Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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The Independent Online

It's a wonderful thing, the internet. When workmen suddenly appear on the roof of one of the houses backing on to ours and begin removing the tiles, we work out what they're up to within seconds - it's on the planning section of the council website.

It's a wonderful thing, the internet. When workmen suddenly appear on the roof of one of the houses backing on to ours and begin removing the tiles, we work out what they're up to within seconds - it's on the planning section of the council website.

Is that a Velux window going in? Or just a boring roof repair? No, it's going to be a humungous loft extension, according to Wandsworth council, with not just a mere dormer, but the whole of the hip of the roof extended to become a new gable.

This new extension stops inches from its neighbour's side dormer, but although I wouldn't be that happy about it if I was the neighbour, Wandsworth doesn't seem bothered. It's passed the application.

In the middle of all this, our neighbour Craig comes round to ask for a number for our roofer, Steve. He doesn't need to explain why. We've already seen his application for a loft extension. He's also doing one of the hip extension things, plus a back extension at ground level. We've also noted that his application for a front dormer has been turned down. Bad news for him, but it's nice to know that Wandsworth draws the line somewhere.

It's not just planning applications that provide fodder for cybersnoopers. Wonder how that house at the end of the road managed to find a buyer at such a laughably high price? Look it up on www.mouseprice.com where, for the price of a cappuccino, you can see whether they had to drop their sights by 50K in order to close the deal.

Puzzled as to why No 23 is on the market for a hundred grand more than your delightful home? Look it up on the estate agent's website, where the selection of glossy pictures ("click on the image to enlarge") will reveal that it has a state-of-the-art kitchen, pristine wood floors and decor that looks as if it has never seen grubby fingers or muddy trainers.

What's more, you can do all these things without going through that old cringe-making process of ringing the estate agent and pretending you are a bona fide buyer in order to get them to send you the details.

There are some things you can't find out on the internet, of course. One house round the corner from me was on the market with an estate agent that doesn't have a website. It's now on with an agent that has a particularly good website. Was the lack of internet coverage a factor in changing? There's no way I'd find that out without resorting to old-fashioned verbal communication.

And sometimes, as is so often the case in the property world, what you see may not be the true picture. One of our neighbours saw our own loft extension plan on the Wandsworth website, noticed it was later withdrawn and assumed that planning permission had been refused. It hadn't: we'd just changed our minds. But this was enough to make him very twitchy about what we were up to. He was worried that we were going to put in a dormer or a window that would overlook his garden and no amount of reassurance on our part would allay his fears - which, in a world of humungous loft extensions, were totally understandable. It was a relief all round when the final roof tile went on and the scaffolding came down, revealing no windows whatsoever on his side. And it was even more of a relief when we got a very nice note thanking us for being so considerate.

This is what is at the heart of cybersnooping, of course. We may live in an electronic age, but we still all possess that very primitive instinct - to protect our territory. I know the local council has what it regards as stringent planning criteria - it won't allow extensions that rise above the existing roofline, for example, or that change the appearance of the house as viewed from the street - but what it thinks is strict and what ordinary householders see as acceptable are often two different things.

What's wrong with a bit of nosiness, anyway? In my opinion, it demonstrates an entirely healthy interest in one's fellow beings. Yes, it's a wonderful thing, the worldwide web. It's brought an entirely new meaning to the phrase "net curtains".

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