Ripe for renovation: A new website is helping buyers track down wrecks

As long as you're in for the long haul, an unmodernised home is the cheapest way on to the property ladder.

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The Independent Online

It's a key part of the estate agent lexicon, often deployed with euphemistic guile. Yes, "unmodernised" is a word that either makes you recoil or drool, conjuring forlorn wrecks on one hand or juicy "projects' on the other. Well, there are clearly enough droolers left to make a niche property portal worthwhile. Unmodernised.com was started a couple of months ago by estate agent Richard Bartlett and businessman Julian Bryson, who says they have already had "tens of thousands" of wreck-hunters through the site.

It works like this. Unmodernised.com takes less-than-spruce properties from the nation's estate agents and markets them on a national platform to the multifarious restorers, developers, doer-uppers and fantasists to whom ruins are catnip. "We upload the properties and get a pay-per-lead fee from a result," says Bryson.

The site is still being built: a random search finds just 13 unmodernised homes in London, for example. But from as little as £100,000, and scattered across the country, one can see that the homes on Unmodernised.com could be the answer to a DIY-friendly first-time buyer.

So far, one of the great sources of unmodernised homes has been auctions, a market normally limited to the cash-rich who, as Bryson says, "are still tying up and flipping properties". Unmodernised.com doesn't do auctions, but it does bring those kinds of places to a wider market. And as Bryson claims, even in these straitened times people are managing to buy unmodernised properties, do them up and "create equity". One such is Uberto Galli, who deals in London property for international buyers. "We buy unmodernised homes on behalf of our clients, refurbish them and sell them," says Galli.

A recent project involved buying an unmodernised property in Fulham Broadway for £1.5m, adding building costs of £1.5m and £200,000 for fees, design and incidentials, making a total of £3.2m, then selling it on for £4.5m, a £1.1m profit. Galli says: "Mostly, we expect to get up to 35 per cent profit."

End-users have different aspirations to developers, says Bryson. They want to live in a home that they can truly make their own, and who actively seek a "project". "There's definitely an element of that in our buyers, and they're very creative and design-led."

This segment of the modernisers want individual homes, not developer magnolia show-homes. Paula Gundry, an interior designer based in Norfolk who is selling her home, Nethergate House, near Norwich, is typical. "It meant that I was able to plan the property to the standard we wanted rather than accepting others' decisions," she says.

Indeed, could the allure of unmodernised property be something about creating your own castle? "It does seem to be a very British thing to want to refurbish a house," says Bryson, talking from his own Normandy refurbishment project. "Perhaps it's something to be attained, something aspirational. I spend a lot of time in Europe and they don't have the same attitude."

It is generally Brits who fantasise when they see old wrecks in foreign fields, too, so what is wrong with us? "The historic fundamental aspiration of British people is to own a property," Bryson believes. So we pour our imaginations into them. Despite this, the site sees a lot of international traffic.

"Well, London property is an asset class and these houses are commodities on the international market," says Bryson, adding that foreign buyers who play this market have moved from expensive Chelsea and Fulham to Clapham and Wandsworth. As ever, location matters. "If you find an unmodernised home in Chelsea, it's a case of 'join the queue'. But if it's a coastal property in south Devon, you might be lucky."

Few would disagree with the necessity of bringing old properties back to life. But those seeking unmodernised places should also beware. "There are degrees of unmodernisation," says Bryson. "It can mean having no central heating, or it can mean that there's no roof." Buyers should have what he calls "a relationship with reality" and research what they're letting themselves in for: whether they're able to live in a property during refurbishment, whether they need a bridging loan, need proper surveys, and consider VAT on building works. And, particularly if they're converting from offices, flats or shops, make sure the red tape is settled.

Galli, for example, says that things such as change-of-use planning and leasehold work come up all the time, but that this favours the motivated moderniser: "Most buyers simply don't want to have to do the work."

Also, while people think unmodernised properties are a bargain, costs can escalate. As Bryon says, they're often about 15 per cent lower than local market values and, for the canny, there are "huge gains to be made".

But what of the time, money and expense? It's a given that doing up houses takes twice as long and is twice as expensive as one thinks. Plus, because of that British restoration lust, they can even add a premium. Jo Eccles of home finders Sourcing Property, says: "Unmodernised properties regularly go to sealed bids and the price per square foot can sometimes be close to that which you'd pay for a property in good condition."

Most of her UK buyers want unmodernised properties. "They're either end-users who want to make the space their own, or small-time developers who want to do the property up and squeeze a profit margin."

Miles Meacock, of agents Strutt and Parker, says: "Properties historically shunned as being too costly or complicated are now being snapped up." So end-users now compete against developers, and prices rise.

Even then, should you secure your unmodernised bargain, it's easy to shoot over market value with a high specification. "It's all about doing your sums," says Bryson. "You've got to know what you're doing." True, but that won't stop us looking at wrecks with desire in our eyes, an impulse Unmodernised.com fully understands.

Windrush, Gloucestershire

Guide price: £428,000,jackson-stops.co.uk

Don't let the cottage-box looks trick you. This Grade-II listed cottage may look pretty on the outside but inside it need substantial work (and a lot of investment) to bring it up to scratch.

Saxlingham, Norfolk

Guide price: £1.25mjackson-stops.co.uk

This four-bedroom family home in one of Norfolk's hottest property spots has been completely transformed by Paula Gundry, interior designer, since she bought the property last year and is now back on the market with Jackson-Stops & Staff.

Taunton, Somerset

Guide price: £495,000, smithsgore.co.uk

This property is in need of complete modernisation – it dates from 1862 – but as the agent says " it offers a fantastic opportunity to create a stunning family home".

Friern Barnet, N11, North London

Guide price: £550,000, kfh.co.uk

North London isn't always the place to find a bargain but this five-bedroom middle-of-terrace Edwardian property has plenty of potential. If you can stump up the lofty asking price that is.

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