Why Britain has the nastiest new homes in Europe

I wrote in last week’s magazine about the myth of tiny UK houses. Most people think that the average size of a UK home is smaller than the average size of any other European home. It isn’t. The simple truth is that UK houses are on average roughly the same size as houses everywhere else in Europe – around 95 square metres.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t have a problem. We do: our new houses are genuinely tiny. New houses built in the private sector average a mean 76 square metres. The question is, why?

Matthew Lynn puts it down to planning. I’m not so sure on that – if you read this old blog post, you will see that there isn’t nearly as much of a problem with planning as most people think – London is awash with new developments and there are some 400,000 as yet unbuilt houses in the UK with full planning permission.

So, if that’s not the problem, what is? One answer – from the New Home Blog is that the UK has no minimum build standards for private homes. We have a long history of imposing size requirements – or at least firm suggestions – on housebuilders (you can read the full history in this remarkably comprehensive report written for the Greater London Authority a few years ago) but at the moment, outside the London guidelines at least, anything that bumps up your margins, and that you can disguise successfully in a show home, goes.

This isn’t the case elsewhere – many other European countries set minimum sizes with either regulation or via fiscal incentives. The same is true in various municipalities in the US.

And it makes sense. Tiny houses aren’t good for anyone except housebuilders. The Royal Institute of British Architects likes the idea, and so does the National Housing Federation.

Clearly the House Builders Federation (HBF) doesn’t fancy it so much – given the amount people can afford to pay for houses it is more likely to hit their margins than to hit end prices. But their stated reason for rejecting it – that they only build what the market demands – really doesn’t stack up.

As the report I mentioned above notes “there seems to be a mis-match between homebuyers’ preferences and what the market is providing. Homebuyers express a preference for houses rather than flats, more bedrooms and larger rooms for living and storage.”  Given all this I suspect that minimum living space standards might be worth more discussion than they get at the moment.

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  • New Home Expert

    If the choice is living in a tiny new home or in your childhood bedroom with your parents most would choose the new homes. As you say its not what buyers want, its all that is being offered!

    It is not just the size of new homes either. The quality of the build results in 96% of new home buyers having problems with their new homes and oftentimes the house builders customer care is non existent. This is why we need an Ombudsman for New Homes. http://www.new-home-blog.co.uk/why-new-home-buyers-need-a-new-homes-ombudsman/

  • Greg

    It’s not the size that bothers me – small is fine provided it is well designed and built. Sadly most new homes are neither.

    I would never buy a new house as you pay a premium – like when buying a new car – which is like throwing several thousand pounds down the drain the moment you get the keys!

    Plus I don’t like the idea of living on an estate of similar boring 20th century pastiche shoeboxes.

  • Andrew M

    The problem is lack of information in the market. On the continent, homes are advertised by square metre, whereas ours are advertised by number of bedrooms. (As a side-effect, this encourages builders to build more smaller bedrooms, and DIYers are encouraged to convert one large bedroom into two small ones.)

    The solution is a simple regulation that all houses advertised for sale, new and old alike, must include a measurement of the number of square metres. When we can search Rightmove by floor area, not just by number of so-called bedrooms, we’ll get bigger new houses.

  • Stephen360

    You are quite right, neither land nor planning permission is the problem with our house building. This is all down to money and greed by the building companies and “land bankers”, just releasing as fewer houses as necessary and as small as possible, while waiting for scarcity to put prices up, then releasing a few more and so on.

    It is absolutely scandalous that there are so many houses with planning permission and so few being built, councils outside London never have a problem allocating building land and in any case builders have already second guessed the planners and bought up where they “know” the planning is likely to be granted.

    We need regulation, regulation and more regulation, not less and then confiscation and reallocation to those that want to build.

    At the moment what we have is a national disgrace.

  • Jerry C

    Size is dictated & determined by the house builder. The more plots on a piece of land, the more properties they can build and the greater their yield & profit – Simple. Don’t fall for the hog wash that it is down to planning. It is all about ££££.
    Take a look at the salaries, benefits, bonuses and pensions that those on the main board receive. Some of them have a package of £3m +. Tell those on the board they are taking a cut in their package so we can build bigger and better houses and see what reaction you get.
    The recent Govt iniciative played straight into the builders hands because all they did was increase the value of the sale price, but don’t get me started on that scam.

  • GFL

    Land should be sold directly to the public. The problem is all development land ends up in the hands of property developers who want as many houses per unit of land, so you end up with these crappy, small, flimsy houses that often get filled by council tenants (who don’t really have a choice) or by people that can only buy new builds due to government or developer initiatives.

    Few live in these estates out of choice.

  • Roam

    Surprised MSW is confusing ‘need’/’preference’ with ‘demand’.

    Anyway, we can no longer afford the land underneath, and the market is monopolised by a few companies – so there is little choice and property is more an investment vehicle rather than means to a home.

    We can’t fix this because basically we’re still wedded to the idea that the private sector sorts everything out and is magically servant to our needs and values through an invisible hand.

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