Watch out, rogue agents!

he Government will crack down on gazumping with new measures to professionalise the estate agency industry and make the process of buying property easier for consumers.

It announced a raft of changes to overhaul the largely unregulated sector, which has long suffered from being seen as anti-consumer.

They include encouraging the use of voluntary reservation agreements, in order to stop sales from falling through, ending the practice of gazumping, where sellers accept higher offers following an agreement to sell.

The Government also plans to get rid of ‘rogue agents’ by ensuring that all estate agents have a professional qualification. It will also make it a requirement for these companies to be transparent about whether they receive fees for referring clients to mortgage brokers, surveyors or solicitors.

Housing Secretary Sajid Javid said: “Buying a home is one of the biggest and most important purchases someone will make in their life. But for far too long buyers and sellers have been trapped in a stressful system full of delays and uncertainty. So we’re going to put the consumers back in the driving seat.”

Research carried out by the Government found that more than 6 in 10 people who bought or sold property have experienced stress due to delays in the property transaction process.

The measures come from a consultation held last year. More extreme proposals, such as creating financial penalties for buyers who pull out of purchases and cause chains to collapse, are not included in the new plans.

Some agents choose to be members of bodies such as the the National Association of Estate Agents or The Property Ombudsman. However, these organisations lack power, and there are currently no requirements for estate agents to have a formal training or certification, unlike in the United States. It is unclear what kind of qualification the Government will mandate, and it will hold another consultation to work out how estate agents can be brought up to standard like conveyancers, solicitors and surveyors.

Russell Quirk, chief executive of online estate agency Emoov, said: “This is really great news. The industry and Government have talked to a long time to clean up house buying. If you add both speed and certainty to the process, there will be fewer transactions falling through, less wasted money, and less stress for the consumer.”

He added: “For far too long it has got away with being almost entirely unregulated. How can it be that financial advisers dealing with the loan for the property are vetted, but the people dealing with the asset itself and the trauma of a protracted process are not overseen or licensed?”

Investing in Devon

According to some estate agents, Devon is fast becoming a good place to invest in.

Actually, that is not news. The Southwest has often been a good place to park your money in property. The region offers picturesque coastlines, a lovely country feel and loads of open space for your money.

Gill Fielding, founder of Fielding Financial, based in Totnes, claims that Exeter and Plymouth make particularly good investment areas. The towns both have Universities which attract high numbers of students, and hence can command high rental demand.

Also located within the vicinity are good hospitals and sporting facilities, which make them attractive to those actively seeking to rent.

The rise in tuition fees has put strain on students looking to enter University and do a degree and tuition fees of up to nine thousand pounds a year are now common. This has meant that universities which offer degrees for less cost, which would normally not have had a look in, are being considered. Traditionally these have been in the coastal regions, away from big cities, so the lower fees along with cheaper rents have started to make them look attractive to others. Ironically, this demand for rental properties will only push the rates higher for successive students.

How would you invest in property? Find an area that is in demand either by professionals or students. Good transport links, especially rail links or a tram network are essential. This means your property can be easily accessible without the use of a car, and within commute of the big cities. Some landlords even recommend checking out the local rail network timetable to see how often the trains stop, as properties along these areas tend to be more attractive. And if you can find an area that is cheaper to live in, invest in it quick before it is gone!

But it is not just about demand and transportation. Look at the entertainment scene and public facilities. Most rental properties are for younger people who have not yet managed to buy, so if the area you are investing in has an active entertainment scene, such as clubs for bands to perform, or comedy clubs, you may garner more rental income. Pubs, cafes and other social settings are good indicators. Which young person would choose to rent in a place with no social life and feel alone? Not many.

Whatever you do, though, if you do invest, you must make it entirely clear to your tenants that they should not sublet the property out. Increasingly, with the rise of sites such as airbnb, tenants are trying to gain income by even renting out their rented properties without permission. This has resulted in a lot of disputes between landlords and tenants which could have been avoided if tenants had been made aware of their responsibilities. And as a landlord, you would save yourself a whole lot of trouble if you had this point emphasised during the signing of a lease.

In any event of a dispute, remember you can refer to the property ombudsman for mediation. Tpos mediates between tenants and landlords and all other issues relating to property.

Is Edinburgh the new London?

Private landlords always seem to suggest that the best place for properties is in the north, in towns or cities with good railway and other transport links. Could Edinburgh be one of these?

