'Derelict' doesn't have to mean 'demolish': everyone's a winner in a restoration game

Homeless families, landlords and neighbours all benefit when empty houses are brought back into use. Melanie Bien reports
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The Independent Online

Bringing up children is hard enough without having to do it in bed and breakfast accommodation. Yet this is the reality facing numerous families in the UK.

Bringing up children is hard enough without having to do it in bed and breakfast accommodation. Yet this is the reality facing numerous families in the UK.

So it is scandalous that while homeless people have to put up with living in B&Bs, hostels or even on the streets, hundreds of thousands of properties lie empty. The latest figures from the Empty Homes Agency, a housing association and charity, reveal that there are just under 720,000 unoccupied homes in England alone.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, recently announced that around 200,000 new homes would have to be built in the South-east to house key workers and first-time buyers who can't get on the property ladder. In that case, surely it makes sense to fill the empty properties before more green space is lost to housebuilding?

Some local authorities - although not all - are coming round to this way of thinking. Derelict properties are being renovated so that those in need of housing have somewhere they can call home.

Such a scheme has benefited Marie Kamara and her seven-year-old son, who lived for three months in bed and breakfast accommodation in Ealing, west London. Today they are living in a two-bedroom flat in nearby Northolt, refurbished by Ealing Council, and Ms Kamara is "over the moon".

"It was the happiest day of my life when the council told me I could move into a proper home," she says. "I saw my new home, accepted it straightaway and feel so much happier here. I hated staying in bed and breakfast."

She adds that having a proper home has made her and her son feel "much more confident".

"My little boy is so much happier and I feel much more settled now that we've moved," she says. "He's much nearer to school and can play in the park opposite our flat. Now I've got neighbours who I've made friends with, whereas in the bed and breakfast you couldn't speak to anyone."

Ms Kamara's flat is owned by a private landlord, rather than by the council, but is one of nearly 1,000 properties Ealing Council has helped bring back into use in just over a year. All these renovated homes benefit families previously living in bed and breakfast and hostel accommodation.

The project has been extremely successful: Ealing Council has gone from having 600 families living for more than six weeks in B&Bs in 2002, to none by March this year.

"We've put enormous effort into making sure we get this right," says Councillor Martin Beecroft, cabinet member of independent living at the council, whose responsibilities include homelessness. "This is about giving people [like Ms Kamara], who are in real need, a stable home base."

As well as providing housing for the homeless, bringing an empty property back into use benefits the whole community. Derelict properties are an eyesore and tend to attract vandals, arsonists and fly tippers. They also devalue neighbouring properties. Having empty properties in your area can lead to an increase in your insurance premiums because of the relatively high risk of vandalism. It's in everyone's interests, therefore, to make sure something is done about the problem.

Many councils are now encouraging homeowners to tell them about homes in their street that have been left uninhabited for a long period. A house is regarded as being long-term empty when it has been abandoned for at least six months. If you haven't seen anyone at a particular property for months on end; if it looks neglected, with post and rubbish piling up; and if it is falling into disrepair, it is fairly safe to say that nobody is living there.

Most councils use a carrot and stick approach to persuade owners to bring empty properties back into use. Some offer an Empty Property Grant, which pays landlords up to £10,000 - as long as they match this - to help pay for renovations. The council then leases the property for five years under the Private Sector Leasing Scheme. In return, the owner gets a guaranteed rent, whether or not there is a tenant in situ.

If owners can't be enticed with such offers, they will be forced to pay up to 90 per cent of the council tax on the property, following a change in legislation last year. The amount they must pay will depend on the local authority, but many have opted to impose the full amount under the new law.

If the owner still refuses to repair the property, find tenants or sell up, councils can force a sale via either an Enforced Sales Procedure or a Compulsory Purchase Order. The former is a much quicker and easier process, with the property sold on the open market at auction. When a Compulsory Purchase Order is imposed, the council buys the property in question for social housing.

HARD GRAFT AND NO GUARANTEE YOU'LL GET A BARGAIN: WHAT IT TAKES TO PUT THE HEART BACK INTO A HOME

If you have spotted an empty property and would like to buy it, brace yourself for a potentially long and difficult process.

There are many reasons why the property may be empty. The previous owner may have died and legal ownership now be unclear; the owner may not be able to sell because there is a low demand for property in the area; or they could be waiting for house prices to rise to make the most of their investment when they do sell.

To avoid wasting your time and money, take the following sensible precautions:

* Find out who owns the property and where to contact them. It could be a local authority, housing association, government department, private company or private individual. To track them down, try the Land Registry or the electoral roll, or put a note through the letterbox.

* Next, contact the owner and ask whether they are interested in selling to you.

* If the owner wants to sell, arrange for a full structural survey so you know how much work you are taking on.

* Next, agree a purchase price. You may not get the bargain you are expecting: owners are likely to want the market price less the cost of refurbishment.

* Once you have agreed a price, the usual homebuying process should follow. You put down a deposit, arrange a mortgage (which may be difficult if there's a lot of work to be done) and possibly get a loan to cover renovation costs. Your solicitor will conduct the local authority and Land Registry searches to ensure the owner is in a position to sell and that there are no factors that would affect your enjoyment of the property. These could include plans for a motorway to be built at the end of the garden, for example.

If all this can be agreed, you can become the owner of an empty property and can get to work making it habitable again.

There are as yet no websites giving details of long-term empty properties for sale, apart from www.empro.co.uk, which covers the west London area.

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