Overview: Don't get desperate - get demanding

Click to follow

Those unfortunate people who recently bought a new house with a garage, only to find it too small to take their average-sized car, could have done with knowing that sometimes showhomes have non-standard furniture - and that means smaller, not larger, so that everything looks hunky-dory until you try to get a normal-size object into the room.

Those unfortunate people who recently bought a new house with a garage, only to find it too small to take their average-sized car, could have done with knowing that sometimes showhomes have non-standard furniture - and that means smaller, not larger, so that everything looks hunky-dory until you try to get a normal-size object into the room.

An invaluable new home buyer's guide produced by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe) explains this, as well as translating property jargon such as "gob-on", which is not something you do when looking at the price but is a term for decorative features that serve no useful purpose.

The guide could not be described as a gob-on, being extremely useful and a long overdue aid for anyone about to go down the new-build road. Although deceptively simple in its format, it covers a lot of ground and suggests all the probing questions we should ask and yet seldom do. Its driving spirit is the goal of good design, a term readily bandied about but hardly ever explained in a consumer-friendly way.

Cabe would like buyers to be more critical of what they are offered by showing in the guide examples of bad design, which is as important as praising the best.

If purchasers know that the strip of garden in front of a block of flats is a key landscaping device that brings security as well as privacy because it implies ownership rather than a no-man's land, they might credit it with more significance.

Likewise the siting of rubbish bins, utility meters and car parks are often after-thoughts for buyers but these are the factors that are more likely to determine the success of a development than what brand of kitchen has been installed or whether that bijou balcony is actually big enough for a table and chairs.

As we might expect from Cabe, the guide is strong on the neighbourhood context as well as the layout of the home itself. In the preface, Wayne Hemingway, the designer and chairman of Building for Life, sums up what he would want in a new home - a streetscape that invites conversation with neighbours; a communal area to kick about with kids or mates; and a home that is much more than an identikit rabbit hutch and flexible interior layouts.

It was the dire absence of just about all of Hemingway's criteria in many new-build developments that led him into the housing arena in the first place. He believes many people do care about more than what is being offered as interior fittings in any new property - they want, for example, to be able to step outside to talk to other people, or to have their outside space not cluttered with cars. This downgrading of the car-culture may take a while to work its way through to all of the buying public, but its effect on the design of some developments has been dramatic.

A clear message from the guide is that the more informed we are, the higher our standards. In that respect, we are rather more demanding of our car dealers than our builders, according to Hemingway; the after-sales service we expect for our cars is often better than that which we receive from builders.

The guide can be used as an intensive check-list of every facet of home building, from construction through security and lighting to even the garden soil, each area covered by a "what to ask for" and "what to look for" list.

Roll on the day when we walk into a show home and give the sales staff a grilling, but until we get more choice too many buyers will prove to be desperate rather than discerning.

For that reason, we do need a steer from those who know things could be better. As is pointed out, good design is about how well things work - and it doesn't cost any more.

'The Home Buyer's Guide', from Cabe, is published by Black Dog, £7.99

Comments