{ in·deed·a·bly }

adverb: to competently express interest, surprise, disbelief, or contempt

Character

One thing that has often puzzled me about British society is the obsession with preserving old buildings.

Some things, regardless of age, are certainly worth keeping for posterity. To be admired and enjoyed by future generations.

Leeds Castle.

St Paul’s cathedral.

Stonehenge.

Other things were silly when they were created and then preserved as a monument to human folly.

The Cerne Abbas Giant, with its eleven metre long tribute to viagra.

The Lloyd’s of London building, serving as an expensive maintenance reminder of why the innards of a building go on the inside for a reason.

The London stone, that underwhelming monument to ignorance and fleecing tourists. Famous for being famous, but nobody can explain why.

Property paradox

One thing I’ll never understand about British culture is the obsession with “character” properties.

This expression doesn’t refer to a one-of-a-kind masterpiece designed by an architectural genius like Frank Lloyd Wright or Antoni Gaudí. Architectural creations designed by masters of their craft, exhibiting truly unique characteristics.

Instead, it typically refers to the common design features typically observed in mass-produced housing styles named after the reigning monarch at the time.

In other words, seeking to conform to the fashions of times long past.

Single glazed sash windows, once state of the art, but now often draughty energy-inefficient indulgences.

Multiple fireplaces, invariably sealed up, having long been rendered obsolete by gas central heating.

Mock-Tudor cladding. Even in times long past fashions sought to recapture the “good old days”!

People find reassurance in nostalgia. Their homes looking and feeling similar to those they grew up in. Or, more often, representing the homes that their parents or grandparents aspired to all those years ago. Except now featuring big-screen televisions and multiple bathrooms.

To somebody who wasn’t raised in this environment, it makes little sense. Yet it is what the local market demands.

Living in a space ship

A couple of months ago I was inspecting a property that the estate agent disparagingly described as the “space ship”. He was one of those insecure agents who feels compelled to escort punters through every room, offering a constant prattle of inane commentary about “period” features interspersed with salacious gossip about the dire financial circumstances and poor taste of the current owners.

Or in this case, about where the period features had once been, before the uncultured current owner had torn them out as part of a renovation that transformed a once dark and cramped mid-terrace house into modern open plan home. It looked like an interior design magazine brought to life.

Sleek.

Stylish.

Spacious.

In the eyes of the agent, a travesty.

A crime against taste and reason.

Irreparably destroying the traditional character of the property.

To me, it looked like a big improvement on the comparable properties I had viewed in the neighbourhood.

Based upon the asking price, it appears my view was in the minority!

The property had been on the market for some time, which was unusual in those pre-pandemic days where supply was scarce and demand was strong.

The asking price had been originally set at market price for the area. Calculated based upon comparable recent sales in the neighbourhood. Using those figures it is usually possible to figure out a rough price per square foot guideline as to what a given property could be expected to fetch on the open market.

Location plays a key role in how this guide price gets adjusted for an individual property.

Close to schools, shops, or public transport is a plus. Too close however, and these become a minus.

Nobody wants a bus stop in their front yard. Or to live above an underground railway tunnel.

A location directly over a curry house or below a fishmonger may discount the price.

So too would living next door to the delivery bay of the local supermarket, where those noisy early morning deliveries of delicious baked goods would be a daily occurrence.

In the case of the “space ship”, the asking price had been dropped.

Several times.

The sellers had discovered they would need to offer the property at a discount to entice prospective buyers to look past the lack of “character”.

Their design choices seemingly offending the collective sensibilities of the market.

Their poor choice of estate agent certainly didn’t help their cause!

Cookie cutter convention

One of my guilty pleasures is occasionally viewing the property porn highlighted on Wowhaus.

Sometimes the properties are genuinely amazing.

More often they are simply carbon copy examples of a given architectural style.

Art Deco by the sea.

Ex-council estate brutalist chic.

Huf Houses in the Surrey countryside.

Prettier variants of that same “character” theme. Adhering to a fairly strict set of rules governing what is acceptable for a given style of property. The accompanying write-ups often resemble those of the incompetent estate agent, either gushing effusively about faithfully conforming to expectation, or decrying attempts at innovation or modernisation that may in some way of compromise that “character”.

I remember once inspecting a fantastic example of this in action.

The property was a three-story end-of-terrace Edwardian house, located in an upmarket west London neighbourhood.

The neighbours were bankers, lawyers, and C-suite executives. Vehicles parked on the street were mostly posh family cars, Porsche Cayennes and Range Rovers. Randomly scattered amongst them was the occasional new Mini or midlife crisis supercar.

The local shops were organic butchers. Ethically sourced plastic packaging-free independent grocery stores. Expensive wine bars. Anyone seeking a McDonald’s or a Wetherspoons pub would need to learn to live with disappointment.

