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Archive for July, 2009

Trading up, trading down

Monday, July 27th, 2009

From the raw beauty of the Cairngorms to the quiet reaches of Cornwall

Writing home: Properties with literary connections

Monday, July 27th, 2009

Fancy a house with a literary past? Huma Qureshi opens the book on some inspiring properties

Snooping around: Rural, urban or renovation

Monday, July 27th, 2009

From the canals of London to a gated enclave in Portugal's Algarve

A holiday home in Portugal

Monday, July 27th, 2009

From Porto to the Algarve, Portugal has some fine property for sale. Graham Norwood picks some of the best

House prices steady in ‘fragile’ market

Monday, July 27th, 2009

The average price of a house in England and Wales remained steady for the third month in a row in July but recovery could still be some way off, according to a survey out today.

In its monthly national housing survey, Hometrack, the property intelligence group, said that while there has been no growth in headline prices over the past three months, the number of sellers achieving their asking price has continued to grow. It rose to 91.5% in July from a low of 88.3% in January.

Average house prices have fallen 7.7% over the past 12 months. The cheapest area in which to buy is the north-east, where the average price is £100,600. The most expensive area is Greater London, where properties cost £274,500 on average.

Richard Donnell, director of research at Hometrack, said: "A lack of mortgage finance, low buyer confidence and fears of unemployment are being offset by increased demand, a pick-up in sales and a scarcity of housing for sale."

However, he said that even though the improvement in market activity might well be real, it was "off a very low base. The housing market remains in a fragile state." It could easily be undermined, he added, by an increase in the supply of homes for sale.

Hometrack found that agents and surveyors reported that house prices increased across 10% of postcodes in July, mainly in southern England. In the north of the country, agents reported "difficult" market conditions characterised by more stock but weak demand.

The group also found that it took longer to sell a house in the north – an average of more than 10 weeks, compared with 5.8 in London.

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Fancy the barge life? Don’t go off the deep end

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

Property prices may well be falling, but that hasn't stopped several throwaway suggestions that living on a barge may be cheaper than paying city rents.

However, buying a narrrowboat isn't necessarily the brightest of ideas if you've never lived on water before.

"So many people talk glibly about getting on the property ladder by buying a boat, but a boat is not a property," says Rex Walden, chairman of the Residential Boat Owners Association. "If you are considering it because you love waterways and wildlife, then fine - but it worries me that recently a lot of people have shown an interest for all the wrong reasons."

Walden says he has heard of land-living renters ordering narrowboats to move into permanently - only to confess that they have never stepped on board this sort of boat before. He adds: "If you are serious, then try it out. Book a narrowboat holiday, ideally in the winter when it's freezing cold and raining, to see what it really would be like."

A holiday is all it took for Walden and his wife to be converted; many of their friends have since followed suit. They have been living on a narrowboat, moored usually around Staffordshire, for the last six years.

"It may sound like a cliche, but there is something charming about how time slows down. There's the changing scenery, and the novelty of fauna and flora you may not normally see," says Walden.

There are plenty of websites that offer canal barge holidays - try Narrow-Boat-Hire.net, Black-Prince.com, and Waterways Holidays.com.

But don't presume that a water-based break will be cheaper than a spell in a hotel or B&B, as there is an inevitable premium for the novelty factor of lodging in a boat.

The cheapest last-minute holiday Cash found on UK Boat Hire.com was for £647 for four people for a week, in the beginning of August, in Gailey, Staffordshire; the most costly was £1,027 for six people for a week along the waterways in Falkirk, in the Scottish Lowland canals. "Narrowboats are not cheap, and maintenance is high, so companies that hire them out have to allow for that," says Walden.

He says that complete barge novices should be given elementary training about locks, steering and safety checks.

Most companies should run through this on the day you arrive to board - some send out training DVDs as well.

If you get hooked, and are seriously considering living on water, then try it out long-term before committing to buy.

GreatEscapeNarrowboats.co.uk lets you rent for a minimum of six months to see if it really is for you, with the option of buying at the end of your contract. Rentals start from £600 per month, although you will also have to pay for a waterways licence (£50 a month for six months) and fuel and heating costs, which are estimated at around £25 a month.

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Mortgage trap that looms for right-to-buy homeowners

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

Survey reveals level of risk facing ex-tenants who purchase their council property. Jamie Elliott reports

People who buy their council property under right-to-buy schemes are far more likely than other homeowners to get into mortgage arrears and risk losing their homes.

