Disused properties: No more empty promises

Boarded-up properties remain scandalously common, but steps are being taken to fill them. By Helen Brown
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The Independent Online

With their doors and windows clamped shut with padlocked metal plates, and ivy crawling over their crumbling brickwork, there are huge houses all around London's North Circular that I've nicknamed The Men in the Iron Masks. And I'm sure I'm not the only one to have been stuck there in weekend traffic, contemplating their state with sorrow and frustration, and calculating their wasted value both fiscal and social.

In the age of Grand Designs and Changing Rooms, it's irresistible not to fantasise about what I would do, were I to get my hands on one of these lovely Victorian "fixer-uppers", to wonder who owns them and how such prime real estate can be left fallow in this time of severe housing shortage and silly-money prices. You feel for the owners and tenants of neighbouring properties. It seems criminal that they are being left to crumble and burn while so many of us struggle to heave ourselves up the property ladder.

Wherever you live, you've probably looked at similar unloved homes the same way. There are currently 663,000 wasted empty homes in England, according to the Empty Homes Agency, a small campaigning charity. The agency's chief executive, David Ireland, says: "The Government is fixated on building more homes, but we are convinced that returning more empty homes to use should be part of the solution, too. All too often, empty homes are overlooked and nobody takes responsibility for getting them into use. We are happy to provide advice to owners, and work with others to seek a solution to empty homes that are reported to us."

Ireland tells me, for instance, that those 79 houses on the North Circular have lain empty since the 1970s. The houses were part of a mass compulsory purchase of more than 400 houses that were acquired by the Government 35 years ago to make way for a road- widening scheme that never happened. Many of the houses have been vandalised and set on fire. In addition to the empty homes, there are acres of empty land where houses have been demolished. Responsibility for the houses now lies with Transport for London.

There are three main reasons for these 663,000 empty homes, according to Ireland: "The first group have small-scale owners who've let the properties fall into disrepair, or have bought/inherited them in that state. These owners have pipe dreams about fixing them up, and dream of the prices they could achieve. But they don't have the time or the means, and so nothing is done year after year. These sorts of properties have always been around.

"The second group are a consequence of property speculation. They are new-builds bought for investment. People buy off-plan with the intention to sell, but it seems it's human nature to wait for their high expectations to be met rather than to accept what they're worth now or to rent them out.

Some developments in Leeds, Salford Quays and Leicester are good examples of this right now. The maths doesn't work out and the owners are losing money, but that seems to be the way people think they'll wait for big returns in the future rather than settle for a small but good income now.

"The third group," Ireland continues, "are publicly owned, and this group isn't as big now as it used to be. The Ministry of Defence used to be dreadful, for example. Elsewhere particularly in the North you'd see local authorities compulsory-purchasing homes with a view to regeneration. But some of those regeneration projects are taking forever, and in the meantime, homes that could be put to good use are sitting vacant. A vacant home can devalue neighbouring properties by as much as 10 per cent."

If you're a homeowner in the first group, there are some things you should know. Yes, being in possession of a property with no mortgage is a good thing. You might be waiting for the time and means to do it up and fetch the big bucks you've heard it's worth. But Ireland stresses that "an empty home is a liability". Here are some scary figures for you. According to Ireland: "To keep a property value from falling, you need to spend 1 per cent of its capital value on maintenance every year. So if you own a home worth 200,000, you should spend an average of 2,000 per annum on it."

Ireland says that many of the empty "aspirational" homes, those with original period features and oh-so-charming views, are often snapped up. There are also, he says, many average family or starter homes available to those with a nose for a bargain and a taste for DIY.

If you're a buyer, and you are tempted to take on an empty home, then it's not always easy to find these bargain opportunities estate agents are loathe to put them in their shop window. But there are some specialist websites you should know about. Instead of trawling the high street, you can hunt for fixer-uppers on sites such as www.empro.co.uk (which focuses on west London and Birmingham); www.propertyrenovate.com; www. pickupaproperty.com; www. renovate alerts.com; www.plotbrowser.com; and www.plotfinder.net.

The Empty Homes Agency is campaigning for changes in tax laws to encourage people to do up such abandoned properties and bring them back into use. Currently, the situation varies from council to council, but empty properties are often exempt from council tax for six months to a year, after which time, owners are usually liable for half the usual bills.

To ensure that these homes don't sit empty, the EHA is calling for a 50 per cent council-tax discount for the first year, with the full rate to be charged thereafter. They also want the Government to reward renovation by dropping the VAT on refurbishment from the standard 17.5 per cent down to 5 per cent, or less in cases where property has been left empty for over 12 months.

The EHA also wants to introduce challenging national and regional targets to reduce the numbers of empty homes; to put a statutory duty on local authorities to tackle long-term empty properties in their area; and to put a duty on public-sector landlords to annually report long-term empty homes.

If you own a house that's sitting vacant and you can't afford to do it up to fetch its ideal market value, there's lots you can do. Ireland points out that "letting, making money now, is a good idea, and the laws of tenancy are so good that you shouldn't panic about not being able to get people out. If your home is in a very poor state of repair even to the extent that you suspect it will be sold as a plot for demolition you should look into the opportunities that a short-life local housing authority might be able to offer.

"Some short-life co-ops have warehouses full of things such as bolt-on kitchen cupboards. They can go in there and make the house habitable, and get an employed person on a low income a place to live," adds Ireland. "They will accept tenancies as short as four months. In exchange, the owner will receive a small rent, a guardian for the property ensuring that the place is secure and squatters stay out. And problems such as leaks will be noticed immediately and dealt with before they cause long-term damage."

So, putting your empty house in order is a win-win situation. It is surely time that these homes were freed from their iron masks and reintroduced back into the community.

Disused properties for sale

Shepherds Bush, London W12 - 675,000 leasehold

This architecturally appealing Victorian redbrick property between the Shepherds Bush Empire and the common is currently arranged as two separate flats. It requires complete refurbishment although still contains many original features. There are six bedrooms, two bathrooms, two kitchens and two reception rooms adding up to a total of almost 1,500sq ft.

Winkworth: 020-8735 3266

Haringey, London N4 - Price: offers in excess of 385,000

This charming Victorian three-bedroom terrace has stood empty for 12 years and now needs a lot of TLC. It retaining many character features throughout (although not the windows), comprises double reception, kitchen, first-floor bathroom and a 50ft rear garden. The interior needs total renovation, but neighbouring homes in good nick are going for 450,000.

Winkworth: 020-8800 5151

Cavendish Bridge, Derbyshire - In excess of 400,000

Two freehold semi-detached cottages, adding up to 1,500sq ft between them, sit close to the village of Shardlow, south-east of Derby, and close to the M1, Nottingham and East Midlands Airport. The two cottages have five bedrooms between them and are being sold by a charity.

By auction, 11 December, at the Royal Garden Hotel, Kensington High Street, London W8 (Allsop: 020-7344 2619)