The average house price in the Scottish capital grew by over ten percent in Dec 2017 compared to the previous year. This means that if you bought a property with the intention of renting it out, not only would you be a further ten percent richer already, but you have the means to let out the property for higher rents. But how is that possible? Well, higher property prices mean that people will find it hard to buy. And this simply will drive up the housing market.

The value of the housing stock across the city grew by £7.5 billion over the same period – more than any other Local Authority district in the UK as a whole.

This figure was for lower-end properties – if you can call it that – that did not exceed two million pounds. The same, however, could not be said for the more expensive properties.

The £2 million-plus market was at its lowest level since 2004. This is quite unsurprising as a ten percent increase would add the price of a one–bed property on to an existing one. The Land and Buildings Transaction tax (LBTT), which would see £198,000 added on to the price of a transaction at this level.

There are certain areas in Edinburgh that rode the increase in prices. The southern hotspots of Grange, Morningside and Merchiston accounted for a total of 377 sales transactions last year.

Faisal Choudhry, head of residential research in Scotland for Savills, said: “Scotland has witnessed its strongest market since 2007, with price growth now outperforming London. Values will continue to rise due to a lack of supply and strong city economies. “In particular, Edinburgh’s residential market profile continues to excel. The lack of supply and strong domestic and international demand for property in the Capital is one of the main reasons behind a rise in prime values in Edinburgh City.”

If you have always thought of investing in property, but are put off by London prices, Edinburgh may be the new place to consider. The number of new build transactions in Edinburgh increased by 30 per cent last year.

The strongest growth in transactions last year was witnessed closer to the city centre, where experts said the redevelopment of the St James centre had attracted people towards the city centre.

This is another sign that city centres, with their transport links, remain attractive places to invest in.

Common reasons for property investment

Why property? Many invest in property because it gives them an income and a pension pot, but it’s more than that. It suits their lifestyle, work ethic, skills, risk profile, personality, tax situation and inheritance plans for their children – and these are all things you need to consider carefully. You need to find financial professionals who can advise you properly but or now, let’s simply say that you will need some significant capital behind you if you’re serious about building a portfolio (I’d suggest at least £50,000 for each property you intend to buy) and I’d stress the importance of speaking to a wealth advisor. They can look at all your financial interests and plans for the future and help you decide the best way to invest in property to suit your own, personal situation – and whether property is even the right investment vehicle for you.

What I can do is explain why I chose property. Quite simply, it offers the most reliable, tangible, flexible, profitable form of investment I’ve been able to find, and I can break that down into six key aspects:

1. Leverage. No other asset class offers the opportunity to leverage in the way that property does. Banks and building societies lend against property at the level they do because property is seen as having a fundamental ‘bricks & mortar’ value. Markets peek and trough but a property will almost always hold a certain level of value, so while maximum Loan to Value rates may fluctuate (in the past 8 years, I’ve seen them fall from 125% to 60% and go back to 85%), you can still leverage other people’s money to make a better return on capital than you might otherwise – i.e. you can make your money go further. For example, if there was a 15% rise across all markets: £100k invested in stocks = £15k growth £100k invested in £25k deposits on 4 properties, each worth £100k = £60k growth

2. Refinancing. The ability to refinance a property, as an extension to leverage, means you can end up with an income-producing asset that has none of your own capital tied up in it. You can’t achieve this as quickly and easily as you once could, but if you manage to buy a property at a good price and that particular sector of the market rises sufficiently, you should be able to remortgage in time and release the money you originally invested. By reinvesting that money in another income-producing property, you’re expanding your portfolio and maximising the return on your capital.

3. Income. With all other asset classes, you mainly profit from growth on the capital. Although there may be interest payments on other types of investment, I haven’t found any that offer the same income potential as property.

4. Control. Unlike most other forms of investment, such as stocks or bonds, you have a high degree of control over the investment returns a property provides. While you can’t control either the property market as a whole or mortgage rates, you do have the power to decide: the type of property you buy what mortgage product you have how you let the property the type of tenants you accept the rent you charge (to a certain extent) how much you spend on managing and maintaining the property Essentially, you have a high degree of control over income and expenditure, and, therefore, profitability.