A survey of almost 2,000 mortgage holders carried out by the campaign group Consumer Focus between March and May found that right-to-buy homeowners were twice as likely as other households to have had problems paying their mortgage. Nearly one in 10 who had bought their council home got into difficulty in the previous three months.

People who had taken out a mortgage on their council home were also 50% more likely to have other debts secured against it, leaving their property at greater risk of being repossessed.

The findings, given exclusively to The Observer, come as no surprise to Val Blood, of North Yorkshire Housing Advice Resource Project, and duty housing adviser at York county court.

"During the property boom, council tenants were encouraged to take out mortgages they simply couldn't afford," she says. "Companies leafleted whole estates and especially targeted tenants in rent arrears with the promise of paying off what they owed and allowing them to buy their home as well. But if you can't pay your rent, how can you pay a mortgage? Within a year many were facing repossession and often ended up homeless."

Council tenants who bought their homes have also been targeted by companies selling second mortgages.

"Because of the discounts councils offer, these people have equity in their homes as soon as they buy them," says Brian Coulson, housing lawyer at Bury Law Centre. "There has been a lot of hard sell on TV and cold-calling from lenders encouraging right-to-buy homeowners to 'release the equity in your home'. When you're struggling to make ends meet, these offers are hard to resist."

Investing for the future
Glen Mason, 54, felt he was investing in his future when he bought his Cheltenham council flat for £34,000 in 2006. "I thought buying the flat would make my retirement easier," he says.

However, store card and credit card debts soon started to build up, making it difficult for Mason to keep up his mortgage repayments. Barclaycard and some of his other lenders successfully applied for charging orders, securing the money they were owed against Mason's home. Then the recession cost him his agency cleaning job. "I started claiming jobseeker's allowance in January but couldn't get any help from the government with the mortgage repayments until April. By then it was too late."

Homeowners who claim jobseeker's allowance or income support have to wait 13 weeks before they are entitled to help with mortgage interest payments.

Last month a judge granted Mason's mortgage company a possession order, and gave him 28 days to vacate his home.

"I'm still in the flat but am worried the bailiffs will come and change the locks at any minute," says Mason. "What makes me angry is knowing that if I had still been renting from the council, housing benefit would have covered my rent when I lost my job and I would still have a home."

Sale and rent back
Some right-to-buy owners who land in difficulty are tempted by "sale and rent back" schemes, where they sell their property at a discount to a private company with the promise of remaining in it as a tenant. But Denise Rooney of Chas Housing Aid Centre, Kirklees, says many schemes fail to deliver: "We have cases where people are allowed to remain in the home for a much shorter time than they were led to believe or the company they sold their home to goes bust, the debt is sold on and they are evicted."

Right to buy homeowners whose properties are repossessed, including families with children, are not eligible to be rehoused because they are deemed "intentionally homeless". According to the housing charity Shelter, more than 600 households were classified as intentionally homeless due to mortgage arrears in 2008.

"The vast majority were people who had bought their homes under right-to-buy," says Shelter's Bill Rashleigh. "Many got mortgages from sub-prime lenders, which makes them ineligible for help under the government's homeowner mortgage support scheme and often they don't fit the narrow criteria for the mortgage rescue scheme either. So when the worst happens and they are evicted, they find there is no safety net."

A Consumer Focus spokesman says: "The government must ensure people go into right-to-buy with their eyes fully open and provide the level of help and support needed if they get into difficulties. Lenders should also be obliged to lend in a responsible way that takes account of their needs."

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Why buying the boat of your dreams is not all plain sailing

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

Mooring fees, maintenance, insurance: extras abound. Harriet Meyer steers you in the right direction

A spot of snorkelling in a secluded cove with no tour guide to hurry you along, cruising the coast to look for dolphins when the fancy takes you or simply bouncing along the waves at high speed - yes, owning a boat can bring many pleasures.

But they come at a price. If you're considering buying a craft, whether a one-man canoe or luxury cruiser, it's vital to consider all the costs. Depending on the scale of your ambition, it can set you back as much as a car or a house.

Aside from the boat itself, there are running expenses such as mooring fees, winter storage, maintenance and insurance - and you must account for the accidents that can happen at sea.

"As a rule of thumb, running costs are about 10% of the purchase price for mid-range boats of around 36ft long," says Stuart Carruthers, cruising manager of the Royal Yachting Association.

"Some, such as motor boats, will cost much more as the price of fuel has risen significantly since November."

Where to buy
If you are keen to start researching a potential purchase, Boatshed.com and ybw.com (Yachting & Boating World) detail secondhand boats for sale. You could use them as a starting point to check whether the price demanded by another seller, say, resembles that of similar models on the site.

