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Buying Old Versus Building New: the pros and cons

03 Aug 2021
More and more clients tell us they are keen to consider building a new house rather than simply buy an old one. Estate agents and buying agents have also seen an exponential rise in the percentage of would-be buyers seeking the opportunity to build from scratch, with the result that good sites for new houses in the country are enjoying hotter-than-ever demand.
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But what are the real pros and cons of buying old versus building new?  If you are thinking of moving to the country, or moving house there, you will want to know. So here are the essential facts.

Old houses — the pros and cons

Pros

Speed

It is likely to be far quicker to move into an old house than to build a new build one—unless the old house requires major restoration, and provided you can find a fine old house to buy reasonably quickly.

The dream

The quintessential country house has a patina of age—softly mottled brick or stone, swagged with ancient wisteria, part of England’s rich history. Old houses tend to have mature grounds, too, so their setting is provides instant gratification compared to a new build house in a freshly planted garden.

Confidence

An old house that has stood for centuries gives reassurance that it is likely remain standing in its grounds for centuries to come. You can see exactly what you are buying, too.

Photo: An Elizabethan Manor House, Courtesy of Strutt & Parker

Cons

Hidden costs

Many old houses only reveal their flaws once refurbishment works begin and you explore what lies behind their paint or plaster. So when you start a project, you can never be 100% sure what costs you may face.

Performance

Old houses often have draughts, uneven floors, and poor insulation to say nothing of thick walls impenetrable to WiFi coverage. And if the house is listed, it can be a costly and even impossible to resolve these issues. (Installing double-glazing on listed houses is usually a no-no, for example.)

Compromise

However beautiful it may be from the outside, a house that is a century or more old was designed for a different age and different ways of living. Creating generous open space for an informal kitchen/dining/living room in a listed house built with scullery maids in mind, and a green baize door to screen off the servant’s quarters, may well be tricky.

Maintenance

Expensive bits tend to fall off old houses with tiresome regularity, and costly maintenance is a near-constant bugbear. Ancient carved stonework or hand-made are painfully costly to replace, for instance.

New-build houses — the pros and cons

Pros

Made to measure

A new house will be designed to your exact requirements and taste. And with a new architect-designed house, you are truly creating own dream and legacy.

Modern standards

Your new house will be highly energy efficient, as this is now required by law, and therefore cheaper to run than a period house. All the electrics, plumbing and drainage should be good for a decade or more in a new home, whereas there is every chance they will need replacing much sooner in an old house. Also, the latest IT, smart-home and audio-visual technology can be built into a new house from day one.

Space

New houses are typically designed to be highly efficient in their use of space, indeed so much so that a new house can be as much as 30% smaller than an equivalent old house and yet have the same amount of useable space.

Costs

It is much easier to predict what it will cost to build a new house than it is to estimate the cost of refurbishing an old house substantially as old houses contain many hidden unknowns from an absence of foundations to failing beams centuries old.

 

Cons

Headspace

Building projects can be stressful and always demand a huge number of decisions to be made. Everything hangs on putting the right project team together. For more complex projects, a project manager can be essential to ensure your headspace is not overwhelmed.

Temptation

It can be almost irresistible to spend more on building a new house than planned as great ideas for improving the house don’t stop bubbling up just because the builders have arrived on site. But the cost in time and money of making design changes once works have begun is vastly greater than before construction starts.

Saleability

The day may come when you want to sell your new house. If you create a highly original design, you may find it hard to sell, or the sale price is badly affected, as your taste may not be shared by buyers.

Two very different versions of new build houses

 

So with more and more people wanting to build new houses, you have to ask what is driving the change? Philip Harvey, senior partner of the buying agency Property Vision explains: Twenty years ago our tag line was ‘Nothing For Sale’, which described both us and the market we work in perfectly: we don’t sell anything and there are very few truly special houses for sale at any one time. Nothing has changed over the years, other than demand for country houses having increased exponentially. And this was always going to happen as the number of wealthy potential buyers of beautiful country houses grows every year, while the number of special old houses is by definition finite.’

Philip Harvey also has some wise advice when it comes to investing in a new build house. ‘We all know it’s not a cheap option and few want to overcapitalise, so you need to start with a site which is good enough to accommodate the anticipated total cost. I always advise clients to think holistically: location, site, size, garden, quality. Build the best house you can afford, not necessarily the largest. Everyone over-spends so make sure you have a serious contingency and don’t spend it on the bits people can’t see.’

RedBook’s can make one prediction with total confidence. The demand for beautifully designed new houses, and beautiful sites to build them on, is only set to grow in years to come.

Philip Harvey, Senior Partner, Property Vision

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