Property: One man's grant is another's grumble

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The Independent Online
I HAD hoped that the revelation that owners of historic homes are being overcharged by a total of about pounds 450m a year by the taxman ('Do not pass go, do not collect grant', 31 July) might shine a ray of light into a few readers' lives - perhaps even elicit the odd thank-you note. I could not have been more wrong.

'It is a pity when the Independent journalist cannot be relied on to give accurate, researched information,' writes Andra Nelki of London, clearly irked after a row with the builder working on her roof. 'Inept' was the verdict of Philip Mann, an architect from Bristol. '(Your writer) seems not to have understood the facts given to him by the various experts and has come away thoroughly confused.'

Both quoted Customs and Excise leaflets, which, strangely, had different reference numbers, and stated baldly that alterations do not carry VAT, but that repairs and maintenance do. 'I fail to see, therefore, how a typical claim can knock 95 per cent off the VAT charged on repairs,' Mr Mann says.

He does have a message for Andra Nelki, however: you should not rely on your builder's advice on VAT matters - he will charge just to be on the safe side.

Oliver Bosence of Totnes, Devon, would disagree, since he is a contractor specialising in traditional work. He objects to my painting 'an enticing picture of a pot of gold at the end of the VAT rainbow'. Like many conservationists, Mr Bosence is angry at an alleged bias towards alteration. 'What listed buildings need is tax relief on repairs and maintenance, which would support the careful and labour-intensive work necessary for their upkeep, and the survival of their original fabric for future generations to study, savour and enjoy,' he writes.

But the last word must go to Adrian Dobinson of the Renaissance Partnership, who started the furore. 'I stand by every word I said,' he insists. So if you disagree, shout at him on 0225 314426.

ONE GROUP with a less contentious claim to VAT rebates is gearing up to shout its message to the world. The National Self-Build Homes Show is expecting 30,000 visitors at Alexandra Palace, west London, between 16 and 19 September. Self-build is popular just about everywhere except the UK, but things may be changing, with a 6 per cent increase last year, in contrast to an 18 per cent drop in conventional construction. While more than 10,000 people reclaimed tax for building their own home, another 15,000 missed out by using VAT-registered builders. But we won't pick up that hot potato. Half-price tickets at pounds 3 can be obtained in advance by calling 081-546 5000.

I CONTINUE to hear rumbles of discontent following another report on this page, on down-valuation of property ('The price was right for both of us', 10 July). Things are even worse than they first appeared: lenders are not only destroying deals but also overcharging disappointed buyers for this service. The accusation, made to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission for its investigation into mortgage valuations, is all the more damning as it comes from within the industry. Some lenders ask for a valuation fee, but this is partly an administration charge that is not passed on to the inspector, says Brian Grainger of the Incorporated Society of Valuers and Auctioneers.

His main complaint, however, is that the cost of buying is pushed up because larger finance groups will sometimes refuse to accept reports by independent experts. That means the buyer has to pay for another, produced by one of the lender's own valuers. Buyers should be able to select their own adviser, he says. With more choice, they would probably pay less.

HOME OWNERS can sleep soundly in the knowledge that there is one risk they can ignore. Earthquakes are not a serious threat in the UK - and that is official. The Department of the Environment was worried enough to commission a special investigation by top consultants, including Ove Arup and Cambridge Architectural Research. It cannot have been a great surprise, however, that they found 'the risk to society seems sufficiently low not to cause undue concern'. Anyone still worried can fork out pounds 250 for the detailed report, while a mere pounds 150 extra brings a computer program showing every quake in the past 1,000 years. Let's hope no insurance companies have ordered it.

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