Another option is online auction site eBay, which tends to have small boats at competitive prices.

Check the state of the boat before payment. For yachts, you should enlist a marine surveyor to report on its condition. "Don't pay anything to anybody until this is done, even a deposit - and make sure to get a competent surveyor who has indemnity insurance so that if they tell you a pack of lies you've got somebody to sue," says Carruthers.

"Also check they are a member of a recognised organisation such as the International Institute of Marine Surveying (IIMS) or the Yacht Brokers, Designers and Surveyors Association (YBDSA)."

For smaller boats - dinghies - just research whether you're paying the right price given the condition.

Keeping things covered
Before taking to the waves, check safety equipment. And in case you do get into trouble on the water, make sure your marine insurance is sufficient to cover damage to the boat and any other costs arising from an accident.

You should also check on the amount you can claim, should your boat end up in a watery grave.

Boat insurance is not compulsory, but most marinas and harbour authorities insist on third-party insurance, as does British Waterways, which controls most of the rivers and lakes in the UK.

This form of insurance predates all other types of cover, and policies vary in detail and price, which can make comparison tricky. Also, prices will vary widely depending on whether you intend to race or simply cruise along.

It pays to do research and decide on your priorities. Boat owner Damian King, 30, realised the value of his insurance cover when his boat was taken for a joyride by some drunken revellers off Brighton beach this month.

"My laser dinghy was left washing up all night," he says, "with bits strewn across the beach and out to sea - it took a bit of a pounding and I lost quite a few items that were stored in the boat."

However, the science teacher is content with his insurer Noble Marine, which provides "new for old" cover. "I always thought I'd need to replace something on the boat, from damaging it through racing, but I never thought that it would be as a result of an incident like this."

He is claiming on his policy for repair of the boat and the lost items, including spars and sheets. The comprehensive cover costs £130 a year.

Finding insurance
If you want to find out if you are paying the going rate for insurance, you might want to check the websites that give you an instant quote. Craftinsure.com and Covermyboat.co.uk are two such sites.

GJW is the UK's largest direct boat insurer and publishes the full policy document on its website, so you can see exactly what you're covered for, as does Noble Marine.

Always check what is included because, for example, medical expenses are not a feature of every policy.

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Let’s move to … Eastbourne

Friday, July 24th, 2009

The East Sussex town has cracking caffs and ice-cream parlours, says Tom Dyckhoff

What's going for it? Magnificent municipal borders. Oh, and a pier out of your dreams. Old people – loads and loads and loads of them, and that can only be a thoroughly good thing. Lots of Festival of Britain-era caffs (loving the Lilac Fish Restaurant). And what a bandstand! Right out on the prom with a sea-blue terracotta tiled roof. The Towner Art Gallery opened recently in a new, sharp-suited building jam-packed with a splendid collection. The town already has its own Cultural Quarter and attendant magazine, thanks very much, like any self-respecting regenerating seaside, and, indeed, a smattering of downshifted creative types.

The case against The usual seaside melancholy. The main shopping area's been mucked about with over the years with cheapskate malls and rank public art.

Well connected? Road-wise you're at the mercy of the A27. Rail better: trains two or three times an hour to the mainline at Haywards Heath (45 mins); two or three an hour to London Victoria or London Bridge (about 90 mins); an hour to Gatwick; 35-45 mins to Brighton.

Schools Primaries: West Rise and St John's Meads CofE both "good", says Ofsted, St Thomas a Becket Catholic "good" with "outstanding features", and Ocklynge "outstanding". Secondaries: Ratton, Eastbourne Tech and Cavendish all "good"; The Bishop Bell CofE and Willingdon Community "good" with "outstanding features".

Hang out at Not one, but three cracking Italian ice-cream parlours. Notarianni's, Macaris and the gorgeously OTT Favoloso.

Where to buy West, like the Meads area, where you'll find 10-bedroom Victorian villas and modern exec homes. Ditto north in Willingdon, especially around Ratton village. Closer in, south and west of the train station, is poshest. Villagey spots like Little Chelsea, Upperton, Old Town and Little Ratton for more affordable Victorian terraces and semis. Perfectly pleasant suburbs in St Anthony's and Hampden Park. Cheaper terraces east in the Redoubt area.

Market values Vast piles, £600,000-£1.2m. Four- or five-bedroom detacheds, big period semis and seasidey town houses, £350,000-£600,000. Smaller detacheds and period semis, £180,000-£350,000. Terraces, £140,000-£320,000. Flats, all prices from £80,000-£800,000.