5. Opportunity. The diversity of opportunity to make money from property is really exciting to me, and is one of the reasons it’s used by so many people as a wealth creation tool. Whether you want on-going income, short/medium-term gain, a pension plan, a home for your children in years to come or a lump sum return in the future, property can work for you. You can buy to let single or multiple occupancy units; renovate a property and then sell or remortgage; self build or develop yourself; strike a deal to sell property or land to a developer; get paid for sourcing property; do everything yourself and make it your career, or work with other people to make it a more passive investment… It really does offer a huge variety of options – even one property can allow you to realise different returns at different times in your life, depending on what you need and when.

6. Systemisation. This is a big part of why property works as an investment vehicle for me. If you can put the right systems and team in place to effectively source, acquire, refurbish, let and manage a portfolio, you can reap considerable financial rewards for relatively little of your own time. That frees you up to either focus on high-value aspects of your business, or simply to enjoy some of your lifestyle activities. I said earlier that property is a business, and you need to have the ability to establish and manage a ‘head office’ in a way that works for you. But as long as you can do that, your systemised business should be able to function as a money-earner whether you’re there or not.

Buy to let market slows

Recent reports suggest that the buy-to-let market is cooling after recent measures introduced by the government to control the power of landlords and other individuals buying second properties.

The new 3% additional tax was one of the measures introduced in April 2016. In short, it levied an extra tax on top of stamp duty, which was meant as an attempt to cut back on the accumulation of properties by private landlords.

Another attempt to introduce rent control was the removal of tax relief on mortgage interest altogether which came into April this year.

The laws affected mainly individuals, but not companies, and this has not gone unnoticed. In fact, some individuals are continuing to exploit the loopholes.

One such measure is to buy commercial properties for conversions into private flats. Commercial properties are unaffected by the additional tax levy, and hence at the point of purchase the tax is lower.

Some individuals have also set themselves up as a company, and purchases are done via the company. While many of them claim this tidies up the accounts – as the properties come under the financial expenses of the company, others accuse them of profiting from this because the interest is treated in a business expense.

It appears that many private landlords too are contemplating that the company structure is the way forward for them. Certainly, it seems that many considering investing in buy to lets are setting up companies first, and then making purchases. Those who have yet to set up companies but wish to assimilate this form of structure may find that they are coming under the financial squeeze of the government.

What does that hold for the rental market and the many thousands of young professionals that are dependent on renting as a step to the housing ladder? It appears it may be a step they never come down from. Landlords – in the form of companies – may only resort to raising rents in order to cover costs.

A brief history of housing in England and Wales

The historical recognition of the form of houses tends to be identified by reference to a period of English architectural style, for example Tudor or Victorian. The majority of the current housing stock dates from the middle of the nineteenth century and later, although there are earlier houses in existence, such as sixteenth century (Tudor), seventeenth century (Stuart, Carolingian, William and Mary), eighteenth century (Queen Ann, Georgian) and early nineteenth century (Regency). Nearly all of the extant houses of the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are houses that were built for the so-called middle class (e.g. merchants and professionals) and upper class. Only rare examples of cheaper housing from these periods still exist.

The mid- and late nineteenth century (Victorian) saw a huge boom in the construction of housing in response to the mass movement of people from the countryside into the cities as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Cheap terraced houses for the workers, more spacious semi-detached houses for the managers and detached villas for the owners were developed in vast numbers on the outskirts of older towns, often by speculative builders, sometimes by the well-off themselves. These houses had solid walls of brickwork and/or stone, sometimes finished with render, roofs of clay tiles or slates, brick or timber-framed internal partitions, gas lighting, rudimentary cooking, washing and lavatory facilities and coal fires for heating. Much of the cheapest housing was of poor quality, using, for example, sun-baked bricks, and has subsequently been demolished. However, large numbers of terraced, semi-detached and detached Victorian houses are still in existence, albeit modernised at various times during the intervening period.

Houses built in the first decade of the twentieth century (the Edwardian period) are considered by many experts to be the pinnacle of quality in terms of workmanship and materials. Facilities are similar to those of the preceding century but of better quality. This period also saw the rise of the Garden City Movement, based on the writing of Sir Ebenezer Howard, who was highly critical of the urban development of the period and promoted the idea of a planned city with generous public spaces and buildings, low-density houses with large gardens in broad tree-lined streets and separate zones for factories and other industrial development. This led to the creation of garden city towns, such as Letchworth, Hampstead Garden Suburb and Welwyn.

