Renovate to accumulate

While the housing market cools, homeowners can add value to their properties, says Graham Norwood
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The Independent Online

Even bad news has a silver lining, and this year's property market slowdown has a benefit for at least one group of people – all those involved in home improvement.

Statistics show the shift in emphasis. The number of home sales in June 2008 fell by a remarkable 80 per cent compared to June 2007, according to the Land Registry. But Lloyds TSB bank has seen a near 20 per cent jump in numbers of borrowers wanting to improve their homes, while sales of B&Q's renovation books and DVDs have soared by 30 per cent.

So, if your own housing plans have changed from moving to improving, what tips can you get from the experts who have already stylishly renovated their properties?

"Focus is paramount," says Anne Summers, who has been a decorator and designer for two decades and who has just refurbished an apartment she bought near Hyde Park in central London in 1984. "I bought it when it was actually a squat but I knew the importance of the location. Now that I am selling it 24 years on, I have focused on exactly who is likely to buy it, and have improved it accordingly," she says.

Anne lived in the flat herself before letting it to friends and family. By this year it had become "decoratively old-fashioned" so she gutted it and reduced two bedrooms to one, creating a contemporary home based on high style and new technology. "It's perfect for a man who works from 8am until 8pm, who needs a pied-à-terre, is not looking for a nest and who wants a sophisticated modern area. The end result is a place with more machismo than before. It's like a perfect suite in a hotel," she says.

Anne also insisted on using experts to cram this compact, first floor 1,039sq ft flat with the highest quality materials and products, especially the state of the art audio-visual system. Attention to detail has been remarkable – even the entry-phone has been sprayed to match the lacquer on many of the doors.

But renovation does not have to mean resorting to striking contemporary design throughout, as Lesley and Phillip Dunaway will testify.

Three years ago they bought a two-bedroom apartment in a Regency town house in the centre of Leamington Spa. They knew that with its grade II listed status, its location in a conservation area and the high and wide proportions of its rooms, it would have to be restored to reflect its history – well, most of it anyway.

"It had been converted in 1996 from its previous existence as a club for farmers. It was made to look rather faux-Victorian, and by the time we moved in it looked pretty tired, with smoky ceilings and decoration almost a decade old," explains Lesley.

"The high ceilings, shutters and ornate cornices meant the bedrooms and drawing room had to be decorated, but would remain in their traditional style with ornate cornices, picture rails and so on. However, the ki-tchen area was a modern extension, and although it needed complete renovation too, we could use more imagination."

The couple removed the Nineties kitchen in one afternoon, then started a three- month transformation, fitting it with lacquered black units, GetaCore worktops and stylised appliances from the likes of Neff, De Dietrich and Smeg, while Jackson Pollock prints adorn the walls.

The result is a large and strikingly 21st-century kitchen off the well-restored original rooms of even grander proportions. "I love the feeling of mixing modern appearance with the classic look in the rest of the apartment, which we've taken back to how it was 160 years ago. Modernity works with period and character," says Lesley.

A new study by Halifax home insurance shows that similar makeovers are in the minds of many homeowners, especially those deterred from moving by the current market stagnation.

Not all manage the shift from daydream to reality, but of those renovations that do actually take place, 25 per cent involve some work improving the garden or its access, 15 per cent want to modernise bedrooms, 14 per cent aim to work on the kitchen or bathroom, followed by 6 per cent intent on improving windows or extending the house.

In addition to improving individual properties, the country's total housing stock is also enhanced by refurbishing older homes, especially those in a generally poor condition. This becomes especially important as the new-build housing industry suffers a dramatic fall in completions thanks to the market slowdown.

Roman Russocki, the executive director of the National Home Improvement Council, says: "Over four million new UK households are expected to be created within the next five or six years.

"Even for a buoyant new-build housing industry this is an impossible demand to meet, and places renewed emphasis on the importance of bringing into use millions of good properties which are facing dereliction."

He says government statistics show there are over 700,000 premises requiring substantial refurbishments "to convert them into habitable, energy efficient and economical homes to run accommodation for sale or rent".

Halifax forecasts a surge in such improvements continuing at least throughout next year as the housing market continues a gently downwards path until 2010, as many pundits predict.

If so, renovation may well become the property world's "new black" – or at least it may become the new alternative to moving home.

Anne Summers' apartment is for sale for £1.375m through Aylesford (020-7351 2383; www.aylesford. com); prior to sale it is also available to rent. Lesley and Phillip Dunaway's apartment is for sale for £485,000 through Knight Frank (01789 297735;

Where to get advice

The National Home Improvement Council represents companies and organisations working in the home improvement sector, and suggests codes of conduct and best practice standards. It also offers tips and details of umbrella organisations and lists of qualified practitioners dealing with everything from outside walls and energy efficiency to heating, bathrooms, extensions, drives and paths, fences, kitchens, electricity, doors and windows. Full details on

Consent or no consent?

Substantial home improvements often need planning consent from a local authority, involving architects' plans and a fee of £400 or more, statutory consultation with neighbours and a decision by council officers or possibly a planning committee. But thanks to new measures being introduced by the Government this autumn, some rules are set to change:

*Any conversion does not need planning consent if it is smaller than 1,766 cubic feet in a detached house or semi, or 1,412 cubic feet for a terraced property

*A conservatory can be erected without planning permission if it does not protrude more than three metres into the garden

*Loft conversions must now meet strict building regulations for insulation standards and headroom measurements – consult your local council

*Any work affecting the floor, wall or ceiling of an adjoining property will need a "party wall agreement", usually involving a solicitor and a planner's input

Sources: Department of Communities and Local Government, Which? problem solving approach