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