The term "exclusive niche housing market" usually conjures up images of salubrious London penthouses or country estates. But when it comes to exclusivity the humble, historic little almshouse comes top of the list.
You could be forgiven for not knowing what an almshouse is. Of 30,000 in the UK, all but a few hundred are used for their original purpose - providing subsidised rented homes for the elderly, disabled or poor under the management of local charities.
The first alms property was built in the 10th century when the oldest of Britain's 1,800 surviving alms-house charities started in Worcester - the first form of social housing. Up to the 19th century it was common for a married couple with children to live in an almshouse, but as the broader standard of housing improved so the sector became identified with poor single or married pensioners.
Today's remaining almshouses are small, never have more than two bedrooms and are usually located close to urban centres, often clustered around private courtyards.
Most are still rented out by charities, but the few almshouses that escape into the private market attract competition among buyers and fetch significant premiums, say property experts. At any one time there are only a few on the market anywhere.
At the moment they include a one-bedroom alms home overlooking communal gardens on | a side-street near Camberwell Green in south London (£129,950 from Ludlow Thompson, 020-7820 4100). At the other end of the price scale is a string of adjacent almshouses converted into one striking four-bedroom country house with a contemporary interior at the village of Stonor in Oxfordshire (£1.45m from Hamptons International, 01491 572215).
At Shenley Church End near Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire a one-bedroom almshouse dating from the 16th century is on sale for £139,995 (through Connells, 01908 674141). Its character features include a wood-burning stove, vaulted ceilings, exposed beams and wooden floorboards combining to make this tiny property fetch a much higher price than comparable-sized homes in the area.
Rural almshouses tend to havein commonexternal walls of local stone, location in or near to what used to be a town or village centre, and small size - at least before two or more are combined. They also have a rich history, often linked to a local benefactor who paid for them to be built.
"They make highly desirable properties because so many people want unusual period homes," explains Joan Bull of Essex agency Mullucks Wells.
"Even in the private rented market they are sought after, because many must be modernised after being bought from a charity - hence they have contemporary interiors with a real sense of history, which is an attractive combination."
Joan's firm (01279 653067) is letting an almshouse close to Stansted airport, but only to over-60s - a common restriction on alms properties owned by housing associations or charities, but rented privately.
"An almshouse is only ever sold to a private owner if it is no longer tenable as a property that can be rented to the elderly or the disadvantaged," says Anthony De Ritter, director of the Almshouses Association, which says 36,000 people live in alms properties across the country.
"This could be because the properties have fallen into poor condition. Therefore it's easier for the charity to sell it off to someone who will convert it. The funds are normally used to build a replacement almshouse in a nearby location.
"Sometimes it is considered that a location changes significantly, so is no longer appropriate for what is often an elderly community. For example, if a village becomes a dormitory for young executives who commute it may be best to sell and build new ones elsewhere," he says.
The disposal process involves the charity that runs the individual house applying to the Charity Commissioners for permission to sell. This is rarely granted, making almshouses on the open market all the more sought after.
Those that do go forward for disposal are normally passed to local estate agents. But there are disadvantages to almshouses. Their small size means some owners have to order hand-made furniture to make good use of limited space. And a few have covenants set out at the time of the sale restricting the type of tenant if a private owner wants to let.
Then there is the maintenance. Although there are some modern almshouses - several were built in Bath in 2005 - most are 19th-century or earlier.
"Once you have possession of an almshouse it's often like any other old building. It's probably listed so any renovation must be very sensitive. Because it's likely to be a period property and lived in by older residents, it may require substantial work," according to Peter Blockley, a Wiltshire architect who has renovated nine individual almshouses or small terraces of them.
The Almshouses Association, which encourages the preservation of the properties and represents charities owning them, can be contacted on 01344 452922 or by writing to Billingbear Lodge, Carters Hill, Wokingham, Berkshire RG40 5RU.Reuse content