Sunday, 6 June 2010

Charting the Conversions

Outside of Scotland, older flats are rarely purpose built, but converted from the gutted shells of former family homes. In desirable locations, like Brighton and London, it’s rare to find a house still intact and not remade into a warren of tiny apartments. The consequences are exactly what you would expect from cramming five eccentric, inconsiderate, uninhibited, modern households into a building designed for one genteel Edwardian family, obediently busy with needlework so as not burden mama with one of her heads.

Conversions are frequently done on the cheap, and are insensitive to basic human needs, like privacy and security. Partition walls are made of plasterboard, so noise (arguments, music, sex, dogs) seeps through. Contemporary dividers were designed to limit the muted kerfuffle of a world before electricity and amplified sound, not block out thumping tunage and shouty phone arguments. Thin ceilings do not muzzle a world of home cinema, band practice, and power tools.

Houses in multiple occupation often have bathrooms squeezed into former cupboards, and it shows; damp and mould thrive in confined, poorly ventilated hutches. On the plus side, they have lovely high ceilings, and traces of original features like alcoves (ideal for shelves) and plaster moulding which gives a welcome sense of faded grandeur (sorry – that’s the only good news I can give you). It’s a sobering thought, but your generous two bedroom flat with desirable separate kitchen fits neatly into the parlour of what was once a modest Victorian home.

Rubbish is usually stored outside one unlucky window, so those sultry summer nights are a constant source of joy, what with the maggots, stench, and cats. Post is kept in a common area, so theft is frequent, and personal correspondence shared by all. One morning a neighbour handed over an envelope. ‘Time for your smear test, then?’ he wisecracked.

Conversions often have poor water pressure. They were built in the days when bathing was an annual indignity, and cleanliness implied laundered linen, heavy perfume, or a quick rub with a wet hankie. Every tenant needing a shower in the morning can cause the ancient plumbing to gurgle and splutter in a truly alarming fashion.

Protracted arguments arise over leasehold responsibilities, like who cleans the stair carpet, or pay for roof repairs. Some buildings share the garden access; others allow the dwellers of the dingy basement free run, just for some sunlight and Vitamin D (if not, developers could be sued for the resulting rickets).

Such flats are often hazardous, if not actually falling down. Sometimes there is structural damage, so tenants are evacuated for their own safety, or they spend the summer squinting at the sun from behind scaffolding and banners. The owners say you can move back when it’s all been mended, repainted, and resealed, but soon the building has been upgraded and sold on again. Pressing the landlord about repairs tends to encourage this.


Shoe said...

This has been the bane of my life for years, having lived in about 4 of these hovels in 12 years. They are usually relatively "cheap" (though usually "cheap" means you still pay more rent than somebodies entire mortage who was fortunate enough to buy up to around 2002 - about about 1/6 of the space).

The one thing you've missed out on is trying insure these dens - usually impossible. And the role of "listing buildings" laws. Usually what this effectivel does is insure the landlord against having to make these "fit for purpose" because doing so would require change, and the law doesn't recognise that these places need to be totally gutted if they were ever to be genuinely improved as most are damaged beyond any reasonable repair.

My favourite of course was the one I lived in off Baker St in London, which was basically the size of a small hotel room. The toilet was shared. The kitchen was in what I think must have been a wardrobe. Oh yes, the shower was then subcontained in the mini-kitchen. Horrific!

Neil80 said...

I find the strangest thing; which I have seen in a viewings and once elsewhere is where a large room in a Victorian house is split between two flats, but as there is a large window what looks like thin plasterboard sheet (or what looked like plywood) is pushed up against the middle of the window. That can't be good for sound proofing.

There should be awards for sheer cheekiness for the way these places are carved up. Maybe you could do a Rentergirl hall of shame.

Dazzla said...

I've just worked out what's puzzling me: why are there more purpose-built flats in Scotland than in England? I haven't spent much time in Scotland (not for the last 10 years or so anyway) so forgive my higgerance and that.

RenterGirl said...

Dazzla - I don't know. The tenements could be horrible when a family of ten were squeezed what is now a bedsit, but those that remain are amazing. It is an efficient use of land, and resources. Not good for families still as most have 2 bedrooms. If you ever get to Glasgow, I recommend visiting the 'End Terrace' exhibit at The People's Palace. It is truly sobering: one bed effectively in a kitchen, like the modern studio-pods I rail against today. Old flats are now highly desirable (given a good location...) but only since they've been fitted with internal bathrooms etc.

Shane said...
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