Period romance: why do the British love old properties?

Illustration of a row of period houses
© James Oses

After a prolonged December freeze, with fuel bills and the cost of living rising, it is striking that Britain’s most enduringly desirable properties are often the most badly insulated, the most draughty and the most expensive to maintain. The nation has enjoyed a long love affair with period homes. Is it time that heady romance was brought down to earth?

Britain has the oldest housing stock in Europe, with latest Office for National Statistics figures for England and Wales showing more than one in five homes was built before 1919 — more than one in three was built before the start of the second world war.

We not only have an exceptionally geriatric housing stock, we are also unusually fond of older houses. According to the architectural historian Owen Hatherley, the most numerous of these — Georgian and Victorian houses — are “massively fetishised”.

No other country is as nostalgic. The rest of Europe is generally keener than we are on well-constructed newer builds. In much of east Asia, there has never been a tradition of revering old buildings, with traditional homes in Japan, for example, expected to last only 30 years before being razed and rebuilt, due in part to the high risk of earthquakes. It is the same as public buildings. The Ise Jingu grand shrine, which has been on the same site for as long as two millennia, is torn down and reconstructed every 20 years.

In the UK, although it has never been properly quantified, estate agents describe a “period premium”: meaning buyers get less space for their money. Unlike the new-build premium, which, like the extra you pay for a new car, vanishes once you take ownership, the premium period appears to be durable.

The most recent comparative survey by the Halifax bank found that in the 25 years up to 2011, houses built before 1919 increased in value by an average of 461 per cent, compared with 357 per cent for the market as a whole.

I discovered how big the premium period could be when we tried to move to a small house in north Bristol last year. Every option stretched our budget until we found a 1960s house in a prime area that was selling for around 20 per cent less than comparably sized Victorian and Edwardian homes. Taking it looked like a no-brainer, but we still had to overcome the lure of the old.

Why do period homes cast such a spell? The answer most people will give is “character”. Modern homes are said to be bland, boring and uniform while old ones are full of quirks, strangeness and charm. However, as many a charming cad has shown, superficially attractive characters are often rotten to the core.

Most obviously, the ONS reported earlier this year that the age of a property is the biggest single factor in predicting its energy efficiency. It concluded that the median energy-efficiency score for all homes built since 2012 in England and Wales was 83 (band B), compared with 59 (band E) for those constructed before 1930, with homes built before 1900 least likely to have a high ratings.

It’s also debatable how much the charm gap is in the eyes of the beholder. The fact that many people can identify an Edwardian or Victorian house at first glance shows that they have a uniformity of style every bit as distinctive as postwar homes. They sit in matching rows, with bay windows and cornices that would accurately be described as architectural clichés. “All of those plaster moldings that everyone liked so much in Victorian housing were produced as mass as any Sixties tower block,” says Hatherley.

If we are honest, it is the familiarity of these ubiquitous homes that draws us to them, not any eccentricity. Hatherley argues that they have become the model of what a proper house looks like so “any other kind of housing is in some way deficient or illegitimate”. As a result, all housing, including new builds, has to follow the template.

That is as though the positive associations of period homes trump any practical problems that come with them. One such association is social class and prestige. In most towns and cities, the most desirable areas are the ones with more period properties.

“Wealth built them, wealth bought them and wealth continues to occupy them,” says Joanna Cocking, head of prime country sales at the estate agent Hamptons. “There’s an element of ‘I like the fact that I’m living among similar people with similar aspirations’, or whatever it might be.”

The perceived importance of a home’s location above almost all else means that, over time, the preference for home periods has become self-reinforcing. Prestigious addresses are for period properties; this raises their price, which means they are more relatively expensive than nearby areas, which keeps them desirable, and so on.

This leads us to the flip side of the romantic love of period houses: the snobbish prejudice against modern ones. Very few people want to admit, even to themselves, that they prefer period homes for their associations and status rather than for their intrinsic merit. And so reassuring myths about how these houses were better built and sturdier became received wisdom. Many take it as a fact that modern houses are badly built and won’t last more than 50 years.

Hatherley dismisses this delicately. “It’s bollocks,” he says. “If you want to demolish a Victorian house, you usually send a wrecking ball through it. If you want to demolish a tower block, you’ve got to plant explosives.”

There have been many poor-quality postwar developments, for sure. The former chief planning officer for the City of London, Peter Rees, has warned that many of the glass-fronted, luxury high-rises that have been built in the capital face daunting future maintenance costs.

