It’s all a facade

Fake period frontages can work wonders on bland modern homes – and boost their value, too. Plus, take a video tour of one of the best.

When it comes to property, it seems we can’t resist a pretty face. Just like people, plain houses may have a lot going for them on the inside, but are often passed over in favour of those with better looks and more old-fashioned charm. Help is at hand, though. You can give a dull but promising house the kind of stylish makeover Gok Wan would be proud of.

There is now a thriving industry in exterior remodelling, which can turn a bog-standard 1970s detached into something offering Regency splendour, or a pockmarked bungalow into a seaside white-clapboard fantasy, making the property more aesthetically pleasing and adding to its value in the process.

Yolande Hess, design director of the conversion specialist Back to Front Exterior Design, has seen the number of inquiries about transforming bland homes into imposing residences surge in the past couple of years. “There are great advantages to refurbishing an exterior, rather than demolishing and rebuilding,” she says. “First, planners are more likely to approve something like this. It’s cheaper, it can be quicker and it’s more environmentally friendly, as you won’t be adding all that rubble to landfill.”

The Surrey-based firm has taken some horrific examples of post-war building and turned them into elegant manor houses and gabled villas. “People judge a house on its exterior appeal, so if you have an ugly house in a good location, then it makes sense,” Hess says.

Nils and Jenny Baker had repeatedly viewed and discounted the only available home in Yattendon, the small Berkshire village where they wanted to live, because, despite its Victorian origins, extensions and remodellings had stripped it of its character.

“Even though it was in the right location, and had a lot of space, we dismissed it because it was ugly,” says Nils, 39, who works for a finance company. “But we couldn’t find what we wanted, so we looked at the property again and saw that the bland exterior was hiding what could be a great-looking house.”

The couple bought it for £800,000 and enlisted the help of Back to Front to add rendering, extended gables, a pretty overhanging porch and traditional wooden sash windows so it would fit in better with the other Arts and Crafts homes in the village.“A new-build was inappropriate for the area, but we had letters of support for our application,” Nils says. “We wanted a sympathetic period-style house that was also a modern, functioning family home, and that’s what we got.”

He estimates that the work, which included extensive interior remodelling, cost £250,000, and the house is now valued at £1.1m. “It has a greater aesthetic appeal than before,” he says. “There’s something satisfying about taking an eyesore and transforming it.”

Not only will altering the exterior of a home increase its value and saleability — providing the work is done well — it can also encourage your neighbours to follow suit. Simon Wedgewood, managing director of Palladian Construction, a restoration specialist based in west London, is turning a 1950s semi in Chiswick into something resembling the original Victorian villas on the street.

Of the six plain post-war houses on that stretch of road, all but one have undergone a Victorian-style transformation. “The 1950s houses have the same internal spec as the original homes,” Wedgewood says, “so it isn’t difficult to match them.”

The before shot of Chris Dyson’s Spitalfields home; then post Georgian renovation

The single remaining 1950s house now stands out among the surrounding Victorian upgrades, but Wedgewood says its own value has also likely increased. “If the owners ever decide to sell, even in its original state, it could be worth more because buyers can see what’s possible by comparing it with next door,” he says.

The right attention to detail can even fool the professionals. Blaze Stojanovski, a property developer, took a nasty-looking 1980s end-of-terrace house in Fulham, southwest London, and transformed it into something that matched the adjacent late- Victorian properties. So authentic was the finish, the surveyor dated the property to 1896.

“Nobody who viewed it guessed that it was built in the 1980s,” Stojanovski says. “The house just looked wrong alongside the original terraces, but I wasn’t allowed to demolish it. I decided to restore it instead, so it would be in keeping with its surroundings.”

He used reclaimed London Stock bricks for the facade, with the finished colour blended by a specialist brickwork artist to look authentic. The property was also redesigned to be more symmetrical, with wooden sash windows, slate roof tiles and iron railings completing the period look.

“We had a lot of interest because, as a period-style property, it was much more desirable,” adds Stojanovski, who sold the house for almost double the £1.2m he paid. “People loved the proportions of a Georgian or Victorian house.”

It’s not only 20th-century properties that have suffered from bad design. Many original period houses were poorly converted after the war. Just ask Chris Dyson, an architect who lives and works in Spitalfields, a conservation area in east London brimming with glorious 18th-century houses, several of which he has restored.

His most recent project is his own home, a four-storey townhouse dating from the 1720s, which was modernised in the 1950s for use as a leather garment factory. “This is one of a unique group of houses,” says Dyson, 46, who has owned the property since 1996.

In the past year, he has painstakingly removed the front of the house, including the huge, metal-framed windows and ugly concrete bricks, and replaced them with authentic wooden sash windows, reclaimed bricks and a beautiful lower fascia, created by using a specialist wood-grain paint technique.

The property now blends into the street, as it originally would have done, and Dyson believes that the work has increased its saleable value by about 30%. “People are more likely to want period restorations, as there is clearly a greater visual appeal,” he says. “More important, the house now looks right. It’s in harmony with its neighbours once again.”

Ready to front up

  • You don’t need planning consent to change a home’s exterior, unless it is listed or in a conservation area.
  • Building regulations must be complied with: correct levels of insulation, for example.
  • Makeovers usually work best on detached homes, rather than on semis or terraced houses
  • Don’t cut corners on materials: good-quality tiles, weatherboarding and windows make all the difference.
  • Ugly houses on good roads are the best candidates for a facelift.

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