The period between the First World War and the Second World War (the inter-war period) saw much greater state intervention in housing. Previously, involvement on the part of the state had been restricted to the provision of legislation encouraging local authorities to take action, but now the government legislated and provided the funding for the development of council housing, i.e. local authority social housing. There was also considerable private speculative housing development, leading to the suburban expansion of many cities. Both the council and the private housing of the period, particularly the former, reflected some of the principles of the Garden City Movement, especially the low-density housing, large gardens and broad tree-lined streets. This period saw cavity-wall construction and concrete foundations become standard. Floors and roofs were still constructed using cut timbers, bathroom and kitchen fittings were installed as standard, but were still very basic, hot water was often provided by a gas heater and space heating was again based on open fireplaces. Many rural houses still had no piped water, mains electricity or mains drainage.

During both World Wars housing development was suspended and after the Second World War little housing construction took place, apart from repairing bomb-damaged houses, until the mid-1950s when the post-war period of house building really commenced. Both council housing and private speculative development boomed for the next 20 years, although the standards were still relatively low, e.g. few new houses had central heating and roof insulation was non-existent until 1965, and then only minimal. However, most rural properties now had mains electricity and water, and mains drainage became more common.

Gradually, from the 1970s onwards, trussed roofs, often finished with concrete tiles, became standard and modern timber framed construction became relatively popular after a difficult introductory period; even where cavity construction continued to be used, timber or steel framed internal partitions were commonly installed. Central heating became the norm, and during the 1990s, cavity wall insulation and double glazing became standard in new housing developments. Dry wall finishes were also prevalent for new development. During the past 30 years or so, increasing use has been made of new materials and techniques. Examples include composite timber products for structural purposes and finishes and plasticised products, ranging from components such as windows to paint systems. There has also been recognition that many older and sometimes discarded, or unfashionable, products and materials are still relevant, e.g. clay roof tiles, roofing slates, lead work and lime mortar.

Five Golden Rules of Investing

1. Always buy from motivated sellers
Instead of looking for a property you’ll like and then negotiating with the seller, a smarter strategy is to look for motivated sellers who will be flexible on the price and / or the terms of the sale, and then decide if you want to buy that particular property.

If they are prepared to sell at a discount for a quick sale, the amount of discount will vary depending on the motivation of the seller and the general market conditions.

In a rising market you may be happy with a 15% to 20% discount. In a falling market you would want a bigger discount of 25% to 40% to give you more of a safety buffer in case prices come down further.

Just to be clear here, this is not saying that you always need to get a discount off the sales price. Sometimes property is already a great buy at the full asking price because it may already have been lowered for a quick sale. This is where knowing the values in your local market is really important so that you can spot a good deal when you see it.

Many investors get fixated about buying below market value, which means they are likely to miss out on potentially profitable deals because they don’t think they should pay the full asking price. If it is a good deal, investors may sometimes pay the full asking price and more, especially if they can add value to the property. We also need to recognise that some sellers may not be able to offer you a discount because there is no equity in their property. However, if they are motivated, they may be more flexible on the terms of the sale, for example, when you actually pay for the property.

Price is not the only factor in negotiation. This means you may be able to use strategies such as ‘Exchange Delayed with a Completion’, or ‘Purchase Lease Option’. These strategies only really work if the seller is motivated.

2. Buy in an area with strong rental demand
This is a very important rule. As a property investor your aim should be to buy an investment which will not only pay for itself, but also make a cash profit (positive cash flow) each month. There are running costs associated with owning a property, but the basic concept is that the rent you receive from your tenants more than covers all of the costs. If you have no tenants, you have no income, which means you have to cover the costs yourself. Your investment then becomes a liability, rather than an asset.

You need to accept that as a landlord you may occasionally have void periods on your property, which means no tenants, and so you need to meet the costs. You can dramatically reduce potential void periods by only ever buying property in an area with strong rental demand. You want to ensure that if your current tenants decide to leave the property you can quickly and easily rent it to new tenants at the full market rent.

A general rule of thumb is to buy properties in areas with strong local employment and good transport links with local facilities and amenities. When you know how to do it, you can easily assess the true rental demand in any area by using the internet to find like comparisons, speaking to local letting agents, and even placing dummy adverts to test rental demand. If you are not sure about the rental demand in an area, then don’t buy the property to avoid longer than expected void periods, which will cost you money. Due diligence is very important before you make any investment decisions.

