In the year to March 2014, the number of new homes being built in the UK jumped 31% to more than 133,000. That’s great news for the growing UK population, which increased by nearly half a million last year, but are we happy with where we are living?
Huge residential development companies are constantly building new homes and it’s clear to see from the disparate population-versus-new-build figures that they are up against an impossible imbalance with supply and demand. This calls for drastic measures; we need fast builds and lots of them.
However, to do this, developers rely on a template that is quick and cheap to build and even quicker to sell. Materials are usually uniform, designs are often unoriginal and personalities can be absent. This takes the personal touch out of home development, which is something we need if we are going to change buildings from houses to homes.
As large property developers are fundamentally businesses, their main priorities are naturally inclined towards profits. In order to save labour and supply costs, developers aim to finish their new-builds quickly and cheaply; houses of the same shape, size and layout mean that resources are saved and the workforce can be moved quickly onto the next money-making venture.
There can be no denying the benefits of this approach; our population is growing faster than we can keep up with and houses need to be built. However, with this approach comes the decline of the personalised home we all aspire to. Without input into the design and layout of our homes, how can generic buildings reflect our individual needs?
Having bought a number of developments off plan in the past, I have been extremely disappointed to see them in their full magnolia-rabbit-hutch ‘glory’. Once the properties are personalised and given the ‘interior designer’ feel, they become warm, homely spaces. Perhaps this is why these big-time developers rely so heavily on the show home to get rid of their stock? However, without this, many of us lack the imagination to see through the pale-yellow, square boxes on offer.
This is where these huge companies need to enlist the help of the humble developer; someone like you or me, who will buy one of these formulas and see it as a blank canvas. You need only set foot in your neighbour’s house to see the similarities. But there is the possibility that they may have knocked through the wall separating the living room and dining room and suddenly they have a wide open space that runs the length of the house. They’ve altered the formula and the result is that both rooms now get the benefit of the fire in the winter. They’ve created a home.
Homes that have been altered by independent developers are in higher demand than those that are conforming to this formula. Anybody who redevelops homes will tell you that if you want your property to re-sell you need to give it a unique selling point; something that stands apart from the mundane. This may be knocking down a wall or completely reworking the layout.
Independent redevelopers are on the front line when it comes to knowing what homeowners want and how to get them buying. They are closer to the projects than bigger businesses who receive orders from the top — more often than not they’ll be in there with a paintbrush doing their bit. So it makes sense for the bigwigs to take a leaf out of the smaller developer’s book and see what he does to get constant sales.
Having previously renovated a five-bedroom house off plan, I painted it with muted tones, installed shutters and created a dressing room within the bedroom, I then furnished the house to give it a lived-in feel and put the property on the market. This was done in parallel with the neighbours who were selling the exact same house next door, though theirs remained in the new, untouched, off-plan condition. The properties were up for sale at the same time and at the same price. Mine, with its additional finishing touches, had more offers and sold first.
It is rare to find an independent housing developer who has only taken on one project. Doing one will give you the bug, so you will do another and another, until you have a whole portfolio to your name (trust me, I know) and as a result of this, you get to know what people really want in their homes. These small-time developers rely on their ability to deliver the kind of homes that will get people buying, because they have so much more invested in these builds. Whether they are making the houses open and more welcoming by moving a staircase, or relocating a bathroom so it’s no longer leading off the kitchen, older builds with a bit of extra care and consideration are more appealing.
Consumer needs are at the top of small developers’ priority lists and they have to be if they want to make a decent return on their investment. This contrasts with the major developers’ concern with corporate needs, profits and margins that take away the personality of homes. This attitude removes the creativity from housing development and it is creativity that makes houses special and ultimately makes them homes.
Lucy Alexander is a property expert and presenter of Homes under the Hammer on BBC One