Focus: How to find the perfect plot

One company is making big money from discovering decrepit properties – and selling them on to developers. So does Rhodri Marsden have what it takes to be a land-finder?
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The Independent Online

The front window of Warmingham estate agent in Goring-on-Thames is a chequerboard of sumptuous properties that, for most of us, represent the top rung of the property ladder. Many of them incorporate "luxury features" and "generous five-bedroom accommodation"; others offer "wide-ranging views" over the "scenic Chilterns escarpment". But land agent Sylvia Thomson is more interested in unearthing the properties that look like a dog's dinner: unsightly abodes with crumbling brickwork and overgrown gardens, which only seem fit for bulldozing. Because, for Sylvia, bulldozing means business.

Thomson is a licensee for Taylor Skelton Walters (TSW), a land development company that is on the lookout for people who are able to recognise properties with planning potential. Her job is to seek out properties which, after being bought and acquiring the relevant planning permission, will generate more than £100,000 profit when sold on to a developer – netting Sylvia a tidy 25 per cent profit share.

Although TSW consider the properties that fail to meet the magic £100,000 figure not to be worthwhile investments, that doesn't mean that someone else won't. So a sideline website, www.profitinland.co.uk, has been created by the company to take advantage of their licensees' ability to spot small- to medium-sized investment opportunities and bring them to the public's attention.

"If I find a likely property," explains Sylvia, "I'll assess whether planning permission is a problem, look at the costs involved in refurbishing or extending it, and see if there's money to be made. If all the boxes are ticked, I'll put it online."

Prospective buyers – including full-time developers to Property Ladder-style dreamers – can search the website. Sylvia then introduces them to the property and secures a 1 per cent finder's fee from the buyer on completion. A £3,000 cheque for noticing the development opportunity in a £300,000 home is more than decent pocket money – and TSW is providing anyone with the opportunity to become a "land-finder"; an intensive two-day course delivers the knowledge for working for the website as a part-timer. And today, Sylvia has agreed to show me the ropes.

"Often, it's just a question of keeping your eyes peeled," she says. "I visit the areas I've been assigned – west Berkshire and south Oxfordshire – and not just in the car: I cycle and walk about in order to unearth places that other people haven't come across."

Competition for properties can be fierce, so tip-offs from estate agents are key, and word-of-mouth from friends can also be useful. But finding that run-down property is only the first step. "You need to look at planning histories at your local planning office, to see if any plans in the area have been refused, and why," says Sylvia.

To gain some hands-on experience, we jump in the car and whizz down some winding country lanes to Sonning Common. "Keep an eye out for 'For Sale' signs," shouts Sylvia. We eventually arrive at a hideous, boarded-up Seventies detached house.

"It's pretty nasty," I say.

"I agree," she replies, "but the issues you actually need to look out for are obstacles to construction. Are there pylons, telegraph poles or other overhead cables nearby? Any trees that might have preservation orders on them? Any highway issues?"

"Well, it's certainly not an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty," I say, looking around. But two detached houses could be built on this plot and sold for £750,000 each. "Which isn't enough profit for TSW," says Sylvia, "but it's perfect for the website."

Although these developments make considerable sums for those involved and create much-needed housing, there is a backlash from those who refer to "the garden grab" and bemoan the "wanton destruction" of green spaces in towns and villages. Such developments are permitted by the Government – gardens are classed as "brownfield" because they've previously been used as a residential site – but at the local level, opposition can be strong.

Warmingham estate agent Richard Harding notes that, in Goring, getting a quarter-acre development approved is easier said than done. "A lot of high-powered people in the area would club together, and..."

What – kill you?

"No," he laughs, "but they'd certainly fight you to the bitter end."

Sylvia drives me over to Upper Basildon, a village in west Berkshire where the presence of two colossal, pristine-looking buildings overlooking the village green indicates that it may be a little easier to get approval here than over the border in Oxfordshire.

Indeed, behind a hedge is a bungalow with an extensive garden that Sylvia discovered and which, if planning for a detached house and six three-bedroom cottages is approved, will net TSW and Sylvia £400,000 between them before a demolition crew has even set to work. But during the journey, I'd noticed a miserable-looking bungalow surrounded by weeds, and wondered if this might be my own personal discovery.

We find an extremely dishevelled house, a smashed-up greenhouse, and rusting kitchen equipment filling the back garden. In short, the kind of place you'd imagine the council would be delighted for you to get stuck into. "It's not that simple," says Sylvia. "If you put up more than one building here, you might be extending the boundaries of the village, which councils don't like."

To me, it looks like it has potential – so am I up for a 1 per cent finder's fee?

"I have to be honest," says Sylvia, producing an estate-agent's blurb from her briefcase, "I already knew about this one. But well spotted! We might make a land-finder out of you, yet."

Sylvia's top tips for land-finding

* Look off the beaten track. Sites with obvious potential might well be snatched from under your nose; more obscure ones can often yield better results.

* The winter months are often better for scouting for properties in rural areas: when the trees are bare it's often easier to identify potential plots or derelict buildings.

* Be creative and have vision when you're considering how a site could be developed. A good opportunity may not always be immediately obvious, so think "outside the box".

* Visit other new developments, show-homes and apartments in your area for inspiration. Obtaining floor plans, square footage and prices of new homes can also be useful.

* Most of the properties that you'll be interested in will already be on the market, but don't discount derelict properties without a For Sale sign: if you can track down the owners, they may be willing to accept an offer.

* Be methodical in your approach. Be organised and focused; failing to plan is planning to fail.

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