The estate agent met me on the street a couple of doors down from the house.

Slicked back hair unmoving in the strong breeze, capable of making television talking heads envious.

Tightly fitted shiny suit designed to highlight a body possessing the jockey-esque physique of a pre-pubescent teenage boy. Fashionable today. I couldn’t help reflecting that had someone worn a similar outfit to my high school of many years ago, the bullies wouldn’t have let them survive the day.

It is funny how some societal attitudes can change so completely, while others, like seeking “character” properties, remain steadfastly constant.

The estate agent started his patter with an apology for what I was about to see. Nothing that couldn’t be put right by a buyer interested in a project. The opportunity to add real value.

After that build up, I was fully expecting to see a disaster. A murder scene or meth lab. Maybe a half-assed DIY disaster. Perhaps a hoarder’s paradise. Possibly a former squat or a dormitory for illegal immigrants. Over the years I have seen them all.

It would certainly explain the asking price, well below what a property on that street should command.

The agent approached the front of the house, then continued around the corner and down the sidewalk along the cross street.

Puzzled, I followed him, soon realising that there was no door where the front door was supposed to be.

Halfway along the length of the house, there was a door in the brickwork. Unusual placement for a house that had not been subdivided into flats. Perhaps that was what the apology had been about, a flat conversion partially returned to a single-family home?

Normally this style of house are all configured pretty much the same. You know what you are going to get. Unimaginative mass-produced cookie-cutter clones.

A long narrow block with a postage stamp-sized front garden, usually paved and containing a couple of rubbish bins and not much else. Front door on the short side of the block, opening into a small foyer with a staircase upstairs running along the length of the long side wall. Living room off the foyer. Kitchen behind the living room. Sometimes a powder room under the staircase.

If the property had been extended into the backyard there would be a conservatory or second living room.

Upstairs there will be a bathroom, two mid-size bedrooms, and a small study/box room.

If the property has undergone a loft conversion, there will be another staircase into the roof. At the top of the stairs there will be either a large master bedroom and an ensuite bathroom, or two further mid-sized bedrooms. Whatever the configuration, the space is typically compromised by the shape of the sloping ceiling the loft conversion nestles within.

Wow house

The agent took a deep breath, shot me another apologetic glance, and unlocked the door.

I walked past him and entered the house. It was stunning!

The owners had turned convention onto its head.

Instead of running the length of the long wall, the staircase instead cut across the width of the property. Neatly separating the kitchen from the living area. With the need for a foyer removed, both rooms were able to extend the full width of the house block.

The kitchen sat at the front of the house, oval-shaped dining table nestled into the large bay windows. Built-in appliances lining one long wall, and a huge freestanding kitchen island in the middle of the room. It was spacious and felt very welcoming.

Towards the back of the house, on the other side of the staircase, was a huge light and airy lounge room. My eye was instantly drawn to the back windows, which extended a full three stories high to create an atrium.

The sense of space it created reminded me of the British Museum’s Great Court, or Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

I walked to the huge glass panes, then turned around towards where the traditional back wall of the house would have been. The owners had removed the entire wall, replacing it with glass to create an effect more normally seen in upmarket office buildings or shopping centres.

Upstairs above the kitchen, a bathroom and large bedroom faced the street. Two further large bedrooms, one configured as an office, basked in the sunshine streaming through the huge atrium windows. The back wall of both bedrooms had glass partition at the bottom, like you might see on an apartment balcony. Huge concertina picture windows sat above each balcony railing, able to be thrown open to provide a mezzanine view over the lounge room below.

Upstairs again into the loft. The glass sided staircase opened out near the middle of the master suite. On the street side was a walk-in robe that ran the full width of the house block. Hanging racks and cupboards on the tall wall. Shelves and drawers nestled into the sloped angle of the roof. In the middle was a large make-up table, natural light provided by an overhead skylight.

On the other side of the staircase was a huge bed that looked out onto a balcony, and beyond towards an amazing view towards the City of London. An ensuite bathroom was located at the end of the bedroom, containing a large sunken spa bath with its own window providing a equally impressive view.

The house was a triumph of imagination. Taking the bones of a traditional terrace house, then reimagining it into a very liveable space where all the rooms were spacious and flooded with sunlight.

In the summer I suspect it would have got very hot, though the owners appear to have thought of this, with panes near the top of the atrium windows that could be opened via remote control to let hot air escape.

The skinny estate agent emerged up the stairs to stand behind me on the top floor balcony.

He shook his head in dismay, decrying how the current owners had crassly destroyed all the period features and “character” that typical buyers of houses in this neighbourhood so actively sought.

I looked at him in amazement. This was easily the most interesting and liveable terrace house I had seen during all my years residing in Britain. It was the sort of space I would have happily lived in, had my long term plans involved remaining in London.

