It is a measure of how far buyers now call the shots in the property market that the word "bespoke" has started to creep into the vocabulary of house building. In an industry long associated with off-the-peg uniformity, the idea of a tailored personal service seems unlikely. But it is a carrot being dangled increasingly in front of prospective customers to persuade them to part with their money.
The word bespoke is a slight exaggeration for what is actually on offer. It is not so much a case of the builder offering Madam a longer line in the kitchen, with the main bedroom taken in a little at the sides, as offering alternative fittings, tiles, colour schemes and even layouts.
The general rule of thumb is that the earlier you commit yourself to the property, the more changes you will be allowed to make. Also, the more expensive the house, the more tolerant the builder is likely to be of your personal requirements.
Many builders now offer choices in the kitchen and bathrooms. At Berkeley Homes' enormous development of 320 houses and flats at Barnes Waterside, south west London, buyers have a choice of 12 kitchen cupboard doors and more than 30 ranges of tiles. The size of the site and the price of the property (which ranges from pounds 110,000 for a one-bedroom flat to pounds 1.8 million for a six-bedroom mansion) makes such choices economically possible.
On most developments the scope is more limited. A typical arrangement would be that offered by Grove Manor Homes in Islington, north London. The company is building nine villas in traditional Victorian style and 25 apartments in two blocks. Buyers of apartments have a choice of tiles; buyers of the five-bedroom semis also have choices of doors and fittings.
Jeff Duggan of Grove Manor Homes said they had been happy to accommodate the buyer's wishes because they had exchanged contracts early on a very expensive property. "It's like buying a new Rolls-Royce rather than a second hand Mini," said Mr Duggan. "It reflects the market. In the Eighties, when prices were shooting away, builders had more of a `take it or leave it' attitude. They did not need to cater for individuals because if one buyer did not like something, they could sell it to someone else the next day. If houses are harder to sell you have to be more receptive to purchasers."
Try Homes offers buyers of the mews development in the centre of Winchester the normal range of choices, but has knocked walls down for one woman customer who bought early enough. Louise Counsell, the company's sales director, said most people were happy to accept the builder's layout. "Customers often feel nervous about their own abilities to design the space they require," she said. "However, we have had clients with real imagination who are able to conceptualise what they want from plans and in those cases we do all we can to accommodate their ideas."
One buyer who fits this description better than most is David Starkey, a designer of motor yachts. Trained as an architect, he has a professional's eye for how best to use space. He has used his skills to such good effect on the new home he is buying that the developers are offering his layout as an alternative in their brochure.
Mr Starkey lives with his wife and four children in a four-storey Victorian house in Isleworth, south-west London. They were looking to buy another old house in nearby Richmond when Richmond Bridge Moorings first came on the market. As soon as they saw the location and the plans, they were sold.
"Part of the deal at Richmond Bridge was that we could make internal changes. The house gave us five bedrooms, a good sitting room, a family room and a garage - all the components we wanted were there - but I wasn't happy with the way it was put together."
The Starkeys completely redesigned the ground floor of their three-storey house, knocking out the wall between the kitchen and dining room and rearranging the space to create a raised open plan kitchen, an eating area and a sitting area. They got rid of the downstairs lavatory and took the bidets out of the bathrooms to give more space on the landings and for walk in wardrobes.
They took out all the Victorian details such as fireplaces, plaster cornices and brass light fittings and replaced them with more simple ones. "What's wrong with a white plastic light switch?" asked Mr Starkey. The interior walls will be polished plaster and instead of carpets there will be old oak floors in the main reception rooms.
"From our point of view it was an ideal opportunity," Mr Starkey said. "We didn't have the time to find a site and get a house designed. This was a good compromise." Did he fear that by creating such a personal house he risked finding it difficult to sell? "I have been buying and selling houses for more than 20 years," he said, "and I have never lost money on a house. If I had to, I think I could sell this house immediately for as much as it has cost, though I have no intention of doing so."
The Starkeys' home is costing them around pounds 775,000. But buyers of cheaper properties should not feel prohibited from making changes. Builders want to sell fast, it may be cheaper for them to change the kitchen units than to finance the loan on the property. Even if the house is complete, builders may make changes in order to get it off their hands. It never hurts to ask.
Barnes Waterside, from Boileau Braxton (0181-741 7400) and Knight Frank (0171-824 8171); Grove Manor Homes from Copping Joyce (0171-359 9777); Richmond Bridge Moorings from Hamptons (0181-940 2772); St James Mews from Hamptons (01962 842030).
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