But the evidence suggests that, on average, the older your house, the worse the condition it is likely to be in. It’s not just that they are they colder and draughtier. A quarter of homes built before 1919 are classified as poor quality, with severe problems, almost nine times as many as homes built since 1980, a mere 3 per cent of which are poor.

There are, however, three little letters that instantly cancel out any disdain for the modern: ist. Modern homes are awful, but Modernist ones highly coveted. I admit that this is one reason why we were persuaded to abandon the dream period. The house we bought was part of a development started (though not completed) by the Span company, mainly in the 1960s. The lead architect, Eric Lyons, followed the principle that “The test of good housing is not whether it can be built easily, but whether it can be lived in easily.”

One can’t fully understand the fetish for period homes without taking social class into account. One of the main characteristics of privately built postwar homes is the demographics of their occupants. They are associated with the rising lower-middle class. In class-conscious Britain, this is a demographic many seek to distance themselves from.

These people, far more numerous than those who look down on them, are more resistant to architectural nostalgia. In my experience, the fascination with period homes evaporated below the middle classes. When I lived in Rotherham in 2005, researching my book on the philosophy of the English people, I found that people’s dream homes were new builds, and I met a few who had bought theirs off-plan.

Indeed, surveys have repeatedly found that the most desirable home type in the UK is not a period one at all. In the estate agents Strutt & Parker’s latest annual Housing Futures survey, 22 per cent said they wanted a bungalow to be their future home. The next most popular was a new build, coveted by 18 per cent, with a languishing cottage in a third place. The most desirable storage feature was a garage and most sought-after extra room an en-suite bathroom, hardly Victorian staples.

The truth is that the desirability of period homes is driven by the middle and upper classes. They are said to hold their values ​​but you could argue their occupants hold their values ​​up: the resale price has to be balanced against all the expenses on upkeep during occupation.

In my less charitable moments, I wonder if these homes function like the peacock’s tail. The fact that you have one signal that you have resources to spare. It’s a more socially acceptable display of wealth than bling, both because you’re taking pride in owning something riddled with imperfections and you don’t need to draw attention to it.

Less cynically, the British tend to take pride in their capacity to tolerate discomfort, especially the upper and middle classes. In 1934, the Danish architect Steen Eiler Rasmussen recalled being baffled by sash windows, wondering “how is it possible to construct them so that they fit”. His answer was that it wasn’t, and “that’s why they are used”. An Englishman “considers it absolutely necessary that the living rooms be constantly ventilated”.

That attitude has endured. “When people move into a Georgian house with a sash window,” says Hatherley, “they will absolutely make sure that that sash window is preserved, despite the fact that they just make a mockery of any attempt at insulation whatsoever.”

That being said, a significant number of homeowners fit out their interiors as though they were paid-up Modernists. Seeing houses, we were often struck by how inside there were so many Victorian shells there were plain white walls, new engineered wood covering underfloor heating, rooms knocked through and so on.

Observing the same phenomenon, Hatherley asks, “If you want a modern house, why not just get a modern house? It’d be a lot less damp for one thing.” It seems that for many, period charm is for the outside, clean modern lines and comfort for indoors.

With the rising cost of living and the push for more energy-efficient homes, could the love affair with period homes be entering its rockiest patch? According to the Building Cost Information Service (BCIS) Material Cost Index, annual price increases for construction materials have risen to over 20 per cent since 2020. In many parts of the country, finding people to do the work has also become more difficult, with plumbers, builders, electricians and plasterers often booked months ahead. And, of course, fuel bills are already rising and are unlikely to return to pre-2022 levels any time soon.

Even in good times, when a property needs work, it lowers the price. “If there is work attached to a house that might reduce its sale price by as much as 20 per cent, even if it is period,” says Cocking. Currently, “with the worries about supply chains, trades, general costs rising, to take on a big period project could be a two-to-three-year journey. I think for properties that need work, they will need to have a price incentive to sell.”

Still, it’s hard to see period homes ever going out of fashion, however impractical they might be. “I still feel that heart wins over the head,” said Cocking. “I speak as someone who could have bought a bigger, detached, more modern house and I chose a semi-detached cottage which haemorrhages heat and doesn’t look in any way after itself.” As the 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”

Julian Baggini is an author and philosopher

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Letters in response to this article:

The size of the garden has something to do with it / From Hugh Wellesley-Smith, Leeds, West Yorkshire, UK

Explosives or the wrecking ball, it’s all a matter of size / From Brent Elliott, London HA1, UK