Bargain hunters home in on mean streets of Belfast: Houses for sale from pounds 1,350, good security, ripe for restoration. Ian MacKinnon reports

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FOR the proud new owners of what must be the UK's cheapest, and possibly least desirable residences, the emphasis on security will be hard to escape. The armed police and army patrols that constantly cruise the streets would ordinarily engender a feeling of safety.

But with the addresses being in some of the less salubrious streets of Belfast, particularly in the north of the city, security on that scale takes on new and rather sinister connotations.

Still, all but one of the nine Northern Irish houses up at an auction at a Merseyside racecourse yesterday were sold in a flurry of bids within an hour, some to speculators hoping to make a quick turn on the bargain-basement prices.

But while Northern Ireland has been long-feted for having the lowest house prices in Britain, it achieved new notoriety when a one-bedroomed flat went for the princely sum of pounds 1,350.

Even that was an advance on the pounds 1,000 price tag which one estate agent estimated would be reasonable for the repossessed flat in Midland Crescent, just off the Antrim Road in north Belfast, which had refused to budge on the open market.

The other eight properties - most of them vandalised, bricked up and covered in sectarian graffiti after lying empty for long periods - fetched marginally better prices at the General Accident Property Services' auction at Haydock Park.

Top price was pounds 7,000 for a vandalised two-bedroomed terraced house just off the Falls Road in Beechmount Street, looking out over a grim, litter-strewn wasteland.

But near the bargain one-bedroom flat was the jewel in the crown: lot 108, a four-bedroomed end-of-terrace house in Atlantic Avenue, which did not quite achieve the guide price of pounds 10,000, though the estate agents, Cornerstone, are negotiating over a slightly lower bid.

Another four-bedroomed house a short distance away in Willowbank Gardens, its downstairs windows boarded up to keep out the vandals, did not quite reach the reserve price of pounds 6,000, but the agents were happy to get it off their hands for pounds 4,600.

In Etna Drive, on the staunchly Republican Ardoyne, with its murals depicting masked IRA gunmen, the story was different. A two-bedroomed mid-terrace house, complete with rear garden and off-street parking, achieved its reserve price, but then that was only pounds 3,000 to start with.

Those flipping through the catalogue would surely have been tempted. The picture shows a pleasant, red-brick house with new curtains, set back from the road, gates protecting the driveway. Reality, however, is more sobering. The gates are long gone, all the windows are smashed and boarded up, and adorned with graffiti supporting the Irish National Liberation Army.

Yet all this - and the fact that Thomas Begley, the IRA man blown up by his own bomb in the Shankill bombing, lived in neighbouring Brompton Park - was not enough to deter the prospective buyer.

'There are bargain hunters out in force,' one agent involved in the sale said. 'But at least one of the properties will be refurbished and go straight back on the market. The buyer sees it as a bit of speculation.

'Quite a few of the properties will be done up and then let out, probably to the unemployed, because the landlord will get the rent straight from the social security and they'll be quids in.'

(Photograph omitted)