They're homing in on high-rise heaven: why bargain hunters are doing a Del Boy

At their best, ex-council flats offer chic on the cheap. Melanie Bien takes the lift
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The Independent Online

Say "council flats" and many people think of grim tower blocks with broken-down lifts, on problem estates littered with burnt-out cars. Or the Trotters' Peckham high-rise in Only Fools and Horses, with its lurid wallpaper and drinks bar in the lounge.

But local authority housing has come a long way since the great sell-off in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher's "right-to-buy" initiative led to council property going on the open market for the first time. And these days, buying an ex-local authority home is often the best way for a first-time purchaser to get on the housing ladder.

Many ex-council properties are solidly constructed, in decent blocks with working lifts. Some have architectural cachet, such as the Spa Green estate in Islington, designed by Berthold Lubetkin and located opposite the Sadler's Wells theatre, or Keeling House in Bethnal Green, designed by Sir Denys Lasdun and recently restored by architects Munkenbeck & Marshall.

These properties can also be found in fashionable locations, close to major transport links.

In the Barbican in the City of London, for example, there are ex-council flats designed by the architects Chamberlain, Powell and Bonn in the late 1950s that have their own swimming pool, tennis court and grounds.

Most importantly, this type of property can be relatively cheap. Anita McNaught and Olaf Wiig (see right) saved around £100,000 by buying an ex-council flat instead of a Victorian conversion. And this is the attraction for many first-time buyers struggling to get on the property ladder.

It is also becoming easier to find ex-council homes for sale. In some areas, estate agents have tended not to advertise them. This problem led Mike Olmert, who himself invests in ex-council homes to rent out to tenants, to set up www.ex-localauthority.com.

Buyers pay an £80 fee to register on the website for four months' access to a database with thousands of ex-council properties for sale in London, Surrey and Kent. (There is a 25 per cent discount if you register before the end of this month.) An email alert facility notifies buyers as soon as suitable properties go on sale.

Mr Olmert plans to widen the site's reach to the whole country by the end of the year.

"It is very difficult to find ex-local authority housing if you go into an estate agent's," he says. "Most agents tend to keep such properties for their best clients. That was the reason behind the site."

The site initially catered for professional investors but three months ago it became available to private buyers for the first time. "There are two types of people interested in ex-local authority properties: investors searching by area for homes to rent out, and first-time buyers who have a limited budget and search according to what they can afford," says Mr Olmert.

Not only is it easier to source decent ex-local authority housing than in the past, but mortgage lenders are becoming more reasonable about lending on them in the face of increased demand.

However, some strict rules remain. Many lenders aren't interested in any flat higher than the fifth floor; the build quality is a major consideration; and how many other owner-occupiers there are in the building will also be taken into account. Much depends on the property you are buying: decisions tend to be made on a case-by-case basis so it's important to do your research carefully before choosing a property.

"It comes down to what the valuer says," says David Hollingworth at mortgage broker London & Country. "Gentrified low-rise blocks, which are smart places to live and have a high proportion of owner-occupiers, shouldn't be a problem - most big lenders will be happy with these. But high-rises with plenty of council tenants are likely to be more of a problem.

And he advises: "Bring up any concerns you may have with the lender at the outset. Don't wait until it rejects your mortgage application on the back of the valuer's report."

To save time and effort, it might be worth trying one of the bigger mortgage lenders first. A mortgage broker will also be able to direct you towards lenders that look more favourably on ex-council property.

Mark Hemingway at the Halifax, the UK's biggest mortgage lender, says: "The big question a prospective purchaser needs to ask is will there be a market there when they come to sell it? In the late 1980s, the only properties many people could buy were high-rise flats, but after the property crash people could afford terraces. So those who'd bought the flats found them hard to sell."

If you've set your heart on having rooms with a view, avoid tower blocks built with reinforced concrete; lenders will run a mile if they are presented with this type of construction. And if you opt for a development with a mix of tenure (owner-occupiers as well as council tenants), your mortgage application will be more likely to succeed.

Third floor is perfect for a pied-à-terre

Anita McNaught and Olaf Wiig bought their ex-local authority flat on the third floor of a nine-storey block in Bayswater, west London, at the end of last year.

The couple, both freelancers working in the media, own a 16th-century cottage in Sussex but wanted a London flat to use during the week. They were attracted to ex-council properties because they tend to be cheaper than Victorian conversions.

"We have a home in Sussex so we already have the ultimate in outdoor living," says Mr Wiig. "We needed a flat that didn't need a huge amount of maintenance. We wanted something high up rather than a basement flat - a place that was bright, sunny and warm with good views."

But when they found the right property, the couple had trouble getting a mortgage, particularly as they are both self-employed and wanted a flexible loan. "We phoned five or six lenders, including Abbey National and Alliance & Leicester, but they really did not want to lend on ex-social housing," says Ms McNaught.

The couple finally arranged a Co-operative Bank mortgage via the broker London & Country. They bought their one-bedroom flat in a 1950s block for £170,000; similar-sized properties in Victorian mansion blocks in the area start at around £270,000.

Ms McNaught and Mr Wiig are enthusiastic about their ex-council home. "The soundproofing is excellent, so we don't hear our neighbours," says Ms McNaught. "It's warm in winter, cool in summer and full of light.

"The grounds are well looked after, graffiti and vandalism are dealt with quickly, and crime levels are lower than elsewhere.

"We have great neighbours - if we didn't that might be a problem. But they are a mix of council tenants and owner-occupiers. The architecture of the block is spectacular and the flat is convenient for work. I couldn't imagine a more perfect living environment."

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