Dream cottage? Or nightmare 'hard-to-treat property'?

by Piper Terrett

It’s all been a bit quiet here on the blog recently, for which I apologise. When I’ve not been busy working, I’ve been up a ladder painting something – mainly myself.

After wanting to do it for a few years but, like many other people, unable to because of the credit crunch, we’re thinking of moving. Maybe 2011 will be the year, maybe it won’t – but I’ve been sprucing up our place just in case, and fixing all those things we’ve been meaning to do for years (or bullying my other half into doing so).

We have a dream of what we’d like. Unfortunately, fuelled by Grand Designs, Escape to the Country and River Cottage, it’s a wholly unrealistic vision of a rambling place in the country within commuting distance of London and – most improbably – within budget. Issues which have been uppermost in my mind lately are energy efficiency and fuel costs. And it’s not just with my Green Voice hat on – with energy costs so high, it’s a major concern for any mover. 

‘Nobody reads these energy performance certificates – nobody’s interested in them’, my estate agent assures me. Except me – because I have been reading them. Energy efficiency matters. How can it not? We currently live in a 3-bed terraced property with gas central heating, to which we have fitted double glazing and both cavity wall and loft insulation. Our gas bill is about £1,000 a year. While we would like more room (mainly to accommodate my other half’s hobbies), the prospect of heating a bigger space is daunting, especially in this economic climate.

Last weekend we viewed a home in a pretty Essex village. On arrival it was clear that the photos had been taken on a sunny day and from some distance. What could be a lovely cottage was going to require an awful lot of work. The roof needed replacing, and the Grade II listed period home had old, singled-glazed windows, with secondary glazing on only one. Upstairs it was noticeably chilly – even with our coats on.

As there was no gas in the village, the property had oil-fired central heating. Anybody who is on oil will tell you that the price has rocketed in the past few years. The vendor admitted she had been shocked by how quickly the oil ran out and how expensive it was, before realising the tank leaked. Fortunately she had had it fixed!

I thought about how difficult it would be to get this property up to a suitable insulation standard, and how the Grade II listing might complicate things. Cavity wall wouldn’t be possible – and while we could insulate inside, there are no grants available. And some of the rooms were very small; internal insulation would reduce the room size even further. Double glazing might be problematic given its listed status, and would the planners accept solar panels on the roof? This property was already at the top of our budget, so there would be little money left over for improvements, or for the expensive renewable technologies I want to install.

It’s brought home to me what a mammoth task bringing the country’s housing stock up to an acceptable level of insulation and energy efficiency is going to be – especially in an economic slump. Because of our chequered history, we have a remarkable variety of homes in Britain – and many beautiful period properties – but this means it’s going to be a challenge to achieve a green retrofit, on a budget that is acceptable, to meet the UK’s carbon-reduction targets.

As for me and my property search, never mind location, location, location – at the top of the list now is finding a home that we can make as fuel-efficient as possible, as cheaply we can.

Because of this, for the first time in my life I am seriously wondering if building our own home, or even renovating a barn, would be a more workable option. Despite the recent painting frenzy, I am no DIYer; but, bizarrely, working with a new or empty shell of a building seems a less daunting prospect than trying to retrofit an older property.

Of course, that is not at all an easy option – it opens up another different can of worms in itself! So we’re still looking. I’ll let you know how we get on…