Bargain of the week Two-bedroom end-of-terrace house in the town centre, needs modernisation, £129,995, with MasonBryant (01323 646564).

From the streets of Eastbourne

Noelle Cullimore "Good things: the Dickens tea cottage on South Street, for tea and cakes. The nightlife's ideal if you are 16 or over 65."

Alan Howlett "Best place to eat: the Lamb Inn, an 11th-century pub. Best-kept secrets: the Underground Theatre and the award-winning butcher in Albert Parade."

Ed and Jane Vincent "It's friendly, peaceful and quiet. Negative – tThe shopping precinct's abysmal."

• Do you live in West Kirby? Do you have a favourite haunt or a pet hate? If so, please write, by next Friday, to lets.move@guardian.co.uk

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Head to Portugal for your holiday home in the sun

Friday, July 24th, 2009

Prices in Portugal are down less than in neighbouring Spain, but pick your spot carefully. Graham Norwood is your guide

Britons seeking a bargain holiday home in the sun may look to Spain or France, but they shouldn't ignore one of Europe's more salubrious locations. If you reckon Portugal is merely an upmarket version of Spain, think again; it has a different philosophy to its Iberian neighbour.

In 1993, laws were passed to restrict overdevelopment in designated coastal areas, mostly on the Algarve in the south, so demand sometimes exceeds supply. Although prices have been on a rollercoaster, they have fallen less than in any part of Spain.

By far the most popular holiday home area is the Algarve, due to its 280 days of sunshine a year and because large numbers of budget flights access nearby Faro airport. But that makes it Portugal's busiest region, too.

The Estoril coast south of Lisbon is also popular, while the northern coast is increasingly in favour.

Foreigners tend to buy new homes, which are generally of a higher quality than in Spain. Expect to pay €120,000 (£104,000) for a small apartment (twice this for a sea view), and €1m for a family-sized detached villa near a beach.

Brits considering the Algarve should bear in mind that, historically, it is a region where property prices have seen much more dramatic ups and downs than the wider national market.

Go back to the 1960s and the Algarve was visited only by small numbers of Portuguese holidaymakers, but by the end of that decade, luxury hotels and golf courses began springing up. In the early 1970s it was popular with British holiday and retirement home buyers.

All development came to an abrupt halt after the 1974 revolution, according to Dr Michael Ball, the author of an annual Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors review of European housing markets. "Investors lost a fortune and tourism to the Algarve practically ceased by 1975," he says.

The pace of development went back into overdrive in the late 1980s, with well-heeled British buyers flocking there. Algarve prices plummeted in the early 1990s and shot up again at the end of the decade, before another dive in 2003.

The Global Property Guide website reports prices in the Algarve fell 4.4% over the 12 months to last September, after a tiny rise in 2007 and a 6% increase the year before. Looking at Portugal as a whole, prices slid 4.8% in the year to last September, with the Alentejo and Centro regions hit hardest. "With the economy hurtling into recession, the Portuguese housing market is expected to continue its downward price spiral until end-2010," says the site. Some potential buyers may see that as good news, others as a reason to steer clear.

Buying in Portugal remains more complicated than in much of mainland Europe. First, you need a tax card and number from the local council in the area where you wish to buy, and you must nominate a Portuguese address for documentation; usually the selling agent will act as this contact. Second, very few Portuguese finance houses lend to foreign buyers, so most Britons must arrange a mortgage at home. Third, many flats – especially those built before the legal changes of 1993 – are run by residents who set up committees to organise services like cleaning and maintenance; so it can be hard for foreign-based buyers to get involved. Set aside 2% of the purchase price for legal fees and 1% for Portuguese land registry charges. Add 1% each for turning on utilities and arranging a Portuguese mortgage. Stamp duty can be 7.5% if you buy at an auction, and there is transfer tax on secondhand homes of up to 10%.

The Portuguese estate agency profession is regulated, so individual agents are more qualified and more professional than in Spain, but charges are unregulated – when you come to sell, the commission can be a whopping 10%, though you can haggle.

Most agents list properties by square-metre floor size; some include outdoor patios and some don't, so check to make true comparisons.

All mortgage debts and local taxes are property specific. This means the previous owner must clear them before you buy, otherwise you inherit them.

Anyone wanting a pure investment and long-term tenants (professional renters, not holidaymakers) should furnish their properties, but remember there is little demand in resort areas, so stick to Lisbon and Porto.

Gallery: Homes in Portugal

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