If it can't be really old, I'll have a brand new one

British buyers are beginning to turn away from period homes
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The Independent Online
If you are a rich American you buy a plot of land and build your dream home. If you are a rich Brit you buy an old mansion in several hundred acres. Our preference for and preservation of old property runs deep in the national psyche. But is it changing? In the Eighties those who could not afford a mansion bought a country house and those who could not afford the country house made do with an Edwardian terrace and dressed it up with deep pelmets and swagged curtains. In the Nineties it seems things are different. The best period houses are still top of most buyers' lists. But if none is available, or the price is too high, today's buyer is more likely to turn to a brand new house than a less old one.

It seems priorities have shifted. Parking and good security have moved up to join period features at the top of the wish-list. Buyers would rather compromise over the size of garden than take on a place where parking is awkward or the security negligable.

At the same time modern housing itself has changed significantly. Builders have responded to many of the faults which previously put buyers off. External design has improved, ceilings have got higher, cornices have been introduced and the standard of fittings is now extremely high. The specification on a new range of pounds 500,000 houses at Compton Heights near Guildford, Surrey includes oak windows, doors and skirting boards, a safe, a burglar alarm, dishwasher, washing machine, dryer, American style double fridge/freezer, TV points in every room, fax line in the study and a landscaped and stocked garden of a third of an acre plus. The advantages that new build always offered - of convenience and up-to-date services - have also risen up the buyer's priority list. With working hours longer, people would rather spend their weekends playing golf than tiling the bathroom.

The builders who have profited most from this shift in attitude are those at the top of the new-build market. They have had the good fortune to be in the one market sector where buyers have outnumbered sellers in recent years. Many disappointed bidders for period houses have ended up on new developments instead.

Berkeley Homes, market leader in the five-bedroom, three-bathroom, three- reception room house, sold more than 1,400 additional homes and saw pre- tax profits rise 31 per cent in the last financial year. Volume builders such as Barratts have scored their greatest successes with flagship developments like Lakeside Grange in Weybridge, Surrey and Barratts' current site on the Thames at Chiswick, west London. Rialto is moving into this market with the launch of their "diamond collection".

The flight up-market means builders are fighting for the prime development land, while no one is interested in secondary sites. As a result the price gap between the best and the rest is growing. In north Leeds - one of the buoyant sectors of the UK housing market - Cluttons have seen the gap widen to more than pounds 250,000 an acre. If builders are to get a good return on these expensive sites they have to build expensive houses.

Nowhere has the wheel of fashion turned faster than in London. Buyers in the capital now have a choice between new houses, apartment blocks and ultra trendy warehouse conversions where once the only choice was an old terrace. For those who can afford it the period house is still prized, but the classic flat conversion, with its partition walls and poor common parts is no longer the home of young buyers' dreams.

Neville Casingena of Goldschmidt and Howland in north London says British house buyers will still pay handsomely for a stucco-fronted period terrace, but for flat buyers the position has changed. "In the last 10 years there have been a number of good quality, modern blocks built in Hampstead and Belsize Park, he said. "Apartment buyers are more than ever becoming attracted to the convenience of new build schemes - practicality and security overcoming the sentimental feeling attached to their Victorian and Edwardian counterparts."

There are many for whom style outweighs convenience. They were once to be found behind the walls of a traditional terrace. Now they are more likely to be in a warehouse conversion or loft development where space is more important than specification. This is the wooden-floor brigade who prefer their homes new on the inside, rather than the outside. Many of the purchasers in this niche market are late first-time buyers or couples without children.

Regalian is aiming its new development on the Regent's Canal at Camden squarely at this market. The company has converted an old gin factory, Gilbey House, into 76 flats around a central canopied courtyard. The show flat has been designed by Collett Zaraycki Champion, the interior design world's answer to The Conran Shop, and there is a gym and sauna on the ground floor. Prices start at pounds 120,000.

The converted industrial building has become the fashionable option for people who want to live in the heart of the city. It has coincided with an equally strong move towards self-building by those whose hearts are in the country. The self-build movement has grown by around 6 per cent a year throughout the Nineties. At least 11,000 people now build their own homes each year, according to VAT returns, though that is thought to represent around half the true figure. Build It magazine, the self- builder's bible, has a circulation of between 18,000 and 20,000, which would seem to confirm that level of activity.

To some self-builders a house is more a way of life than a building with various facilities. But the majority are regular mainstream buyers who simply want to choose the design and lay-out of their home. One of the biggest problems both kinds of self-builders face is finding a plot. This is probably one of the reasons so few wealthy British people aspire to the American ideal of building their own mansion.

But that could change. Ian Stewart of Savills has detected a growing interest in high quality modern country houses. "My prediction is for a general 5 per cent per year rise in country house prices over the next five years, with a fashion swing of 20 per cent in favour of good modern country houses," he says. "I believe that a quality modern country house will be recognised as a civilised way to live. For the main stock of older houses, standards of repair and condition will have to be raised. Buyers will simply not be prepared to pay for tired, poor quality finishes."