the local bars, cinemas, restaurants and clubs on foot instead of having to catch a Tube, train, bus or taxi," says Lock, who works as an IT specialist with a large bank.

The couple, who own three properties in Brighton and the Lake District, aim to become full-time investors soon. Constantinou, who is also 44, recently left her job as a company personnel director and, instead of managing people, now looks after their properties and plans to buy again in the Lake District "because of its tranquil beauty and high tenant demand", says Lock.

The couple's catchphrase when looking at potential purchases is the Three Hs. "Head means any house or flat we buy must be a wise investment; Heart means we have to make sure people want to live in it; and Hook says it must have something extra over all the others in the area," says Lock.

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