3. Buy for cash flow
As already mentioned in Rule No 2, your property should create a monthly positive cash flow for you, so that it is an asset rather than a liability. As prices shot up towards the end of the last property boom, it became increasingly difficult to find properties that stacked up to give a positive cash flow. Many investors were buying properties which would only just “wash their face”, where the rent just about covered the monthly costs. Even worse, in the hope that prices would keep going up, some investors were buying properties that had negative cash flow, whereby the rent was not enough to cover the monthly costs. This meant that the owners had to subsidise the property each month, not a good position to be in, especially if you have a lot of properties like this.

When the property market crash came in 2008, many investors, both amateurs and professionals, owned properties that were worth less than they had purchased them for and were costing money each month just to hold them. In this situation, if you can afford to hold the property, you just need to sit back and wait for the market to recover. But if you can’t afford to continue subsidising it, and you are forced to sell, then that’s one of the ways you could lose money in property. Fortunately, the good news is that, with the benefit of hindsight, you can learn from other people’s past mistakes, so that you don’t have to make the same mistakes yourself.

You should only ever buy property where each month there is a profit from the rental income you receive after paying all of the expenses, including mortgage payments, insurance, repairs and management fees. Positive cash flow is king. Although we expect property prices to rise in the long-term, if you buy your investments ‘as if prices will never go up again’, you will be forced to buy only properties which give you great cash flow now. Extra cash flow will help you to build up a safety buffer, and help you cover potential rises in interest rates in the future.

4. Invest for the long-term buy and hold
Some investors like to buy and sell property to make a profit. This is a good strategy (in a rising market), however, each time you sell a property you will crystallise your profit and you will never make any more money from that particular property. Whereas, if you buy and hold, you can make money from the rental profit each month, as well as long-term capital growth. This way you work once and get paid forever by that property. The real profit in property is in buying and holding for the long-term to benefit from significant capital growth. The key here is being able to afford to hold it and this is why a positive cash flow is so important, so that you don’t have to subsidise ownership of the property. If you plan to hold for the long-term and your property is rented out creating a positive cash flow, you needn’t be concerned by short-term fluctuations in price.

If you do sell a property investors may suggest you reinvest some of the proceeds into another property that will give you a better return. To conclude, many believe it is best to hold property for the long-term. That is how you can become very wealthy and pass wealth on to future generations.

5. Have a cash buffer
Often you meet investors who had to sell their properties because they could not afford to hold them. A problem investors sometimes hear about is of properties occasionally getting damaged or just enduring wear and tear, making them difficult to rent. The landlord may not have the spare cash to make the necessary repairs and improvements and so the property remains void, which ends up costing the owner even more money. This becomes a vicious circle whereby the landlord can’t afford to make the improvements because he has no rent coming in, and can’t get any tenants because he can’t afford to make the improvements. These landlords often become motivated sellers.

The way to avoid this potential problem is to make sure you always have a cash buffer set aside to cover unexpected expenses. In reality, you can get insurance to cover most of the potential issues, including a tenant not paying the rent. However, the more insurance policies you have, the higher your costs and so the less cash flow you will have each month. Investors may recommend you have a cash buffer in place, which you can use if need be. This could be cash in your bank, a clear credit card, or some cash in someone else’s bank that you have agreed you can borrow if necessary. The size of this buffer depends on your personal level of risk. A few thousand pounds per property might be a good idea. This will help you avoid becoming a motivated seller yourself.

An introduction to planning permission

If you are ever considering being a buy-to-let landlord it is likely you will envision at some point making changes to your property in order to enhance its value. Depending on whether you wish to alter, you may need to obtain planning permission. In fact, it would not be unreasonable to go as far as to say that knowing about planning permission is an essential part of any buy-to-let landlord.

In 1948 the right to carry out property development was nationalized. In other words, landowners’ right to build and alter buildings, or to use land or buildings for a different purpose, was taken away by the government. Since that date, anyone wishing to carry out development needs permission to do so.

Permission is given mainly by the local planning authority for the area, which in most cases is the district, borough or city council (collectively referred to as ‘district’ councils). In addition, local government was charged with preparing plans for their areas showing where various kinds of buildings could and could not be built. Thus, the modern comprehensive planning system was born. The system is now overseen by Department of Communities and Local Government in England; the Scottish Government; the Welsh Assembly Government and the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland.

