Property: Luxuries in the house of cards

Even builders are finding that loyalty points work, writes Felicity Cannell
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The Independent Online
WE'RE USED to getting loyalty points from petrol stations and supermarkets. Now even housebuilders are getting in on the act. The "loyalty card" from Regalian is a unique buyer's incentive offering discounts on future house purchases. The Gold Card has been issued to all customers who bought a property in the last two years, and gives discounts of up to pounds 15,000 on the purchase price of future properties.

Bulk buying doesn't happen very often in the residential property market, but Regalian customers have responded to the marketing ploy: in the last phase at Atlantic Wharf in London Docklands, 39 of 45 properties were sold to cardholders.

The big cash discount makes the usual developers' enticements of a choice of free carpets and curtains look tame. But the incentives are the result of the pressure on homebuilders to sell developments off-plan, before construction has been completed or even started. The more incentives they offer, the more properties are sold off-plan.

Honeygrove Properties sells around 70 per cent of its country houses off-plan. The company likens its bespoke service to a couture house, working with customers at the planning stage to create an "individual" home. "By personalising their homes, our customers can express their personality and freedom of choice concerning all aspects of the design of their home," says Andrew Henry, sales and marketing director. "Honeygrove can be compared with companies such as Gucci or Dior." With prices at Springwood Park, a development of country houses and apartments near Tonbridge, Kent, reaching pounds 1.5 million, this seems a fair comparison.

In most new developments customers can choose the colours on the walls. With Wates' Built Homes Bespoke service they can now choose where the walls go. Depending on the stage of construction, interior walls can be moved or altered where possible to create the desired living space. An interior designer is on hand to help with colours, layouts and effects.

But in the cramped confines of the city, soft furnishings and specially- created interiors are less of a priority. City dwellers want state-of- the-art security, a doorman, health club and parking space. FPD Savills says parking is now a "must have" for central London buyers. In Galliard Homes' County Hall and White House developments on the South Bank, each parking space costs pounds 15,000 and pounds 16,000 respectively. Galliard and Regalian both promote residents' parking as a key feature.

However, there are some car-free schemes such as Berkeley Homes' development in Farringdon Road and proposed developments in Camden where, if you buy, you won't even be eligible for a council parking permit. Disallowing car ownership can hardly be seen as a fringe benefit but Dugald Gonsal, Camden borough engineer, believes there is a large market for car-free homes.

Gymnasiums are often included to tempt a younger crowd with health concerns, both for themselves and the environment.

Residents may pay a higher service charge, although with London health clubs charging around pounds 700 in annual fees, this could almost be deemed a free facility.

At Canary Riverside, a big new development in Docklands, the "extras" are so numerous the brochure says it is like "living in a whole new city". Alison Dean, of Canary Riverside, says: "The the mix of hotel, health spa, swimming pool and tennis court makes Canary Riverside stand out. The spa is proving a powerful magnet; it will be the only one in London with a hydro pool and range of thermal sequence therapies, including laconium, an Osman steam cabin, snail showers and heated ceramic relaxation couches." A whole new city? More like a whole new planet.

Crosby Homes plans health clubs in developments in Nottingham, Birmingham and Leeds, but only for city centre schemes. Presumably out-of-towners haven't realised the advantages of working out in a stuffy gym over a run in the park.

But for those who look further afield than the basement or rooftop for exercise and a social life, some of the financial incentives offered by homebuilders may be more attractive. There are schemes that take the hassle out of buying and selling, and help with other costs, such as moving, estate agents' commission and legal fees.

Barratt pioneered the part-exchange service more than 25 years ago: it purchases a buyer's existing home so they can move to a Barratt home. The early 1990s property slump forced other builders to do the same, and Persimmon Homes, Fairclough and Wates Homes still offer similar services. Frank Eaton, the Barratt Group chairman, says: "We believe in making homebuying as easy as possible and our purchase packages are very popular." As well as part-exchange (only offered for upgrading) Barratt offers the Agency Selling Service for buyers moving "sideways" or to a cheaper home. The company markets and (hopefully) sells the property with no commission.

Barratt and Beazer Homes have schemes offering first-time buyers the chance to move for just pounds 99. Residents pay the fee, move in and get five months' grace from mortgage payments to save up a deposit. In some cases the deposit is halved or waived altogether, but the firms stress that these deals are not a case of giving with one hand and taking away with the other: mortgages are arranged through the main high street lenders at standard rates, and properties are sold at market value.

If you don't want a gym, swimming pool, parking space or even a heated ceramic relaxation couch, but simply a home of your own, this is an incentive which takes some beating.