Creating a Dream Home: The Retrofit Dilemma

Nearly a year ago I saw a property listed for sale with a guide price of £50,000.

Not an unusual occurrence when searching for property in certain parts of Staffordshire, Cheshire or Derbyshire - there’s a ready supply of terraced houses at prices ranging from £35,000 to £75,000 (and more, obviously, in other areas).

This particular property, however, was not a terrace. It was a large, detached house, and it was easy to look past its appalling condition (safety shoes were recommended for any viewing!), and proximity to an industrial estate, and get a feel for just how magnificent it could be.

Where is the policy to achieve the retrofit of our existing building stock we so desperately need?

Committed as I am to a full retrofit project, I’m yet to progress from casually browsing property listings to devoting time and energy to viewing properties IRL (as the kids say). The reasons for that lack of progress aren’t relevant to this particular post, but I dithered over arranging a viewing of this house. Two days later, I checked the listing again and found it updated with details of an offer received by the vendors.

Bidding wars

Somebody was willing to part with £80,000, meaning I’d soon been priced out of giving the house any serious consideration. Fascinated that the listing was being updated with this information, morbid curiosity led me to return after another few days had passed - and the highest offer now stood at £132,000.

I never truly believed I had a shot at bidding for something offering so much potential. And I wasn’t really surprised that somebody could afford to pay at least 164% of the guide price and still turn it into a profit-making opportunity. Even so, the extent to which I didn’t stand chance was still rather demoralising.

From this point on, it might prove difficult to escape a sense of sour grapes regarding all this … but please bear with me!

Principles and practicalities

A retrofit project appeals to me on several levels - though that doesn’t mean I rule out bungalows from my search… (Sorry, not an original joke!)

Primarily, I want to take something existing, and in which a significant amount of carbon is already embodied, and turn it into a healthy, comfortable and low energy home. As a country, we desperately need a retrofit strategy to improve all of our existing buildings, and to contribute to that in any direct or indirect way would be something I’d be proud of.

Building design and construction has been my entire working life, and to find low energy solutions that fit the constraints of an existing property is a challenge I want in my personal life too. Peeling back the layers to uncover the bones of an existing house, then reinvigorating it ready to face the challenges of another sixty or a hundred years; that stirs my soul.

On a more practical level, the cost and availability of land almost certainly rules out finding a suitable plot and building from scratch. That detached house was a much bigger property than I want or need; finding a piece of land on which to create that perfectly formed vision from nothing would be a needle-in-a-haystack job.

That could change, thanks to initiatives like community land trusts, cohousing schemes and custom build, but for now my principles and finances still favour the improvement of an existing building.

Facing up to reality

Is the financial case as clear cut as I think, though?

Being a member of the Association of Environment Conscious Building (AECB), I get a subscription to the excellent Passive House + magazine. The most recent issue featured a typically thorough case study of the low energy retrofit of a semi-detached house in Cheshire.

Throughout the article, the budget is described as small or, at one point, ‘a shoestring’. The work was done for £60,000 - a figure that does not include the time put in on site by the owners, estimated at the equivalent of three days a week for a whole year.

The costs associated with a terraced house are different and, theoretically, should be less. Even so, the ballpark figure for my ill-defined, imaginary project now seems way off, and calls into question how much time I might also need to commit to being on site (beyond what I would want to commit anyway).

All in all, it raises the question as to whether, in the short to medium term, I’ll be able to afford the relatively modest project I have in mind.

Balancing the scales

Compared to finding a plot of land, the availability and variety of terraced houses makes retrofit an attractive prospect. While a new-build approach offers the benefit of reclaiming VAT, retrofit projects can be phased in such a way as to carry out the complete programme of works over an extended period.

There are only three problems I can see with a phased approach:

  1. It means buying a property that is more immediately liveable than many I’ve looked at.

  2. Even with the knowledge I’ve gained about low energy construction, and the many amazing people out there whose services I could call upon, phased retrofit is still something I rarely see talked about.

  3. I’m impatient and want to do a project in one go!

Whenever I do a project - even if it’s further in the future than I hope - I want to do it right. I want to invest money in the energy saving measures; not in competing against people willing to spend more on the purchase because they’ll spend the bare minimum on the improvements. The Homes Under The Hammer culture doesn’t interest me.

Here come those sour grapes!

I get this is how the world works but, while the world continues to work this, we’re heading for a climate crisis. Nevertheless, there are very few (if any) people willing to sell a property for less than it’s worth, or less than they can make for it, just because I perceive my intentions for it to be of a longer-term benefit to society.

My knowledge of estate agenting is nowhere near enough to explain why a property that sold for more than £130,000 was listed at £50,000. Perhaps the agents were equally surprised at the outcome, or perhaps they patted themselves on the back for setting such an attention-grabbing guide price.

All of this goes to show why a coherent retrofit policy is so important, because at the moment there’s still too much incentive to go down the new-build route, or to develop existing properties with short-term cosmetic improvements purely for profit - using yet more energy, creating yet more waste, and emitting yet more carbon in the process.