The planning system was introduced so that property development could be controlled in the public interest. Previously, buildings could be built anywhere, or they could be demolished, and land and buildings could be used for any purpose the owner chose. This was thought to be inefficient and sometimes had harmful consequences. The idea behind the planning system is that new buildings and uses are controlled to ensure:

that incompatible uses are not sited together;
the preservation of important buildings and areas;
the conservation of the countryside and natural environment;
the prevention of urban sprawl;
that the appearance and layout of new development is compatible with existing development;
that resources are not wasted;
that infrastructure can be provided efficiently;
that people’s enjoyment of their properties is protected;
highway safety;
co-ordinated provision of new housing and employment facilities.

However, the planning system is not coercive. It relies on landowners wanting to undertake development. An owner does not have to use land in a particular way just because it is allocated for that use or development. Similarly, even when permission is given, the owner is not compelled to act on it. The system is only concerned with what can be built. It does not deal with how it is built. Structural stability, health and safety, sanitation and so on are dealt with under separate legislation and regulations.

Fundamental to the planning system is planning policy. As well as allocating sites and areas for certain types of development, council development plans contain guidance and standards for buildings and uses, relating to matters such as design, layout, density, garden space, privacy, noise, highway safety, size and mix of buildings, parking and many other issues. This guidance, and standards, is known as planning policy and can be set out in a range of development plan documents. There is a preparation process that development plans must go through and public consultation and opportunities for public comment are built into the procedures.

In addition to local policies, the governments of the UK publish national planning policy documents. Inevitably, these are more broad-brush in nature. Their function is not only to guide decisions on individual development proposals but also to give direction to the development plans drawn up by local authorities. The government indicates what should be taken into account when preparing local plans and, in some areas, the thrust of what they should say. When seeking permission for development, planning law requires the body responsible for making the decision to do so in accordance with formally drawn up local planning policy, unless there are sound reasons for coming to a different conclusion. Therefore, planning policies are the prime consideration in whether planning permission will be given.

Permission is needed for development; consequently there is an application process for seeking that permission. Two types of planning application can be made. First, there are ‘full’ or ‘detailed’ applications. These show all aspects of the proposal and are specific about precisely what would be built, what alterations would be made or what use would be made of land or buildings. Second, there are outline applications. These are made to establish, in principle, whether a building can be built, leaving some or all details of the scheme to be determined subsequently. Outline applications can only be made for buildings not for changes of use, including conversions. The details of the building and site layout are called ‘reserved matters’, because they are reserved from the outline application. Another type of application is then made for the approval of reserved matters within the scope of the original outline permission. Once they have been approved, the outline and reserved matters together are the equivalent of a full planning permission.

Although planning permission is supposed to be obtained for development before it takes place, inevitably building work and changes of use happen without the necessary consent. In these circumstances, an application can be made for permission after the event. This is generally referred to as ‘retrospective’ planning permission.

There are various other applications which can be made after planning permission has been granted. Conditions are attached to permissions and there is a procedure for applying to remove or vary conditions. In certain circumstances, this type of application can be used to make changes to the design or layout of an approved scheme. There is a separate procedure for making very minor changes to a planning permission, called a non-material amendment. One condition attached to a planning permission is a time limit within which to begin the development permitted; this is usually three years for full planning permission (five years in Northern Ireland and Wales). Applications to extend the duration of planning permission are often referred to as ‘renewals’ although they are, technically, new applications.

Of course, not all planning applications are successful and the system includes an appeals process. Appeals are made to central government bodies: the Planning Inspectorate in England and Wales, and the Planning Appeals Commission in Northern Ireland.

The appeals system in Scotland is a little different. Appeals against decisions taken by council officers are decided by a group of elected councillors. Appeals against decisions taken by the council’s planning committee are made to the Scottish Government’s Directorate for Planning and Environmental Appeals.

Appeals can be made when a council refuses permission, fails to make a decision within set time periods, or grants planning permission subject to conditions which the applicant wishes to vary or remove.

Appeals provide the opportunity for the merits of a proposed development to be considered by an independent inspector (reporter in Scotland, commissioner in Northern Ireland), free of local politics. Appeal decisions, and the interpretations they contain, are supposed to be taken into account by councils when deciding planning applications. Thus the appeals system is intended to keep a check on councils and to provide some consistency in decisions between councils.

