Property: Small is not always beautiful

Scaling down from a large family home to something more modest is easier said than done
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The Independent Online
IN THE small dining room a large sideboard is having its fate decided. "I think I will cut off its legs and turn it into a window seat," says Barbara Fletcher triumphantly. She points to the perfect spot in the equally small sitting room opposite.

If you have moved from a rambling family house to a two-bedroom terrace these are the hard decisions that have to be made. At first, the thought of never having to heat empty rooms or climb up a ladder to fix ancient guttering is one of overwhelming relief for anyone whose home has become nothing but a burden.

The children are gone, retirement is close and a small, trouble free home beckons. At least it seems straightforward until the detail of moving a lifetime's possessions into a home half the size has to be confronted.

Few empty-nesters, as they are now called, find it easy to wave goodbye to a bulky heirloom and settle for its modern charmless equivalent. And for every one who manages to find a spacious home created specifically with their demands in mind, there are dozens who have to radically rethink the proportions of their lives.

This is a challenge that should not be underestimated according to Barbara Fletcher, chief executive of a professional institute, who is just a few years away from retirement. Although she moved 18 months ago from a great deal of space in east London to the confines of a pretty, double-fronted terrace house in south London, she is still adjusting.

"I had a study and a dressing room in my old house and I still find myself trying to live as I did before. I have managed by putting a large wardrobe in the second bedroom where I work as well. I had to be ruthless about my clothes though. Another thing is that I used to buy in bulk, but now I have nowhere to store the food."

The biggest problem she had to overcome was her dislike of getting rid of any belongings. "I have an obsession about hanging on to things. If I do get rid of anything I need to know that it's going to a good home. I had to give up an old linen press which was sad because it had been loved over the years as a splendid piece of craftsmanship."

More than any move, the one closest to retirement represents the end of an era. "It is emotional. While clearing out boxes you find something you might have once used on a picnic or taken on a holiday, but at the same time I found myself looking forward to starting again," says Barbara Fletcher. "I enjoy a mixed community and wanted an old house but I know I would not be tolerant of my neighbours if we lived too close to each other."

She is not alone. Hugh Kitchin, whose company HA and DB Kitchin in Hampshire specialises in converting barns and farmyard buildings, has seen nearly all his properties sell to older couples. They like the period charm combined with a spacious interior that is totally modern. But the loss of privacy can be difficult for some. "They are not used to having just post and rail fences between the gardens and being able to see everything that goes on next door. There is some friction."

High ceilings and large sitting rooms are precisely what appeals to anyone with large antique furniture. Julian MacLeod, who with Fairbriar converted the Lutyens house, Nashdom, followed his instincts about what older, often cash-rich buyers wanted. "Spacious rooms which immediately give a warm feeling. On my first project, the conversion of a convent, we reduced the scheme from 40 to 22 units. The buyers we have in mind don't want boxes. I wanted every reception to be large, with a working fireplace. An apartment may only have two bedrooms but anyone moving from a five or six-bedroom house would feel at home."

At Nashdom the story is similar. The conversion of the house, built for a Russian prince in 1908, was originally intended to provide 33 homes but was cut down to only14 . All sold at prices starting at pounds 195,000. Two new wings are near completion with prices from pounds 235,000 to pounds 370,000, with six apartments left.

An unspoken appeal of upmarket developments is the comfort that people have in living with like-minded neighbours. It has been suggested that management committees could vet prospective buyers in the manner of the New York brownstones. Julian MacLeod, for one, hopes that it never happens here.

Splendid isolation undoubtedly has its attractions for those who want to get away from noisy roads or tiresome neighbours and buyers in their sixties are concerned with details about which most people never bother, finds Richard Thomas of Knight Frank.

"They want to know exactly what is happening opposite and alongside and they also insist on knowing about the construction of their building. They expect a high quality of finish." This is reflected in the price. In Gloucestershire new cottage-style two-bedroom houses in the village of Southrop, south of Burford, are selling for pounds 200,000, rising to pounds 345,000 for a four-bedroom house.

Despite the wishful thinking of planners, this is likely to be beyond the pockets of young local couples and are almost certain to sell to empty- nesters. Fewer people, young or old, are choosing rural isolation and anyone who spends time away wants to be able to lock up and go without a worry. Only recently has city-type security moved to the countryside.

But this sort of life in the country is not quite the same as country life. Wet labradors and wellington boots are not a feature in the brochures for these rural developments. One couple in their late sixties who went to look at the conversion of a manor house made the mistake of asking whether they could exercise their three dogs in the gardens and, by the way, was there a gun room?

Barbara Fletcher also found looking for somewhere smaller with a dog in tow ruled out a number of options. As it is both owner and pet have to get used to less space. Running the gauntlet of a rumbustious Dalmatian during the night to get to the downstairs bathroom was not something she had bargained for.

Nashdom is being marketed through Hamptons International (01628 663435). Beaufort Homes development at Southrop through Knight Frank (01285 659771)

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