Saturday, 27 April 2013

Feeling the Squeeze?

An interesting report in the last week identifies the fact that British homes - especially new ones - are smaller than anywhere else. It appears that a single bedroom flat is at least 5 square metres smaller than anywhere else in Europe, and many two and three bed 'houses' are up to 10 square metres smaller than anywhere in Europe. I can say that I have now seen new houses being built in Germany that are at least 50% larger than similar structures in the UK, more substantial in construction and the rooms are much less cramped. What is more, they are eco-friendly, using heat exchange systems for central heating, substantially insulated and still generally more 'open' than most houses and flats I have seen in the UK.

The report states baldly that the new buildings are less substantial and, room for room, smaller than the houses built in the 1930s and 40s. Even the 1950s building stock is more generous. So what is the problem? Partly it is the cost of the land on which the houses are built. Building land is at a premium in the UK, so it is usually sold in 'parcels' to a developer flush enough to outbid everyone else. In Germany very little land is sold that way, and there is an emphasis on allowing individuals to buy a 'plot' on which to build their own home to their own choice of design. As the report says, the UK now has massive new estates of tiny and almost identical hutches, while in Europe one sees much more individualism. Ironically, Denmark, which could claim to have even less 'landmass' than the UK, is the most generous in terms of house/room size, with Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany all pretty close.

I suspect that one reason for the UK's problem with the size of homes and the pricing is the profit motive. UK developers seem to cram more houses onto any given plot size than anyone else in Europe. Obviously this is tied to the price paid for the land itself, which can be spread over three houses instead of the two anyone else would site on the same size piece of land. It is aided and abetted by the Department of Environment and the Department of Housing refusing to set minimum criteria for rooms and houses. This is probably politically driven, since the developers have a nice niche here and can maximise profit by building smaller and smaller homes at maximum price.

As the report identifies, rooms classed as 'double bed' sized in new homes are just that. You can get a double bed in, but nothing else. The same goes for a 'single' bedroom. Don't even think of putting in wardrobes. A few years ago, when I was looking for a new home for myself and cat, I explored the possibility of buying a small two bed terrace on a new estate, and rejected the idea as soon as I realised the living room was large enough for two small armchairs and a small coffee table if I shoved the TV into the (false) fireplace. It was advertised in the brochure as a "living/dining room.' How they thought anyone would get a dining room table and chairs into it with the livingroom furniture I'd love to know. Upstairs, one bedroom, supposedly the 'double,' had a closet. There was no room in either for a wardrobe and the 'closet' was better described as a small broom cupboard. It is well known that the developers actually fit out their 'show homes' with non-standard furniture so that the impression is given of much more generous space. I've often wondered whether this could be considered fraudulent.

As for the price - it was more than I had paid for the three bedroom house I was selling. There was no way I could afford it anyway, so I settled for a 1960s built flat in the not so nice part of town that needed some work - but was much more genrously proportioned!

Sooner, rather than later, the Mandarins and Political denizens of Whitehall and Westminster are going to have to address this. I expect their chums in the building industry will be unhappy, but they've ripped the off the buyers for years. There does come a point where they have to change their ways, and I suspect we've almost arrived there.


  1. Slim Jim says:

    A couple of points to add to this interesting article are the fact that many homes are built in the wrong places, for example, flood plains or greenbelt land. Also, these 'little boxes made out of ticky tacky' do not attract less council tax. I'm surprised they haven't reprised the window tax! Yes, the current building regulations allow this to happen, but, just like the tower blocks built in post-war Britain, the architects don't usually live in them, do they?

  2. True, neither do the developers, the planners or the bureaucrats that approve their being built in badly chosen sites, and refuse to amend their regulations ...