Property: Thatchers answer the burning question

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The Independent Online
Thatched cottages may look as pretty as a picture with their heavy laden eyebrows, roses around the door and pheasant standing aloof on the apex of the roof, but many purchasers shy away from thatch because of its perceived fire risk and insurance cost. Yet, as Mary Wilson writes, such factors need no longer be an issue.

Sue Millward, who is selling The Green Cottage, a four-bedroom thatched property in Withington, Hereford, had it re-thatched about seven years ago. "The old thatch was 3ft deep and had been patched over many times over the last 30 years," she says. "We had it taken right off as we were putting on an extension to the house and wanted to check the eaves were sound."

She had the thatch done in Norfolk Reed, which cost her around pounds 12,000. If she had chosen straw it would have cost around pounds 7,000. There are three basic types of thatch - long straw, which lasts around 20-25 years, winter wheat which has a life of 25-35 years and water reed, with a longevity of up to 70 years. As there are few thatches in Hereford, Mrs Millward was able to choose which one she wanted, but often the planners will dictate which type of thatch is permitted.

There are around 600 full-time thatchers in Great Britain, but in some areas finding one can be tricky. Mrs Millward had quite a problem because of the lack of thatch in her area. "We looked in the Yellow Pages and checked out the work of three thatchers, but we were slightly in the dark as to how good or not they were - who knows what a really good thatch looks like? We eventually found one we liked, who lived just outside Worcestershire."

Apart from the difference in the quotes, where they lived also had quite a bearing. Thatching a property from scratch can take up to 12 weeks and if the thatcher cannot travel to the property daily, he will have to be put up somwhere.

Mrs Millward says living in a thatched cottage is just like being in a house with a tea-cosy on it. "We had birds peeping around the corner in the morning," she says. "Blue tits, swallows and sparrows would nest in the thatch, but sometimes it did sound like a herd of elephants above our heads. But the thatch kept the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

When Mrs Millward lived in the house, she had it insured by a high street insurer who hiked the premiums because of the thatch. But when she started letting it, she went to a specialist holiday insurer who was not concerned with the type of roof, so her insurance went down. (Arkwright Owens in association with Humberts is selling the four-bedroomed cottage for pounds 175,000.)

Though many insurers will not even consider a thatched house, modern fire retardants reduce the likelihood of a thatch catching alight and a thatched house, if it is in a high-risk area, can be cheaper to insure than a traditional tiled house.

There are a number of specialist insurers. Some take the value of the house rather than the postal area it is in, which makes it cheaper and it is worth shopping around. Country Insurance Services, for example, is more concerned with the state of the thatch and how well it has been maintained than where the property is.

Even house-builders are constructing houses with thatched rooves. Berkeley Homes has built three in Hampshire and in the unspoilt village of Abbots Ripton, Hungtingdon, County Homes by Ambrosden Court has finished one development and is building another where half the houses are thatched.

Thatching takes about three times longer to build than a tiled home and puts on an extra pounds 10 per square foot to the asking price. The remaining thatched houses at Dove House Wood are available for pounds 339,500 and pounds 354,500.

To protect the thatch, a fire-retardant spray can be used on both the outside and inside - costing around pounds 7.95 a square metre - and with a new house, or if starting from scratch, a flameproof foil barrier can be put between the rafters. That prevents a fire on the outside getting into the house, or vice versa if it starts inside and costs about 10-15 per cent of the total cost of the thatch.

Most thatch fires are chimney related and a special extinguisher is now available which can be installed right in the chimney. The next most usual cause is electrical faults, with sparks from a bonfire in the garden coming way down the list.

The Thatchers' Advisory Service, which has 27 thatchers working for it around the country and which thatched the Globe Theatre in London, will give advice, free, to anyone on any aspect of thatching and offers insurance policies. For the Globe, it dipped every bundle of Norfolk Reed in fire- retardant before it was put on, which is another, more expensive, way of protecting it.

County Homes by Ambrosden Court, 01869 241481; Arkright Owens, 01432 267213; Thatchers' Advisory Service, 01256 880828 or ask for Freephone Thatch; Country Insurance Services, 0345 660063.

Thatched houses on the market include the White House in Alrewas, Staffordshire, above, parts of which are believed to be 400 years old. It is priced at pounds 120,000 and offered through Bill Tandy and Company (01543 419400).

The Old Came Rectory, in Came, Dorset, below, a Grade II listed five- bedroom house with coach house and 1.66 acres, has an asking price of pounds 340,000. It is offered through Jackson-Stops & Staff (01305 262123), which is also selling a Grade II* five-bedroom cottage, Brockhill, near Wareham in Dorset.

In Kingston, Devon, a two-bedroom cottage, part of a row of five, is offered at pounds 79,950 through Marchand Petit (01548 857588).