Property: One's company, two's too much

It's time house builders got wise to the fact that more and more of us are choosing to live on our own, says Felicity Cannell
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The Independent Online
ONLY half of British households now contain two parents and their children. Yet property developers are building more and more detached houses, making up nearly half the total supply of new homes.

It seems the house builders may have got their priorities wrong. Smaller flats only account for 16 per cent of new homes yet there is a steady rise in single occupancy housing demand. The Department of the Environment, Transport and Regions (DETR) forecasts that 36 per cent of us will live in one-person households by 2016.

In town and city centres home builders will pack in small units, but elsewhere large-scale developments of small homes - one- and two-bedroom flats - are rare.

The furore over development in the countryside began recently when the Government moved to relax planning regulations so that an extra 1.7 million new homes could be built in the Green Belt. But in the 1996 Green Paper, "Household Growth", the then Environment Secretary, John Gummer, reckoned that out of the 4.4 million new homes needed, up to 75 per cent of them could be built on "brownfield" sites. That is the redevelopment of derelict sites - factories, offices, car parks and vacant land - in towns and cities.

These homes will be in demand from single occupiers who want small, manageable apartments near to shops, bars and transport.

Richard Donnell, of FDP Savills, says: "A large part of the demand for new homes is likely to be in the form of flats located in city centres; we are unlikely to see a concrete countryside full of new houses. As the pressure on greenfield sites grows and house builders run into planning problems, they are increasingly likely to be forced into building flats within towns and to start catering for the single-household demand."

Alongside the cultural shift in family life, the number of single home owners rose significantly after the abolition of joint Miras (tax relief on mortgages). Now there is less reason to tolerate someone else hogging the bathroom.

Feeble tax incentives to tempt home owners to make use of "spare" space - the tax-free "rent-a-room" scheme - have made little dent in the huge demand for affordable accommodation. If you can afford the extra space in the first place, why fill it and lose the luxury of solitude?

Loft living was made for the new single householder. Sapcote Real Lofts started by converting warehouses and schools into live/work apartments. These became so popular that when the company ran short of actual lofts it built apartments to give the same feel. Sapcote's Southside Quarter development in Battersea, south London, is a combined development of conversions and new "loft-type" houses. Many were bought by single women because of the secure gated courtyard.

"One of the nicest things about the Sapcote developments is the automatic sense of community residents get, which a single person wouldn't necessarily get in an ordinary flat or maisonette," says Melissa Kojan for Sapcote.

For those of us without the cash to spend on the sort of furnishings that make a loft look cosy, the upturn of the housing market has seen a revival of the studio flat. Why?

Paul Sutton, managing director of Stern Studios in London, says many of his customers are "divorced fortysomethings who want a small place. They are living alone and preferring it. No one got divorced in the recession. If you can't sell the family home you're stuck together." So now they buy an apartment small enough to prevent anyone moving in. That means there's no temptation to make the same mistake twice.

Stern Studios is the only agent specialising in small apartments. Aside from divorced people, the company sells to commuters needing a pied-a- terre in town, first-time buyers with little money and private landlords. Studios and one-bedroom flats in desirable areas are likely to prove a reasonable investment as they can be rented out for disproportionate amounts, compared with larger, more expensive properties.

Studio buyers who can remember the last property market collapse, which left many studio owners unable to sell their homes, can be comforted by the fact that when they sell up there are likely to be plenty of people looking for a home alone.

According to the Office for National Statistics young people leaving home are spending longer alone before they marry or start a family. And then they are likely to find themselves alone again before long - Britain's divorce rate is the highest in Europe, with the average marriage lasting 9.9 years.