Where the hearth is: Fitting the right fireplace can add thousands to the value of your home

Kate Watson-Smyth reports on a burning issue

So now it's really cold, and while radiators may work perfectly well, they just aren't very welcoming, are they? Wouldn't you rather be huddling round a fire – even a gas one, come to that – on a winter's evening? Then it could be time to open up that fireplace.

It's not just the feel-good factor that might prompt you into action, as, although it's an expensive process, it can be a sound investment. Paul Chesney, owner of Chesney's, specialists in reproduction and antique fireplaces, says that developers are increasingly installing fireplaces in houses they renovate before putting them on the market. "I'm sure it adds value to a house," he says. "If developers are putting them in, they must think it's worth it."

Richard Gayner, of Savills Country House division, goes further. "The most important thing when selling a house is timing," he says, "and if your house has real fires in it, then now is the time to sell. At this time of year, people walk into a house and notice if it is warm. A leaping fire will add to that. In summer, the first thing they do is walk over to a window and look out at the garden. So there's no question: if you have a fire, you must light it.

"Interestingly," Gayner adds, "when there was the energy crisis in the 1970s, and the price of oil rocketed, lots of people installed wood-burners, and we are beginning to see that again now."

Anne Sourtry, of John D Wood's Fulham office, says that while most people have already put back their fireplaces, the real value comes from taking out the chimney breasts at both ends of a knocked-through reception and installing one central fireplace.

"It isn't done that often, but London, for example, has a lot of houses where the front and back have been knocked through with a fireplace at each end. Installing a central fireplace unifies the room and the removal of the other chimney breasts creates more space. When I see that, I rub my hands with glee."

So, to paraphrase Henry Ford, it doesn't matter what type of fire you have, as long as you have one. But Chesney has very clear views on the matter of style. "That hole in the wall filled with pebbles or even logs has been completely dropped from our range now," he says. "Demand has really tailed off. The initial desire dated back to the 1960s, and the wish for clean lines, but the problem is that when they aren't lit, they are just a big black hole.

"A fireplace can be a strong architectural feature in a room – even when it's not lit, you can sit and admire it."

He says that the current trend is towards a minimalist look with strong features. To that end, the traditional cast-iron Victorian fire surround is totally out of favour. "The historical style police used to insist that if you lived in a Victorian terrace, you had to have the corresponding fireplace, but these days people have the confidence to choose what they like. You can have a Georgian or Regency style that will go perfectly in either a modern or an older home.

"The most popular materials are marble or limestone, now much more affordable than they used to be, which also accounts for the fact that wooden surrounds are out of fashion. You can get a marble surround for under £500 now and you don't have to worry if it goes with your furniture. That stripped-pine look is very dated."

So, you've decided to put a sledgehammer through that bit of plasterboard, or rip out that 1970s monstrosity. What do you do next?

First, call the sweep. Now, you might have thought that getting the chimney swept was the final stage, before setting a match to the kindling, but in fact you need to make that call earlier. A sweep will tell you the condition of the existing chimney and whether you can continue without the expense of installing a flue liner. This can cost anything up to £2,000, which might put you off going any further. Make sure the sweep is from the National Association of Chimney Sweeps.

Next, call a Corgi-registered plumber for a gas fire, or a Hetas-registered technician for a real one. They can run the appropriate tests and issue the required certification, as well as installing your new fireplace safely and legally. If you are making any major alterations to your fireplace, the changes are covered by building regulations, which is why you must get a properly trained person to fit your fireplace. These changes include the fitting of a new hearth as well as the internal parts.

Tristan Rowe, sales manager of Chesney, says that if you have a fire, you should have it swept and checked once a year for gas, and at least twice for a real fire. "Many people fail to maintain their chimneys, but they often go through children's bedrooms – you cannot take those kinds of risks."

When it comes to choosing between real or gas, it's a simple question of preference. "There's no doubting the convenience of being able to push a button and have instant heat and the look of a fire, as opposed to having to wait an hour for heat and then having to wait until it has gone out before you go to bed. Of course, nothing competes with the crackling logs of a real fire, but you have to take people's lifestyles into consideration," says Rowe.

Yes, what about those crackling logs? In most major cities, you are supposed to burn smokeless fuel. (The less said about how many people actually do that the better.) If you are burning logs, in the country obviously, they must be three- to five-years seasoned or they will spit. Look at the cut grain across the end for splits, which shows that the wood is properly dry. Even if it has been rained on overnight, the presence of the cracks shows that that is surface water that will burn off. Otherwise you'll end up with a lot of white smoke, which is basically steam.

Of course, many of us would rather buy a genuine antique fireplace, instead of a modern copy. Often the price from a reclamation yard is not that different. But you need to be aware of what you are buying. Not everyone will have checked that their product is safe before selling it, and the onus is on the customer to do the research before installing it.

Ferrous Auger, the fireplace specialist at Lassco salvage company, says that all its reclaimed surrounds and inserts are fully restored before being sold. "I'm confident that I sell fireplaces that are ready to have fires in them. If you are offered a grate for £50, then it's probably rusting, missing bits and needing to have money spent on it to make it fireworthy. You need to be aware of what you are buying because if it looks too good to be true, it probably is."

Expect to pay around £300 for installation. If the company selling you the fireplace doesn't also do installation, then check the sites listed below for reputable tradesmen in your area.

Useful contacts

* Chesney's – for reproduction and original fireplaces (020-7627 1410; www.chesneys.co.uk)

* Lassco – for reclaimed fireplaces (020-7394 2100; www.lassco.co.uk)

* Modern Fireplaces Direct (0870 270 0018; www.modernfireplacesdirect.co.uk)

* National Association of Chimney Sweeps (01785 811 732; www.chimney works.co.uk)

* Corgi-registered plumbers (0800 915 0485; www.trustcorgi.com)

* Hetas solid-fuel installers (0845 223 3033; www.hetas.co.uk)

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