The perfect pitch?

Thatch is a sturdy and traditional material which symbolises the English country cottage look. So why, asks Graham Norwood, does it have such a bad reputation with buyers?
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The Independent Online

The approach of spring makes many townies contemplate an escape to the countryside or even the purchase of that great rural icon, a chocolate-box thatched cottage. But although owning one is a glorious dream for some, others regard them as nightmares riddled with high maintenance, higher costs - and even the risk of rat infestation in the roof.

The approach of spring makes many townies contemplate an escape to the countryside or even the purchase of that great rural icon, a chocolate-box thatched cottage. But although owning one is a glorious dream for some, others regard them as nightmares riddled with high maintenance, higher costs - and even the risk of rat infestation in the roof.

There are 60,000 thatched homes in the UK, according to www.period-property.com, a leading authority on specialist houses, but they get a mixed reception because of their reputation for problems.

That roof certainly gives a property a "wow" factor. And because of their age, thatched cottages are usually well located in the centre of villages and towns. So they draw in viewers when they're up for sale. But does a thatch actually add anything to the price? To be honest, it doesn't, admits Rupert Sweeting, the head of country houses for estate agency Knight Frank.

"The problem comes when people think about thatch. Some start worrying about fire, the costs of insurance, birds getting in, or having to re-thatch the thing every 25 years. Only the more open-minded will look at the facts and see that thatch has survived for two millennia, so there must be something going for it," he says.

To serious devotees, thatch is not so much a roofing material but more a way of life. You can join the Thatched Property Association, use the Thatch Owners Group insurance firm, flick through Thatched Living magazine or surf across a wave of websites and chatrooms on the subject.

"You see them coming down from the South-east on Friday afternoons, peering in the window to see what's for sale and then asking to visit the thatched ones on Saturday morning," claims one Dorset agent who, unsurprisingly, does not want to be named.

"We try to sift out the patently time-wasting ones but a lot just want to see what one is like, in case they ever buy a second home in the country. I shouldn't think they've even thought of the pros and cons. They just think thatch goes with a 4x4," he says.

But many of today's more serious thatch devotees came across their pride and joy by genuine accident, as in the case of Debbie Wren who bought Old Plough Cottage, a five-bedroom, 17th-century house at Roydon, in Hertfordshire, in the late 1980s. "We hadn't lived in a thatched house nor set out to buy one, but we just fell in love with it," says Debbie who, like her husband, Peter, works as a marketing consultant.

They are selling their home privately for £725,000 (01279 792647) but 17 years ago, like many thatch-owners, the Wrens approached their new property with caution. "We were extremely safety conscious; we had the chimney re-lined, bought fire extinguishers and a fire blanket. We've got an inglenook and the whole building is timber framed so we've been very, very careful. But we've had no problem at all," she says.

The Association of British Insurers says that although no exact figures are kept, there are thought to be a smaller proportion of fires in thatched properties than in others of a similar age. "People know the risks so they take more care," insists Tim New of the Thatched Owners Group, a specialist insurer. He says: "There's a 12 to 15 per cent loading on premiums for thatch compared to a similar period property in the same location with a normal roof. So there's some extra cost, but not a lot."

Greater costs are likely to be incurred if you have to re-thatch during your ownership. Three types of thatch predominate in Britain, with different lifespans. Water reed is the most durable, typically lasting 50 years, while wheat reed can last up to 40 years. Long straw - a favoured material of conservation officers in many areas - can sometimes last only 15 years, and can be difficult to find. Costs vary considerably but thatchers usually charge between £600 and £800 for laying what they call a "square" of thatch about 10 feet by 10 feet.

The 17th-century, two-bedroom Church Cottage, in Towcester, Northamptonshire, is on sale for £275,000 (Bartram & Co, 01327 359164 and Jackson Stops & Staff 01604 632991), while the 19th-century Chestnut Cottage, at East Hendred, Oxfordshire, offers three bedrooms at £395,000 (John D Wood, 01865 311522). But you do not need to combine age with thatch - a few niche builders have used it on new homes in the past 50 years.

Knight Frank is selling Thatchbrook, at Sambourne, Warwickshire, built in 1953 with a thatched roof extending to its still more modern garage (£700,000, 01789 297735). In Dorset, there is Fanners Cottage, completed two years ago in Compton Abbas (£475,000, Jackson Stops, 01747 850858).

HINTS FOR THATCH OWNERS

* Line chimneys to avoid defective pointing or cracks permitting gases or sparks to escape into the thatch.

* Ensure any thatched roof is steeply pitched to minimise water retention.

* Re-thatching may cost more than expected because of problems with hidden lower layers of thatch, or rotting roof timbers beneath.

* Put discreet wire netting over thatch to minimise bird or rat infestation

* Regularly brush off moss or tree debris which allow dampness to damage thatch.

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