Are Britain's empty homes doomed to dereliction?

They could hold the answer to the country's housing shortage but many are beyond repair.

Crossways, a sizeable and attractive Grade- II listed two-storey house in the leafy Hanwell Green Conservation Area of West London, is a wreck. Dating from the early 18th century and unmodernised, it retains numerous period features including high chimney stacks and original interior fittings. It is rare to find a period house such as this within a London postcode in the 21st century, and even rarer to find one in a such poor state.

Yet who in their right mind would buy such a wreck? Propped up by raking shores, its windows either boarded up or rotting, with a garden more overgrown than the average rainforest, an infant could see that it is in a terrible state. As many would-be developers and naïve restoration romantics have learnt greatly to their cost, taking on a project such as this can be an extremely risky business.

Derelict buildings can cause great division, especially when they are protected. Conservationists, developers, the authorities, the locality and the owner all have their own agendas, and emotions can run high

Crossways was auctioned earlier this month by Strettons with a guide price of £550,000, but failed to sell. So it is likely to decay even further. The added responsibility and restoration costs that a Grade II listing entails would not have boosted its saleability. The owners believe that the restrictions laid down by the Grade-II listing – the property cannot be demolished, extended or altered without permision from the local authority – make restoration unviable.

"It is very difficult to do anything with the building with the listing in place," says James Fowler, who, along with his brother, inherited the property from their father. "We are awaiting a decision on our application to have it de-listed. We do not have many alternatives. We are vulnerable to repair orders and the threat of compulsory purchase." [ See letter.]

His wife, Catherine, says: "The structural engineer said that all the walls need to be rebuilt, the house is beyond repair. Putting a listing on your building means the property can be compulsorily purchased with minimum compensation. It's not a very savoury position for us to be in."

However, Philip Venning, of The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), sees the building as an excellent restoration project."I'm sure that there are people out there happy to take it on," says Venning, "it needs someone with determination who is happy to pay a realistic price to rescue it. It will be a demanding project, but it is in a great part of London, and is an important part of the history of that part of the capital."

Oliver Leigh-Wood, chairman of the Spitalfields Trust, which has restored numerous buildings, believes that many councils do not do enough to save buildings that are at risk.

"The owner of a listed building has a legal obligation to look after their property," he says. "Very few councils will go down the line of issuing urgent works notices where the council can do the work and put a clause in the title deeds and recover the money if you sell the property. They can compulsorily purchase the property but very few councils have the balls, gall or common sense to do that. It is expensive, time consuming and not the path they have trodden before.

"We need to persuade councils to use their legal powers to save these buildings. SPAB, us, the Victorian Society, the Georgian Group, we are all banging our heads together to persuade councils to rescue these buildings. But the economic downturn makes it even more difficult, there are higher priorities for the councils than saving buildings. Just to issue a repairs notice, the bureaucracy is phenomenal."

According to the charity Empty Homes there are nearly one million empty homes in the country, while homelessness charity Crisis believes there are about 800,000 homeless people, highlighting another reason to save derelict homes. There are also the benefits for the environment – refurbishment uses less energy than demolishing and rebuilding – and for local communities, an aesthetic result.

"Derelict buildings almost always go to auction now because of the state of the market," says Venning. "That only gives you three or four weeks to do your research. You need to have an extensive survey done and to have arranged a mortgage, which is even more difficult nowadays, which means that many these buildings are bought by development companies.

"There are pluses and minuses with derelict buildings. If they are very derelict you can see exactly what is wrong, but if they are in better condition there will always be hidden surprises. We advise strongly that people do not rush in and strip everything out. For example, you could destroy a good 18th century fireplace to expose an inglenook and find it disappointing.

"Realise that a lot can be adequately repaired rather than replaced. For example, signs of woodworm is surface damage that can be repaired. Professional advice can really pay off, they usually cover their own costs in what they save.

"Homeowners are always thinking of the final product such as a new kitchen or bathroom, but there can be a danger of neglecting important things like the roof. Face up to these boring but necessary things first and sort out a fancy kitchen further down the line. People should live with an old building for a bit. There's a danger people may destroy things that give an old building character. They bulge and move, but if you fix everything you destroy the character. You make it indistinguishable from a modern building. If you are taking on a very derelict building you need to take time not to rush in with builders and strip out everything."

Mortgages on derelict houses can be hard to come by, especially in the current climate, and it may be worthwhile engaging a mortgage broker to help find one. There are likely to be stipulations such as a requirement for the property to be solid to a certain level, such as the first storey, or that a roof is in place. The lender may drip-feed the supply of funds in stages, after a qualified assessor has confirmed the renovations have been made to the required standard. In the past, councils sometimes provided grants, but in this climate of cutbacks, the chances of this are slim.

It is vital to work out an accurate budget before committing to the project, adding a contingency sum of about 20 per cent for unforseen circumstances. As well as commissioning a comprehensive survey on the property, builders' and/or architects quotes should be obtained, while a solicitor will be able to indicate any legal restrictions.

Restoration may be a challenge, says Philip Venning, "but properties can last hundreds of years before a blip in the economic cycle where a buyer can't be found causes them to be demolished. It is crazy to condemn a building because of one moment in the economic cycle you can't sell."

On the market

* Hernes Farm at Coltishall, Norfolk, is a seven-bedroom farmhouse (top right) on a six-acre site with paddocks and gardens. Requiring total renovation and currently in an unliveable state, it retains many period features including a former bread oven, dairy and larder. Its traditional outbuildings have planning permission for three residential properties and one holiday cottage. With a guide price of £795,000 it's on the market with Strutt and Parker. (01603 617431; www.struttandparker.com)

* This two-bedroom cottage (middle) at Marham in Norfolk requires total renovation but is on the market, via Morris Armitage, for just £105,000 (01366 383777; www.morrisarmitage.co.uk)

* It will take an offer in excess of £90,000 to buy Upper Mill of Strathisla at Newmill, Keith, Banffshire. An early-19th-century meal mill (bottom right) with kiln it's set in extensive landscaped grounds. Planning and listed building consent have been granted for a sympathetic conversion into a three-bedroom home. On the market with Smiths Gore (01343 823000; www.smithsgore.co.uk)

James Maxwell

Useful contacts

SPAB (wwwspab.org.uk); The Victorian Society (www. victoriansociety.org.uk); Georgian Group (www.georgiangroup.org.uk)

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