Disused properties: Use 'Em Or Lose 'Em

Gerrard Winstanley office at evnuk.org.uk
Wed Dec 5 23:09:27 GMT 2007

Disused properties: No more empty promises
Boarded-up properties remain scandalously common, but steps are being
taken to fill them


By Helen Brown
Published: 05 December 2007
Disused properties: No more empty promises On a mission: David
Ireland, chief executive of the Empty Homes Agency

With their doors and windows clamped shut with padlocked metal plates,
and ivy crawling over their crumbling brickwork, there are huge houses
all around London's North Circular that I've nicknamed The Men in the
Iron Masks. And I'm sure I'm not the only one to have been stuck there
in weekend traffic, contemplating their state with sorrow and
frustration, and calculating their wasted value â€" both fiscal and social.

In the age of Grand Designs and Changing Rooms, it's irresistible not
to fantasise about what I would do, were I to get my hands on one of
these lovely Victorian "fixer-uppers", to wonder who owns them and how
such prime real estate can be left fallow in this time of severe
housing shortage and silly-money prices. You feel for the owners and
tenants of neighbouring properties. It seems criminal that they are
being left to crumble and burn while so many of us struggle to heave
ourselves up the property ladder.

Wherever you live, you've probably looked at similar unloved homes the
same way. There are currently 663,000 wasted empty homes in England,
according to the Empty Homes Agency, a small campaigning charity. The
agency's chief executive, David Ireland, says: "The Government is
fixated on building more homes, but we are convinced that returning
more empty homes to use should be part of the solution, too. All too
often, empty homes are overlooked and nobody takes responsibility for
getting them into use. We are happy to provide advice to owners, and
work with others to seek a solution to empty homes that are reported
to us."

Ireland tells me, for instance, that those 79 houses on the North
Circular have lain empty since the 1970s. The houses were part of a
mass compulsory purchase of more than 400 houses that were acquired by
the Government 35 years ago to make way for a road- widening scheme
that never happened. Many of the houses have been vandalised and set
on fire. In addition to the empty homes, there are acres of empty land
where houses have been demolished. Responsibility for the houses now
lies with Transport for London.

There are three main reasons for these 663,000 empty homes, according
to Ireland: "The first group have small-scale owners who've let the
properties fall into disrepair, or have bought/inherited them in that
state. These owners have pipe dreams about fixing them up, and dream
of the prices they could achieve. But they don't have the time or the
means, and so nothing is done year after year. These sorts of
properties have always been around.

"The second group are a consequence of property speculation. They are
new-builds bought for investment. People buy off-plan with the
intention to sell, but it seems it's human nature to wait for their
high expectations to be met rather than to accept what they're worth
now or to rent them out.

Some developments in Leeds, Salford Quays and Leicester are good
examples of this right now. The maths doesn't work out and the owners
are losing money, but that seems to be the way people think â€" they'll
wait for big returns in the future rather than settle for a small but
good income now.

"The third group," Ireland continues, "are publicly owned, and this
group isn't as big now as it used to be. The Ministry of Defence used
to be dreadful, for example. Elsewhere â€" particularly in the North â€"
you'd see local authorities compulsory-purchasing homes with a view to
regeneration. But some of those regeneration projects are taking
forever, and in the meantime, homes that could be put to good use are
sitting vacant. A vacant home can devalue neighbouring properties by
as much as 10 per cent."

If you're a homeowner in the first group, there are some things you
should know. Yes, being in possession of a property with no mortgage
is a good thing. You might be waiting for the time and means to do it
up and fetch the big bucks you've heard it's worth. But Ireland
stresses that "an empty home is a liability". Here are some scary
figures for you. According to Ireland: "To keep a property value from
falling, you need to spend 1 per cent of its capital value on
maintenance every year. So if you own a home worth £200,000, you
should spend an average of £2,000 per annum on it."

Ireland says that many of the empty "aspirational" homes, those with
original period features and oh-so-charming views, are often snapped
up. There are also, he says, many average family or starter homes
available to those with a nose for a bargain and a taste for DIY.

If you're a buyer, and you are tempted to take on an empty home, then
it's not always easy to find these bargain opportunities â€" estate
agents are loathe to put them in their shop window. But there are some
specialist websites you should know about. Instead of trawling the
high street, you can hunt for fixer-uppers on sites such as
www.empro.co.uk (which focuses on west London and Birmingham);
www.propertyrenovate.com; www. pickupaproperty.com; www. renovate
alerts.com; www.plotbrowser.com; and www.plotfinder.net.

The Empty Homes Agency is campaigning for changes in tax laws to
encourage people to do up such abandoned properties and bring them
back into use. Currently, the situation varies from council to
council, but empty properties are often exempt from council tax for
six months to a year, after which time, owners are usually liable for
half the usual bills.

To ensure that these homes don't sit empty, the EHA is calling for a
50 per cent council-tax discount for the first year, with the full
rate to be charged thereafter. They also want the Government to reward
renovation by dropping the VAT on refurbishment from the standard 17.5
per cent down to 5 per cent, or less in cases where property has been
left empty for over 12 months.

The EHA also wants to introduce challenging national and regional
targets to reduce the numbers of empty homes; to put a statutory duty
on local authorities to tackle long-term empty properties in their
area; and to put a duty on public-sector landlords to annually report
long-term empty homes.

If you own a house that's sitting vacant and you can't afford to do it
up to fetch its ideal market value, there's lots you can do. Ireland
points out that "letting, making money now, is a good idea, and the
laws of tenancy are so good that you shouldn't panic about not being
able to get people out. If your home is in a very poor state of repair
â€" even to the extent that you suspect it will be sold as a plot for
demolition â€" you should look into the opportunities that a short-life
local housing authority might be able to offer.

"Some short-life co-ops have warehouses full of things such as bolt-on
kitchen cupboards. They can go in there and make the house habitable,
and get an employed person on a low income a place to live," adds
Ireland. "They will accept tenancies as short as four months. In
exchange, the owner will receive a small rent, a guardian for the
property ensuring that the place is secure and squatters stay out. And
problems such as leaks will be noticed immediately and dealt with
before they cause long-term damage."

So, putting your empty house in order is a win-win situation. It is
surely time that these homes were freed from their iron masks and
reintroduced back into the community.

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