Life on the terraces: The classic two-up two-down is back in demand

A vote for the most evocative British property type might see the terraced house win a clear majority – although those evocations may be as much fantasy as reality. For many, terraces suggest Coronation Street or the 1970s Manchester seen in Life on Mars. Others think of terraces as quintessentially Dickensian, or typifying homes built by Yorkshire mill owners to house their wretched workers. Some may even have seen how terraces formed the backbone of Baltimore's crack trade in The Wire.

For the less dramatic, terraces evoke working-class communities where the joyous innocence of children playing in the street was tempered by over-crowding, the noise coming through paper-thin walls, and the consequent domestic violence.

But if terraces are often associated with the past, and almost always linked to the under-privileged, why are they so popular in our allegedly more aspirational times?

Figures from the housing industry suggest over 20 per cent of new homes built in Britain are terraced houses, almost double the proportion in 2004 when densely-packed flats were favoured by developers and planners, followed by detached homes.

"There's a cultural swing towards homes that can be made more individual through colour or external embellishments like railings and hedges. People want to make their own mark and terraces allow that," says Graham Allan, a lecturer in housing design who now works with several large developers on creating new schemes.

"There's also an advantage for owners in that few terraces are listed so it's simple to substantially change the interior, even of the oldest examples. So you can have contemporary design and fittings inside, stamping your mark on the place, with a classic period appearance outside," he says.

This is why, says Allan, streets of terraced homes so often symbolise areas "on the rise" as they reveal themselves being gentrified with skips and builders' vans lining the kerbs. "They're often a barometer of a locality's well-being. They were in the past typifying working-class areas but now aspiring first-time buyers or young families buy them, extend and modernise, then sell. You can see that if you walk down a terrace," he says. That sums up what Gemma and Antony Walczak are doing in the terraced Plymouth suburb of Keyham. They have bought a two-bedroom house built in the 1890s but they want to create a third bedroom in the loft, and then plan to extend the rear of the ground floor into the courtyard.

"We love the look of terraces, especially with original brick fronts and not re-rendered or pebble-dashed. We need more space and hope the value will be increased by creating extra rooms" says Gemma, a Devon housing association manager.

Gentrification like this explains why terraced home prices have gone through the steeply-pitched roof that characterises them. Research by estate agency Savills shows terraced homes rising 149 per cent since 2000, despite the downturn, while other house type rises have averaged 126 per cent.

"The purchase of a terraced house is more likely to be a move up rather than on to the housing ladder. Typically, terraced houses are 16 per cent cheaper than semi detached properties. This relative affordability has been allied to a shift in our perception. They're seen as on a par [with semis] in terms of character and the opportunity to add value through restoration or extension," says Savills' Lucian Cook.

Now plenty of developers are catching on to terraces' resurgent popularity; new homes in this design are seen as classless and appealing to all market sectors.

Linden Homes is building 750 homes, half in terraces, at Graylingwell Park in Chichester. The homes range from £249,500 with a shared ownership scheme through Affinity Sutton housing association (Gallifordtryhomes.com, 01883 334388.) These terraces of the future boast photovoltaic roof panels, high levels of insulation and systems allowing homes to use 33 per cent less water than comparable properties.

They extend the green-terrace principle pioneered in 2006 by funky developer Urban Splash, which renovated hundreds of Victorian terraced homes at Chimney Pot Park in Salford, Greater Manchester. The homes were inverted – bedrooms were moved to the ground floor and the living and kitchen space went up top, to make access easy to the solar panels and roof terrace.

At the other end of the new-build market are homes by developer Paragon's at Richmond Lock, besides the Thames in west London. The five-bedroom homes start at £1.35m but are arranged in grand terrace style without garages, driveways and roads marring the vista, instead having underground parking for each property. (Richmondlock.com; 020 8744 4320).

These new-build terraces attempt to mirror the classic homes on sale at Great James Street in London's Bloomsbury. They is spread over five floors but have recently been refurbished, allowing the selling agent to describe them as combining "Dickensian charm with chic interiors" (£3.35m through LDG (Ldg.co.uk; 020 7580 1010, ). Such properties are reminiscent of the first terraces built in Paris and London in the 1720s.

A few featured rows of attached homes with one grand frontage adorning the entire terrace – doors to individual houses were understated and dwarfed by central pillars giving the terrace a palatial "one property" appearance. This style quickly gave way to the more familiar grand terraces which preserved one style but made a feature of the similar colours and materials.

London's Grosvenor Square was created in 1727, two years before Bath's Queen Square. More terraces soon followed in central London – many close to Regent's Park as well as renowned examples such as Belgrave Square and Carlton Terrace.

But it was the Victorian era that saw terraces proliferate in Britain. They were the high-density properties of their day, serving as homes for workers and providing citizens with what was considered to be the "cheap" opportunity to become owner-occupiers. In reality, the majority of terraced homes were privately rented until the middle of the 20th century, when they were considered low-grade homes and were slow to be purchased as Britain became more affluent.

However, those terraces not demolished in the town planning modernisation era of the 1970s have since been almost canonised as ideal family houses. In 2005, they received the ultimate accolade of being described by conservation quango English Heritage as being 60 per cent cheaper to maintain – and a good deal greener – than typical new homes because of their high original-build quality.

"Older housing actually costs less to maintain and occupy over the lifetime of the dwelling. The Victorian terrace proved almost £10,000 per 10 square metres cheaper to maintain and inhabit on average each year," says an English Heritage spokesman.

One of Britain's leading housing analysts, Jon Neale, says the terrace is a model of adaptability that modern builders should emulate. "They can be converted into flats and back again. They can be used to accommodate sharers or families. Rooms can change function or be linked together." The terrace, he insists, "is a triumph of true recycling and reinvention".

These days, few will argue with that.

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