Property: A legitimate way to bribe the landlord

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LANDLORDS win few popularity contests, standing somewhere below royal-watching tabloid journalists and tax inspectors in the social pecking order. Handing them gobs of taxpayers' money might seem sure political suicide, yet this is what Kenneth Clarke, the new Chancellor, will be asked to do in his Autumn Budget. And the call comes not from some think-tank miles to the right of Genghis Khan but a good liberal dedicated to improving the lot of the poor.

At first sight, landlords do not appear to be suffering. Lettings rose 13 per cent last year and boomed by more than 20 per cent in London's suburbs, according to a study by David Rhodes and Peter Kemp of York University. They also made more than the 6 per cent profit recommended by the British Property Federation to keep them in business.

This might suggest the end of a long decline seen this century, as private renting fell from 90 per cent to less than 10 per cent of the market. Some insiders even forecast that repossessions will practically disappear by the end of the decade because people will no longer be forced into buying property they cannot afford. Some hope. About a fifth of new landlords are owners who cannot sell their homes. They will sell out as soon as prices rise. The Association of Relocation Agents also points out that they will not be replaced unless profits rise above 10 per cent.

One solution is to exempt rents from income tax, says Richard Best of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which sponsored the study but is more used to promoting social housing. The Budget would be an ideal starting point because it coincides with the end of business expansion schemes, the main source of new private rented homes over the last few years. Tax allowances are not classified as public spending, so they should also escape harsh cuts that are currently being planned by the Government.

Sadly, there are no loopholes for those who cannot afford to buy. They might look to a housing association, but their grants are set to decline. What is more,new tenants are already paying almost 30 per cent of their income on rents. This is well above the 22 per cent limit which makes accommodation 'affordable', according to Charlie Legg of the National Federation of Housing Associations.

I ONCE survived an evening trapped at dinner with a Home Counties cove who seriously believed Moscow gold was the force behind soaring values in some of London's richest suburbs. 'All those Labour MPs and union leaders' had priced him out of buying a Hampstead house. The looney must be really raving as Russian buyers stalk the streets with suitcases of cash.

One appears to have gone astray, however. He turned up at a sales office in the East End asking for the latest deals. As he spoke no English, it took some time for the flustered negotiator to explain that Barratt's pledge to take part- exchanges would not cover an apartment in Moscow.

WITHIN a few days, two different local politicians have lectured me on the evils of timber-frame housing. They remain convinced it is shoddy, dangerous, a generally bad buy likely to fall in value, and not something they wanted in their area, thank you very much. This myth, which sprang from a TV investigation more than a decade ago, has sunk deep into the public psyche. 'Buyers come in and start tapping the walls,' says one sale rep. 'If it sounds hollow, they walk out again.'

Builders gave up trying to change opinions years ago. A mere 3 per cent of homes are built this way in England and Wales compared with close to 12 per cent in the early Eighties. Scientists at the Building Research Establishment plod along in their quiet way, however. After years of testing, they have just produced several obscure reports that say what they felt all along: the risk of water penetration, wood rot and fire are minuscule.

Problems stem from poor workmanship rather than the design - and you can get that in brick-and- block houses too. Perhaps the Scots know something; almost half their homes are produced with timber frames. The rest of the world is also in on the secret, as an even higher proportion are built this way in areas such as North America and Scandinavia.

Buyers would do better to give up wall-tapping and concentrate on quality and running costs.