Chuck out the chintz

Behind a Tudor facade in Dartmouth is a versatile residence with enough designer cool to impress even townies, says Cheryl Markosky
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If you think Dartmouth is all about Fawlty Towers-esque faded chintz and down-at-heel seaside flats, then think again. Shabby has turned to chic, and £1m-plus homes are as common now in Dartmouth as they are in Chelsea, London or Manuel's Barcelona.

If you think Dartmouth is all about Fawlty Towers-esque faded chintz and down-at-heel seaside flats, then think again. Shabby has turned to chic, and £1m-plus homes are as common now in Dartmouth as they are in Chelsea, London or Manuel's Barcelona.

So buyers probably won't flinch at the £1m price tag attached to 2 Fairfax Place for sale in the heart of the town. According to the selling agent, Peter Gardner from Marchand Petit: "Everyone seems to have a million pounds these days. We have buyers from London, Birmingham and Oxford who all want to buy into the lifestyle here."

Figures from Hometrack show that prices in the area are on the increase. In June 2002, the average home in Dartmouth cost £121,300, and by June this year this figure had soared to £148,700. For those worried about getting their money back, a 22.6 per cent rise over two years is not bad going.

Luckily for the vendors of Fairfax Place, Mark Wilkins and his partner Amy Browning, many of today's purchasers want all the trappings of an urban lifestyle - but in a country setting. The couple who run Models Own, a company selling designer giftware and accessories, have transformed a once sorry-looking Grade II listed mock Tudor Victorian building into a well-positioned shop, a cutting edge three-bedroom penthouse and a somewhat more traditional two-bedroom apartment. The hefty guide price also includes a three-car garage bought at auction for £130,000 - parking can be a bit of a nightmare in these parts, especially during the summer season, says Gardner - and a storeroom currently used as a gym with a shower.

Because of the listing, Wilkins says that they didn't touch the outside of the house, which they bought for £275,000, but they completely gutted the inside. "We created a contemporary maisonette on the top two floors and a holiday apartment on the first storey," he says. Wilkins even gave both homes their own names - the traditional holiday apartment after the town dentist Horatio, who once practised here, and the larger, contemporary penthouse he named Phoenix.

Nasty pink carpets and speckled wallpaper were ripped out and replaced by clean white-washed walls, new kitchens and Philippe Starck-accessorised bathrooms. Spending around £150,000 on the refurbishment, Wilkins says: "We went for an urban-cool-in-the-country look in Phoenix, with Indian red and stainless steel in the kitchen, high ceilings and exposed wood; while the smaller apartment is more toned down with earthy greens."

Wilkins had a fantasy that when they pulled up the horrid carpet tiles in the shop they would discover a wonderful hardwood floor underneath, but instead unearthed a colony of wood lice. "We had to take everything out - the joists, the whole lot. Luckily, the wood on the floors above was fine, so we stripped it back, sanded and varnished it." The couple also discovered no fewer than eight original fireplaces and an old wood-burning stove hidden behind pieces of cardboard.

At first, some of the locals were a bit baffled by the idea of a London-style apartment in Devon, but Wilkins says now that they can see the finished product everyone is very complimentary. "When we exposed the brickwork on the chimney, the builders were scratching their heads and asking, 'why not finish it off?' "

The attraction of this unusual set-up, with a variety of property under one roof, lies is its flexibility. You can live in one apartment and rent the other out, rent the lot out or even join the apartments into one living space. The Wilkins have benefited from such versatility, renting the two-bed apartment and even the penthouse where they lived at the height of the season. In peak season, the penthouse lets for £1,600 a week and the two-bed apartment for £800.

"Our first let was to a girl who was getting married and she needed somewhere for herself and family to stay. She was skipping round in great excitement, as she liked the entertaining area in the penthouse. You can open up the original oak doors and have one big space. It is a great place to have a dinner party," he says. Although there is no garden, there is a terrace that has been cut out of the roof and the bedrooms have great views over the river.

But is Dartmouth really ready for cool, Canary Wharf-type pads? Definitely, believes Josephine Howitt from Knight Frank in Exeter. "The place is becoming much more chic and already attracts Chelsea yachties. Dartmouth is about yachts, caviar and champagne, compared with Rock which is surfboards and funky Fulham-ites."

Remarkably, Howitt has found no resistance, quietly marketing a top-end development on Dart Marina by Phillips, which also owns the next-door hotel which is being revamped into a five-star establishment. With more than 300 interested people on the database and prices of the 44 units starting at £800,000 for two-bed apartments and likely to exceed the £1m mark for three bedrooms, Howitt has been astonished by the response. "We were quite cautious at first in the current market, but buyers are already bidding for these 'contemporary heritage' homes - with extra high specification interiors, but with exteriors in keeping with the rest of the town."

There will always be a market for homes in pretty harbour towns, particularly near the water. Marchand Petit is selling apartments and houses at The Pottery from £295,000 to £525,000. Prices achieved in Salcombe, which is more expensive than more subdued Dartmouth, are £500 per square foot, says Howitt, while developers are fetching £300 to £400 per square foot in Rock and Dartmouth. She reckons that the new Dartmouth marina scheme will hit the £500 mark.

Gardner concurs: "There is an awful lot of money down in South Hams now. I've just sold a converted barn for £1m with only three phone calls. There is not much new building here, so prices aren't cheap. But people coming down know that and do not look for a bargain."

He adds that people like to have an excuse to come down to the area - and it usually is property. "And what better excuse than a nice package like Fairfax Place?"

2 Fairfax Place is available through Marchand Petit: 01803 839190; Knight Frank, Exeter: 01392 423111