Fires burning

Earlier this week, during our daily lockdown allotment of exercise, I dragged my kids on a long walk that ended up wandering past that beautiful house.

Or at least it should have done, except I couldn’t find it.

After doing a couple of laps up and down the street I worked out where the house with the atrium windows should have been.

In its place was a freshly painted period property. A well-presented clone of its neighbours on either side.

An older lady was washing her car further down the street. She had eyed us suspiciously as we searched up and down the street, before eventually demanding to know whether she could help us.

I asked what had happened to the atrium house?

Her eyes lit up.

New owners bought that monstrosity for a song, but couldn’t afford all the structural work required to restore it. Then they went on holidays, and while they were away, it burnt down. Electrical fault or some such nonsense. Turned out to be a blessing in disguise, the insurance money allowed them to rebuild from scratch. They spent months searching through antique stores and builders yards to source all the period features that these properties are supposed to have.

I thanked her for her help, then walked the kids home.

That was a lucky break for the new owners” commented my elder son.

I glanced at him. After working with many insurance clients over the years, it sounded suspiciously like a friction fire to me. Caused by vigorously rubbing together two insurance policies to start a merry little blaze that conveniently solves all of the insured’s financial problems.

Either way, the owners got what they, the estate agents, and seemingly most of the population desired. A period property possessing all the “character” features one might expect.

Imitation in this case, but after a couple of year’s worth of accumulated pollution it will no doubt blend in nicely with the rest of the virtually identical period houses lining both sides of the street.

I was saddened by the demise of the house. I could only shake my head once more at the desire for conformity and lack of imagination exhibited by the general population.


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12 Comments

  1. FU MON CHU 24 April 2020

    I’m with you on this. The number of times i’ve heard “ooh, look at those beams” on property programs drives me nuts. Beams are in most cases hideous with no architectural merit whatsoever.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 25 April 2020 — Post author

      Thanks Mr Fu.

      I stumbled across a “Location, Location” episode on television the other day, and the thought occurred to me how tough those television property folks must be doing it. No more “A Place in the Sun” or similar for a little while I guess, with all the travel bans and lock downs in effect.

      I wonder if they will bring back Sarah Beeny, specifically her DIY house flippers program from the early 2000s? “Grand Designs” on a shoestring budget, car crash television at its finest. Certainly seems to be a lot of renovation projects in my neighbourhood recently if the serenade of power tools is anything to go by.

      That show was strangely addictive I must confess!

  2. GentlemansFamilyFinances 25 April 2020

    Great post – we live in a grade 2 listed property and bought the house for two main reasons – great location and huge rooms
    When asked we say we live in a 2 bed double.upper house and get sympathetic nods – number of bedrooms.is all.that counts in the UK.
    Our 170 m2 is.just confusing.

    My.contention is that one.strong reason for the love of.”period features ” and “character ” is that British bulding standards have not.improved over the years.
    Compared to other countries the UK has a highly dysfunctional housing market (but that’s a whole.other story)

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 25 April 2020 — Post author

      Thanks GFF. Number of bathrooms is a close second!

      There is a lot not to like about the British housing system, English more so than Scottish. In no particular order:

      • The complicated land titles system, particularly when venturing into sub-leasehold territory.
      • Ridiculously protracted and expensive conveyancing processes
      • Punitive stamp duty
      • Ability to make offers then walk away at any time before contracts exchange without consequence
      • Gazumping and gazundering, both undermining contract certainty
      • Not having capital gains tax applying to owner-occupied residences
      • Captured planning permission processes
      • The whole heritage listing fiasco

      Compare that to other markets I invest in, where an offer isn’t an offer without a deposit, and that deposit is forfeit should the offer be withdrawn. Also the typical conveyancing process from offer acceptance to completion is a fortnight or less.

      As for the building standards, I’d suggest they have generally gotten worse over time as developers have found ever more loopholes to exploit and corners to cut to maximise profit margins. This is a global problem, ranging from the falling down new-build “off the plan” apartment building scandals in Sydney to the exponentially increasing service charges baked into new build housing estates in England.

      However, none of that has anything to do with the irrational love of “character“, like imitation ceiling roses or seeking to preserve childish tile mosaics or amateurish distorted window panes simply because they are (or happen to look) old!

      • GentlemansFamilyFinances 26 April 2020

        I think it’s the whole nostalgia thing that the Brits just love!

        In fairness though, I was looking at homes in Edinburgh as an eye to a future move. So, where could we live and what type of property would it be.
        Many different factors to consider from “good schools” to needing a driveway – so what I came up with was large flats in central locations – that’s what I want. But they do have the period features you love so much. Coincidence or not.

        Then again, the stamp duty on a £500k house in Scotland puts a fair breeze up your kilt.
        (different legal system though – the buying process is much more striaghtforward)

        • {in·deed·a·bly} 26 April 2020 — Post author

          You could well be right.

