You could be converted

Remodelled barns may lack cachet, but they make up for it in space and location, says Anne Spackman
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Why, asked the VAT man, is everyone interested in barns? Why not windmills or offices? He was referring to the rules that hit the statute book this month allowing owners of commercial buildings who turn them into homes to claim back VAT on the conversion.

The interest is chiefly in barns because, of all the various non-residential buildings to which the new rules apply, barns come closest to being real houses. But do they come close enough?

The late 1980s saw a rash of barn conversions as people desperate to move to the country occupied every stone byre and stable. They were old, often quaint, and, part of our rural heritage. They became the poor man's country house.

Farmers suddenly found they could sell off a dilapidated outbuilding for more than £100,000. It was too good an opportunity to miss. For buyers it was virtually the only way of doing your own thing in the country.

Now many of those original conversions are coming back on to the market and their owners are struggling to break even. Converting a barn is particularly expensive because it usually involves paying for the installation of all basic services, including sewerage, before the real work begins. With many barns listed, the need to satisfy the planners and conservationists not only limits your architectural choices, but also adds to the cost.

It is not just the external appearance which will come in for close scrutiny: if you have bats or owls resident in the rafters you must consult English Nature before you evict them. That said, potential buyers of converted barns get an awful lot of space for their money.

Doreen Davies bought her barn near Sevenoaks in Kent for £330,000. The man who converted it lost around £30,000. It has four bedroom suites and four large reception rooms in its 4,300 square feet of space - the equivalent of about four semis. "If we wanted that space in a conventional house we would have had to pay around £500,000," said Mrs Davies, who works for Savills in Sevenoaks.

One of the biggest problems when selling barns is that they tend to look dark from the outside. Planners usually insist that no original beams are cut, forcing developers to put in narrow, vertical windows. They also insist that the reception rooms extend to the height of the roof ridge, leaving rather poky bedrooms.

Mrs Davies' house was originally an open barn, which meant windows could be put in all along its south side, making it particularly bright. She thinks it is important for owners to use internal photographs when selling. "It's the only way of putting in the wow factor," she said.

Savills' Sevenoaks office (0732 455551) is currently selling a particularly large six-bedroom barn conversion with an acre of gardens outside the village of Chiddingstone in Kent for a price of £385,000.

Trembath Welch in Essex currently has three barns on its books, one converted, one partially converted and one ripe for conversion. Danes Vale Barn near the village of Wethersfield was converted 20 years ago into a weather-boarded, single-storey home.The living space, as with many barns, is almost entirely open plan, with three bedrooms and two bathrooms separate. Trembath Welch (0371 872117) is asking £185,000.

The Barn at Great Easton has had an eventful life, having been uprooted from another farm and re-erected in its current position in 1935. The deep thatched roof, doors, windows and services have been completed, but the 61 by 30 foot interior has still to be divided up. It is on at £145,000.

For those who prefer to start from scratch the same agents are selling a barn on the outskirts of the wonderfully named village of Helions Bumpstead. The L-shaped timber-frame building has mains water and electricity, but requires a drainage system and is priced at £110,000.

Bradley Hudsons in Castle Carey, Somerset, has just sold a particularly daunting conversion prospect on a hill outside the village. The new owner's first outlay is likely to be on a 4x4 vehicle to get them up the steep farm track which leads to Pitcombe Barn. It sold for around £100,000.

Barn conversions have been more common in the south than the north of England because of the extra demand for rural property. But there is no North-South divide when it comes to prices for unconverted buildings: a barn in Derbyshire can cost as much as one in Devon.

John Gibson, who runs Savills' Chelmsford office, said barns did suffer from a lack of status, when compared with traditional farmhouses, but they were far easier to sell than modern houses in the country. That lack of status also affects their pulling power with weekenders. Nick House, who runs the Cotswold based Rural Retreats, said barn conversions were not as popular as stone cottages.

Some conservationists fear that the relaxation of the VAT rules will mean a new spate of barn conversions. But John Gibson said there were too few available to provoke a rush. The level of uptake would depend more on the planners than on any changes in taxation, he said. "They would still rather see them used for rural crafts," Mr Gibson said, "but there simply aren't enough basket-makers to go round."