Adding property value from studies and cellars

One of the biggest changes that has occurred within the family home over the past 10 to 15 years is the growing popularity of the home office. An increasing number of people now choose to work at home, either to create a better work-life balance, to avoid the misery of commuting, or simply to undertake the work they love in the comfort of their own homes.

Britain has become an entrepreneurial state, with many ambitious individuals and small groups keen to set up companies on the lowest possible budget. It’s undoubtedly true that setting up at home cuts overheads significantly, and allows you to work long, productive hours without completely giving up family or home life. Just over 10 years ago, I remember leaving a large practice to start my own business from my spare bedroom. It was an enormous downscale –believe me! However, even though I now have a much larger, fully staffed office, I still like to spend time at home in my own study, in quiet contemplation. It can be an amazing place, allowing me to avoid the distractions of the outside world and focus on delivering work that needs high levels of concentration.

Whether you choose to use a corner of your living space, or create a study or home office in a designated room, it’s undoubtedly important to keep it tidy and make it ruthlessly efficient. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful. Seamless, integrated storage will keep chaos at bay, and you can focus on creating a comfortable, motivating place to work.

A study is a good place to have if you have to work from home. Another place that can add value is a cellar.
If you are lucky enough to have a small cellar underneath your house –perhaps used for nothing more than some storage or a place to keep some wine cool –you may be able to change this into much-needed, usable space.

One of the problems with existing cellars is that they have no natural light –and no natural ventilation. It is also common for cellars to have very restricted headroom.

If you are working to a tight budget then your best option is to waterproof the existing space as it is, paint and decorate it, install some decent artificial light and some mechanically extracted ventilation, and then use the space as a decent family utility room.

The great thing about putting washing machines and dryers in this sort of underground space is that the surrounding walls give a large amount of acoustic protection. It’s great to move all of these noisy appliances from the ground floor down to the cellar. If your budget can stretch a bit further, why not consider digging out the cellar’s ground slab, and building in a new, insulated concrete floor at a lower level, to give you some increased headroom. If you have a few more spare pennies stashed away, you can always look at enlarging the cellar and extending it underground –either towards the front or back of the property. This may provide you with the opportunity to install some glazing at ground level –to allow natural light into the basement spaces and encourage some good, old-fashioned natural ventilation. This makes your basement utility room a much nicer space in which to spend time –rather than being shut away in a dark and dingy dungeon.

The truth is that any additional space for utility-room storage, which can be easily accessed by a cellar staircase, is always going to be a great asset and a selling point for any good family home. Even with the tightest budget, any conversion of an existing cellar is going to be a good use of space.

The construction processes vary depending on the type of property that you live in, but the general principles of creating a new basement under an existing building go something like this:

1 The basement company constructs a hoarding at the front of your house, which allows them to start digging through your front garden.

2 Once they have dug down to the basement level, they then start to make their way underneath your house, by forming a one-meter-wide tunnel right down the middle of your home. They go down the middle because all of your structural foundations run along the edge of the house. For the time being, they have to stay away from them.

3 They then have a skip located on the road outside your house and a conveyor belt that goes from the underground space up through your front garden –over the top of the street footpath and into the skip on the road. As the guys dig out the mud, they throw it on to the conveyor belt and it goes from the subterranean space and into the skip. The skip is unloaded regularly by a lorry with a grabber.

4 They then tunnel off to the corners of the house and begin to underpin the house with huge, deep, new concrete foundations. They gradually and very slowly do this in sections to provide the much-needed structural support to your foundations before they can remove the surrounding soil.

5 They underpin, remove a bit of soil, then put up some Acrow props to provide some temporary support for your flooring above.

6 Once all of the perimeter walls and foundations are completely underpinned, the remainder of all the soil under your house is removed.

7 Steel beams and steel columns then span beneath your existing ground floor to keep it in place.

8 Light wells are formed at the front and the back of the property, to allow in as much natural light and ventilation as possible. These can either be sunken external courtyards or glass skylights inserted at ground level.

9 Next, the waterproof tanking system is put up against all of the concrete walls.

10 Insulated concrete slabs, under-floor heating pipes and screeds are installed.

11 All the drainage and plumbing is installed.

12 The walls are timber-batoned, dry-lined and plaster-boarded before being given their final finish.

Living room and kitchen design for aspiring landlords

Living rooms have changed so much over the last few generations. In the good old days, your living room might have been known as a sitting room, a drawing room, a front room or a parlour. The living room was often the space in which you could grandly declare your style, status and taste, because it was here that visitors would be invited when they came to your home. In many families, the living room was a child-free zone, kept for ‘best’ to impress! Times have undoubtedly changed, and not that many houses have space for such luxury – spreading out to fill every room in the house instead! In fact, the separate ‘formal’ drawing room often feels like a fairly boring and redundant space – rarely used and usually not very comfortable.

