Property: No longer feeling boxed in: There is hope for sellers on modern private estates, explains Anne Spackman

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The Independent Online
The phrase 'Sixties housing' conjures up images of concrete tower blocks and crime-ridden council estates. That was the Sixties in the public sector. In the private sector, Sixties housing meant high- density, low-specification boxes, sold - like their municipal counterparts - to inner city families as a new and better way to live. 'Leave behind your poky terraces and join us in the wide open spaces,' the sales brochures urged. 'Have your own garage, garden and central heating, picture windows and coloured bathroom suites.' It was a potent message 25 years ago.

Many of the tower blocks have gone now, but the houses have survived to become some of the most unsellable properties on the market. Their uniformity does not suit a time when everyone is seeking something a bit different. Often the only way to persuade someone to buy yours rather than the three identical ones for sale is by reducing the price.

Agents find modern estate houses the most difficult properties to sell: they are the ones that keep pinning prices down. And not just those from the Sixties estates, but the hundreds of acres of development that has sprung up since.

But now, after years of gloom, there is at last a bit of light at the end of the tunnel for their hard- pressed owners. When Stuart Mitchell arrived in the Lower Earley office of GA Property Services 18 months ago there were 120 repossessions on the books. Now there are none, although prices on the 7,000-property estate in Berkshire - where the first houses date from 1977 - are still 35 per cent down on the boom days: a one-bedroom maisonette has dropped from pounds 60,000 to under pounds 40,000, and a three-bedroom detached house from a maximum of pounds 115,000 down to pounds 75- pounds 80,000.

Shortages are developing, as Mr Mitchell explained. 'Four to five years ago someone with pounds 60,000 had to settle for a one-bedroom place. Now, if they are paying that, they are looking at a two- or three-bedder. There is a shortage of those properties and that is just starting to push prices up.' The agents Allen & Harris are actually advertising specific buyers and their requirements in the local property paper. Both agents report that buyers are cautious and choosy. Now, apart from the number of rooms, they will often specify a particular builder and even a particular house design. (The builders that come top of the league in Lower Earley are Bryant Homes, Bovis and the local firm of T A Fisher.) One of the reasons for this expertise is that many buyers are moving within the estate. Like many modern housing developments, Lower Earley has developed a strong sense of community, with families moving in and going through the baby, school and teenage phases together.

There is no sign as yet of prices rising on the Sixties estates, though they finally seem to be firming up. In Darlington, Co Durham, much of the housing that went up at that time was in the most desirable areas of town. That, coupled with the modest nature of the boom in the region, has helped to protect prices. Stephen McOwan, of Sanderson Townend & Gilbert, said prices had fallen no more than 10 per cent from their peak: 'We have started to feel that prices are firming up just a bit in those areas.'

Detached houses typically worth pounds 65- pounds 70,000 three years ago are now fetching pounds 55- pounds 65,000. 'There is always going to be more competition between sellers when all the houses look the same externally,' said Mr McOwan. 'The most important thing is to get people through the door, so they can appreciate what improvements have been done.'

Bletchley in Buckinghamshire is a town that has suffered from Sixties blight. Many of the estate houses have warm-air heating, open-plan living areas, concrete gutters and picture windows with metal frames. Prices for a three-bedroom detached house that sold for up to pounds 90- pounds 95,000 in 1988 are now struggling to reach pounds 60,000. Jeremy Cull, the area sales director of GA Property Services in the town, said: 'You often find houses are immaculate and tidy, especially if the owners have been living there since Day One. But they still have the original kitchen and the primrose bathroom and people don't want that.'

Bletchley suffers doubly from its proximity to Milton Keynes, which saw massive housing development during the Seventies and Eighties. Features that are standard on modern family homes, such as cloakrooms, shower rooms and utility rooms, were not part of the package 25 years ago. Similarly, the house that now has a porch, bay windows and some brick design detail is light years away from the flat-fronted box. 'They are bland in comparison with the most recent modern homes,' said Mr Cull, 'though they do offer better-sized rooms.'

Even in Bletchley there are at last some encouraging signs, with Sixties flats and maisonettes - where external appearances matter less - selling very well. A flat that would have cost pounds 40,000 at the peak is now selling at pounds 25- pounds 30,000.

If the Sixties estates are at a disadvantage in terms of house design, the more recent estates have experienced another kind of agony. In the South-east, in particular, they are hotbeds of negative equity. Young buyers who struggled desperately to join the ranks of home-owners now find themselves trapped in a house too small for their growing families. 'People want to move,' said Stuart Mitchell, 'but they cannot find the pounds 10,000 or pounds 15,000 they have lost on their own house.'

To make matters worse, the first- time buyers who would normally have come in to replace them are moving straight into a two or three- bedroom house. There are plenty of one-bedroom properties available, and more coming on to the market.

The outlook is bleakest for those stuck in one-bedroom maisonettes that were built in the late Eighties. Bryant Homes has ceased to plot them on new developments. Its latest house types include a three-bedroom terrace with a bathroom and shower room, which it sees as appealing particularly to divorcees with teenagers; and, further up the market, it is designing homes with family rooms next to the kitchen and large study/bedrooms for teenagers.

Helen Jennings, the sales director for Bryant Homes southern, believes that the Sixties taught people the importance of quality in design and build. 'I'm confident today's houses will stand the test of time far better,' she said. Let's hope she's right.

(Photograph omitted)