          I don’t have anything against period features, what I object to is the mindless conformity and unthinking belief that old always equals good.

          Stamp duty is definitely a bummer, introduces so much unnecessary friction into property transactions. Value based land taxes provide more certainty of income for governments, while removing the need to sell your first born child just to buy a home located reasonably close to good employment prospects.

          The UK currently has both, in the form of council tax and stamp duty.

          Of course it also means old folks have to sell up and move on once they retire, as they can no longer afford to reside in areas that have gentrified. There will always be winners and losers, but at least that frees up the housing supply in desirable areas.

  3. [HCF] 25 April 2020

    I only have been in the UK for a few times but I have two confession. I really liked the architecture and how cities (especially smaller towns) look like. The look of the streets provide a unique environment and often makes you feel that you are walking through living history. On the other hand, any time I have been inside somewhere I thought “Ok, cool but where is the space?”. So while I liked sightseeing, anytime I was inside I felt like a museum walk and/or like the walls are drowning me. The story you told makes me sad, that sounded exactly like a Wowhaus for me too.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 26 April 2020 — Post author

      Thanks HCF.

      I remember my first trip to Switzerland many years ago, touring through picturesque villages that looked like postcards brought to life. In a bar one evening I got to talking to some of the locals, and they told me that the outward appearance of their houses was determined by the local council, right down to the types and colours of the flowers they had to maintain in their window boxes. Nobody was allowed to change anything!

      All of a sudden that whole picturesque appearance took on a whole different perspective of onerous government controls over how people lived and decorated and expressed themselves. Of course, if people didn’t like it they were free to leave. However, the cost of staying was conformity.

      Just before the pandemic I viewed a house that was being sold by the leader of the local conservation society. This was a community group dedicated to preserving the look and feel of the area, which in practice meant objecting to, lobbying against, and blocking council planning permissions for anyone who wanted to do anything different in the area.

      She took great pride in her group’s track record of successfully derailing the plans people had for modernising or improving the properties they had spent vast sums of money purchasing. Those purchases had often been made with dreams of applying their own tastes, rather than conforming to those of long dead property developers from 100+ years ago. I thought that was sad.

      If we cast our minds forward another 100 years, the shoe box apartments and shoddily built extensions of today will undoubtedly have a similar cabal of folks seeking to preserve them for posterity!

      To each their own.

  4. Ryan Gibson 29 April 2020

    I completely agree with this.

    We have friend who very recently moved from a 5 bed detached property (it was quite bedroom heavy) to a 3 bed ‘character’ house which was more expensive and has a small kitchen and single glazed windows downstairs.

    I was talking to my friend and he was bemoaning the cost of repairing the windows and other aspects of the house given it’s listed. I couldn’t help wonder the rationale behind this move. It feels like an incredibly inefficient step.

    Out of interest I noticed you are still viewing houses. Are these to purchase as your main residence again? What’s the rationale with viewing them if you have no intention of staying long term? I remember you were ‘close’ to purchasing something 6 months back so would be curious to know more 😀

    Are you actually Phil Spencer 😉

    Cheers as always for another outstanding post. Continue to enjoy everything you write and look out for your updates.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 29 April 2020 — Post author

      Thanks for the kind words Ryan.

      Out of interest I noticed you are still viewing houses.

      Occasionally. The atrium house was a several years ago. The “space ship” was during the false start you refer to last year. The conservation group lady’s house was more recently.

      Are these to purchase as your main residence again?

      The latter was exploring that option. The pandemic freeze of the mortgage and property markets have paused that discussion for a while.

      What’s the rationale with viewing them if you have no intention of staying long term?

      That’s a loaded question with a complicated answer. For now, let’s just say I’m a masochist.

      Are you actually Phil Spencer 😉

      That is how rumours get started!

  5. Pendle Witch 2 May 2020

    They only want the right kind of character though. No outside toilets for them! (Or tin baths hanging up in the scullery.) I never had to use an outside loo but one existed in the backyard of our northern terraced house for years. I was a bit scared of it.

    Having grown up with no central heating, single-glazing and one bathroom between 6, I’m happy with full mod-cons now 🙂

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 2 May 2020 — Post author

      Ah, the joys of the outdoor dunny. You are right to be afraid, Pendle Witch!

      At least in the UK the wild life generally aren’t out to get you. I remember many weekends spent at my father’s farm back home. Sub-zero temperatures in the winter. Having to run the gauntlet of centipedes, scorpions, snakes, and spiders in the summer. All to take care of business in an evil smelling dark creepy shed-like structure with a door that didn’t latch but did bang relentlessly in the wind.

      I concur. Having hot and cold running water, and multiple indoor bathrooms is one of civilisation’s greatest advancements in the last 100 years!

What say you?

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