Here in the 21st century, we are much more adventurous with our use of space, and it’s increasingly common to combine the kitchen-dining area, making the kitchen very much the central hub of the home. Many kitchen-diners have their own TV screens, and most homes have a number of TVs scattered throughout. For this reason, the ‘new’ living room isn’t necessarily a place for sitting down to watch TV. In fact, in my home we watch more TV in the kitchen than in any other room. So maybe it’s time that we rethink the way we use our living spaces. Sure, get a TV in there for times when you really want to flop and chill out; however, it makes sense to think about giving your living room a new role.

Today’s living rooms can provide space for reading, listening to music, having a relaxed chat and gathering around the fire. Where kitchens can often feel like ‘harder’spaces, with functional flooring and finishes, the living room wants to be a place where you can curl up and get cosy. It’s important that any living room feels relaxing and comfortable. It’s undoubtedly a space where you can hang out with your kids, but there is also an opportunity here to make this a space that is a little more grown-up. The TV will always be the inevitable focus of any living space (or, indeed, any room in which it is situated), but by planning a room properly there are ways to give equal priority to a beautiful, real fire. Real fires have such a powerful psychological appeal, and represent one of the very best ways to truly relax.

We live in an age in which we all love a greater sense of space in our homes. Most of us don’t want to live in tiny, box-like rooms, all with a similar scale, size and proportion. Instead, we like variety in our homes, diverse spaces with plenty of light and a great flow of air. We like rooms to be sized to match our requirements; in other words, we need them to be big enough to host our lifestyles, and smaller when we want to be cosy. The lighting and finishes are then chosen to create an atmosphere appropriate to those rooms.

If one thing’s for sure, kitchens are the absolute heart of the home. They aren’t just places for cooking, but a hub for socialising with family, friends and relatives. The 21st-century family kitchen is a virtual hive of activity and, for me, it is without a doubt the most important room in the house. Dining rooms are, however, something completely different. There really has been a change in our view of these spaces, particularly in smaller homes. Sure, if you have a grand house with loads of space, then a formal dining room is a fantastic space for those special occasions – huge dinner parties, or family gatherings. However, if you need more space in your house, and need it in rooms that might sit alongside your dining room, then this is the first room that needs to go.

Another reason why we are seeing the death of the formal dining room boils down to the fact that younger families simply don’t use formal dining spaces in the same way that previous generations did. The modern family is much more relaxed and far less stuffy. Times are changing and we don’t seem to mind the idea of entertaining in what is effectively kitchen space.

Your kitchen has to be ruthlessly functional, highly durable, and intelligently planned to suit the exact needs of your family. If it’s not, then you have not only wasted a large proportion of your refurbishment budget (even the most affordable kitchens still cost money), but it will drive you mad every time you use it. Cooking for you and your family should be a pleasurable and rewarding experience, and not a source of frustration.

In the early 1950s, researchers in the US developed the idea of the ‘work triangle’. This is an ergonomic concept derived from research to improve industrial efficiency, which was then applied to the domestic kitchen. Whether you are planning your own kitchen, or enlisting the help of a professional, you can use the ‘work triangle’ method to check the efficiency of your design. The three points of the triangle correspond to the three main kitchen activity zones. There is the wet zone (the sink), the cold zone (the fridge) and the hot zone (the cooker). Their position and relationship to each other is critical to achieving an efficient and comfortable kitchen design.

The recommended overall distance (the total length of the three sides) is 6 metres (20 feet), with no two points being less than 90 centimetres (35 inches) apart. Sound complicated? It’s not really. Read on! If the total is less than 4 metres (12 feet), then your appliances will be too close for comfort. If it’s greater than 8.5 metres (26 feet), then your appliances will be too far apart and you’ll waste time and effort trekking between them. A good way to burn off the calories that you are about to put on, but not an efficient kitchen design! Try to assess the traffic flow across the triangle, too. If you have a large kitchen, people walking through the space may not be a problem, but in small rooms it can reduce efficiency even further.