Buy to let: Style counsel

Tenants are getting picky over decor – so it pays to update it, says Chris Partridge
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It may seem shallow, but style wins over substance when it comes to gaining the maximum rent for a property. Recently, Holly Morris, of the Mayfair agents Wetherell, discovered the importance of decorative taste when she let two almost identical flats only yards apart in central London.

"Both were over shops in Mount Street, and both were one-bedroom flats with the same amenities." They were immaculately decorated, albeit in very different styles. "One was a traditional flat with period furniture and drapes, decorated in a very Laura Ashley style," she says. "The other was decorated in a sleek, Armani style." If style hadn't mattered, they would have fetched the same rent, but the Laura Ashley flat went for £600 a week while the Armani-style flat achieved £750.

Decorating a property to appeal to the largest number of potential tenants is a fine art, but it is essential if it is to be let in the shortest possible time at the best rent. Agents say it is particularly important that the kitchen and bathroom are bang up-to-date. Country kitchens with brass pots hanging from the ceiling and oak carvings are a turn-off, as are Victorian bathrooms with claw-foot baths.

"When it comes to bathrooms and kitchens, outdated decor is a lettings disaster," says Kari Trajer, of agents Hurford Salvi Carr. "Tenants look for clean, functional lines that their guests will envy. White tiles, kitchens equipped with the latest stainless-steel appliances, working showers and a spotless bath for family renters are a must."

Two identical flats in a new block in the Gray's Inn area of London illustrate this. The only way they differ is in the decoration – and the rent. "The first property has been fully interior-designed with high-specification wooden flooring, a state-of-the art kitchen and bathrooms, and is furnished in a contemporary style," says Trajer. "This let for above the anticipated £750 per week figure in the summer." The other flat, meanwhile, was decorated in traditional English style, and the landlord had saved money by using lower-quality fittings in the bathroom and kitchen. Trajer expects the apartment to let for £550 a week – and even at that price, has still to find a tenant.

Many landlords fail to put any effort at all into decoration, thinking that painting the walls white and buying the furniture at Ikea is all it takes to create a contemporary style. A pair of identical flats in Dundee Wharf in Limehouse, east London, shows how wrong this assumption can be. One is thoughtfully furnished with quality furniture, including a couple of modern design classics, coir mats and attractive if undemanding artworks on the walls. The other has furniture that looks as though it comes from an office supplies company.

Both flats are managed by Vanessa Evett, of Knight Frank: "One flat is owned by an interior designer, and it never has any void periods – it lets very quickly and fetches £330 a week," she says. "The other takes a long time to re-let, doesn't show well and has only achieved £260 a week."

But the worst stylistic sin is to be neither traditional nor contemporary, but simply out-of-date, says Lajla Turner of the mews specialists, Lurot Brand. "I looked at a house in Shaftesbury Mews the other day that was stuck in the Seventies, complete with avocado suite and shag pile carpets," she says. "It looked like something out of Abigail's Party. People just walk in and say they wish they could buy it and do it up, but they don't want to rent it because then they can't do that."

In that case, she says, the best thing the owners could do is to flog it.