SEARCH FOR SOMETHING DIFFERENT; Seize the Chance to Buy a Historic Central London Home as Fine Old Commercial Buildings Gain Permission for Conversion, Says David Spittles

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Byline: David Spittles

WITH the UK economy still weak and demand for new housing unsatisfied, buildings with a history of commercial use are being snapped up and transformed into swish homes for people who want to live much closer to the action.

Not since the Nineties wave of factory and warehouse redevelopments have so many conversion candidates appeared on the market.

With the Government's austerity package triggering more property disposals, there are others to come -- ranging from former ministry buildings to small period offices in the Square Mile. If anything, the properties available today are quirkier than in the past, and include former fashion boutiques, restaurants and pubs, workshops, hotels and galleries.

Many have already been split into homes by developers and are for sale, others are ripe for conversion into fabulous one-off pads.

There are also opportunities to become a "do-it-yourself developer" -- buying a building with planning permission for several flats, with one for you paid for out of the profit you make. Depending on the economic cycle, developers switch from office to residential use, though planners can throw a spanner in the works.

With less take-up from business occupiers, commercial property values have fallen more heavily during the credit crunch -- up to 45 per cent against 22 per cent for residential, according to property consultant CBRE. Currently the arithmetic works much better for residential, which in many areas can command [pounds sterling]700 a sq ft compared to [pounds sterling]100 per sq ft for commercial.

"When the downturn hit in 2008, there was a sharp increase in changeof-use planning applications," says Nick Vaughan, land and new homes director of estate agent Hamptons International.

"Last year, Westminster borough alone had a 72 per cent jump in commercialto-residential applications. These buildings will start to come to the market over the next 12 months. More often they are in business districts rather than traditional neighbourhoods, but even so, the areas usually have good transport links and amenities."

As with the loft-living enclaves of Clerkenwell and Shoreditch, former commercial districts can quickly become established residential areas.

Midtown -- between the City and the West End -- is one such transforming area. Mayfair, too, is returning to its residential roots. At least 250 buildings have reverted to residential, a renaissance dating back to the mid-Nineties when 50-year office leases granted after the Second World War came to an end. The conversion trend has accelerated in recent months.

Number 68 Mount Street was one of the area's landmark mansions when it was built in 1896. The handsome corner building is now back on the market after decades in office use, and has planning consent for six large apartments. Mount Street is Mayfair's most fashionable new hub, with boutiques such as Balenciaga's and Scott's restaurant attracting a celebrity crowd. Of course, the address comes at a price. The [pounds sterling]11.5million asking price for number 68 means each home will end up costing at least [pounds sterling]2m. Call Wetherell on 020 7493 6935. …

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