Here comes the sun

South-facing houses may not be the gems they are cracked up to be. Sonia Purnell sheds some light

Wednesday 01 June 2005 00:00

My dear old parents have been looking to move house for a while now. Well, for 25 years, actually. But while they have seen plenty of wonderful properties in that time, one by one they have rejected every single one.

My dear old parents have been looking to move house for a while now. Well, for 25 years, actually. But while they have seen plenty of wonderful properties in that time, one by one they have rejected every single one.

Many have been thrown out for one very simple and utterly un-fixable failing - they face the wrong way. If there is one feature of a house that no amount of makeovers is ever going to put right it is orientation.

For sun-lovers like my parents, only a south-facing garden is acceptable. Even a deviation of a few degrees from the equator-facing straight and narrow will make an otherwise perfect home about as acceptable as a mud hut. Anyone who does not share the obsession with southern comfort is regarded with deep suspicion. It was with some trepidation, therefore, that I announced a few years ago that I had wavered from the righteous path and bought an east/west oriented terraced house in London.

Conceding that it had considerable charm as a home, my father still could not help despondently observing: "Dreadful shame about the orientation". My crime was made worse by the fact that my sister had followed the family tradition by purchasing a house with an approved south facing back garden.

But, at the risk of perpetuating the heresy, I have come round to the pleasures of the east-west rather than north-west axis. The downside of facing sunny south is that you also, of course, get its gloomy twin - the north - as a job lot. While south is all light, sunshine and happy plants, north is shadows, damp and cold. This can be a huge drawback in a typical early Victorian terrace where many of the principal rooms are at the front. We are woken in the morning by the early sun in our streetside bedroom, and take our evening drinks on the terrace at the back as the sun romantically sinks at the rear.

All of the rooms are flooded with sunlight at some point of the day, yet our west-facing glass-roofed kitchen never gets unbearably hot. And if the garden itself is not south-facing, the entire length of one wall most certainly is - and makes a very good sun trap.

Compare that to the north/south axis home of a friend. Her street-facing bedroom and drawing room shiver in permanent Stygian gloom, while she has been reduced to wearing bikini and dark glasses in her Sahara-style south-facing conservatory kitchen at the back.

After spending some £60,000 on acres of glass roof at the back of the house to let the light stream in to her spanking new kitchen, she has now forked out another £8,000 on blinds to shut it out again.

The room got so hot, even in a British summer, that the candles on her dining table melted into glutinous pools of wax by mid-morning. The sun's glare on the shiny white floors gave everyone headaches, and the family were all but abandoning the kitchen during the day until the welcome onset of autumn. To add insult to injury, the tall trees at the end of her garden keep most of her lawn in shade in any case, leaving only the house itself to fry.

But whatever I think, south is still a huge bonus when it comes to valuation. Like-for-like apartments in the rash of riverside developments along the Thames regularly sell for 25 per cent more on the North Bank - where they enjoy the sun as well as the views - than on the South.

"People like the sound of living on the North Bank," says Sarah Haslam, of Knight Frank's new Riverside branch in London. "A similar two-bed flat in Chelsea Harbour will fetch £500,000 or £550,000 because of the sun, whereas across the river, such as in St George's Wharf, they'll go for nearer £410,000."

Architects have tried to mitigate the sun-starvation problem by curving windows and angling buildings to the river - such as an apartment in the Montevetro development which is designed to capture sunrise and sunset (although probably not all that much in between.) But some of the cheaper apartments, at Albion Riverside, for instance, face north-east and must struggle to capture a single sun's ray much after dawn.

As Charles Ellingworth, of the buying agents Property Vision, puts it: "I would never buy a house looking north or east; it condemns you to a life of gloom and will depress the price. Also, in the country, if you're on the north side of a hill, you will never get out of the frost. West may be second best to south for the purists, but estate agents in the posher parts of London claim that houses on the "favoured" west sides of the city's smartest squares and streets are still worth at least £50,000 more than those opposite.

Many agents now place a compass rose on the floor plan in their particulars, allowing would-be purchasers to calculate the likely path of sunlight in the house. In many older country properties, kitchens are frequently on the north side, which today is unpopular with families who spend most of their time there.

So if you're selling a north-facing property, it makes sense to follow a golden rule to minimise the damage. "Try to put it on the market in the winter months," advises Peter Young of John D Wood. "It will be much worse in the summer, because if you're showing your house on a sunny day and it's still dark inside, you will have completely blown it."

Knight Frank Riverside 020-7861 1795

Property Vision 020-7823 8388

John D Wood 020-7908 1110

Whichever way your house faces, maximise it

* A north-facing wall is often best for a glass-roofed room. This will pick up light and heat from radiation in the sky but won't getscorched.

* Estate agents photographers love north-facing gardens, as it means that the front of the houses are usually bathed in lens-loving sunlight. Don't be fooled by this.

* South-facing houses are not as desirable in southern Europe because they get unbearably hot - a fact often ignored by naive Brits. Here, a north-facing garden could be a bonus.

* Consider building a balcony or roof-terrace to capture the sun if your ground-level garden faces north and doesn't get any.

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