Buying a Mansion Block Property

What is a mansion block

‘I compare human life to a large mansion of many apartments’, wrote John Keats in Hyperion.

The comparison is probably best left to the poet, but there are plenty of human beings who would happily choose to live in ‘a large mansion of many apartments’. Mansion flats are common in the West End of London and in other big cities around the world. Notable for their grand exteriors and enviable addresses, the ideal mansion flat compacts a sense of luxury into a small home in the centre of town.

Traditionally a red-brick Victorian or post-Victorian confection with stucco plasterwork, marbled hallways and brass plaques on the doors, in recent years warehouse and penthouse developments have modernised the concept of the mansion flat, and apartments in mansion blocks are back in fashion again – in so far as expensive, well-proportioned, centrally-located property can ever go out of fashion in the first place.

Of course, time has taken its toll on many of these ageing buildings, and those new to mansion flats may be unpleasantly surprised by quirky building rules and unexpected costs. This guide will take the prospective buyer through some real advantages and potential pitfalls involved in buying a mansion flat.

History

  • Most English mansion blocks were built between 1880 and 1910. Typically neo-Georgian buildings, they were originally developed as high-density housing schemes for the rich. Today, they range from the badly-maintained to the luxurious, with a wide range of architectural styles built to be aesthetically appealing as well as convenient and good value for money.
  • A wander round areas of West and South-West London will take you past numerous mansion blocks. In particular, Kensington, Marylebone, Belsize Park, Clapham and Chiswick are all areas with several Victorian or Edwardian mansion tenements.
  • Flats were traditionally associated with the poor, with rich families and bachelors occupying entire houses. However, after the industrial revolution, urban growth and population explosion meant efficient housing schemes were needed if the middle and upper classes were to maintain a pied à terre in the capital city. The traditional ‘town house’ became increasing difficult to obtain and even more difficult to maintain.
  • The new property style forced developers to think in different ways about housing. They were confronted with new logistical problems such as the supplying of water and other utilities to large blocks of flats – but because the blocks were developed with the wealthy in mind, these problems were surmounted with the help of generous funding. The development of mansion blocks also heralded subtle social shifts. The traditional house with servants’ quarters, back-stairs and so on was to become obsolete as occupants of flats had to live in close proximity to their servants – or live without them altogether.
  • The first ever block of mansion flats was the Albert Hall Mansions in central London, which was developed in 1876. The blocks were planned as three separate projects, with the building of each part contingent on the successful occupation of every flat in the previous section. Needless to say, every section of every block was built, as the scheme proved incredibly popular.
  • Building stopped with the World War I and never regained the same momentum in post-war society. However, mansion blocks are still built in varying forms: for example, the Chelsea Harbour developments in London offer complexes of luxurious apartment blocks built for an elite clientele of international, super-rich residents. Luxurious renovations of warehouses and other large-scale period buildings into multi-million pound apartments are also modern-day mansion flats, if not originally designed under the title.

Advantages

  • Perhaps the greatest advantage of the mansion flat is its address. Many or most mansion apartment developments are built very centrally, or in well-connected suburbs, which not only ensures their value, it also ensures that it is likely they will never go out of fashion. It also tends to make them more convenient.
  • In the 19th Century, mansion blocks were built with certain attractions in mind, and many of these attractions have aged gracefully. Grand façades, genteel addresses and numerous smaller assets such as large windows, block-wood floors and high ceilings. All these advantages make the mansion flat an attractive place to live, as well as retaining their commercial value.
  • A few very lucky mansion block residents can benefit from rent-controlled leases. Residents of one red-brick mansion block between Leicester Square and Trafalgar Square in London’s West End are rumoured to have been paying around £85 per week for luxurious apartments for some decades. However, it is unlikely that a prospective buyer would stand to gain from this situation.

Disadvantages

  • As most mansion blocks are period buildings, some cannot accommodate certain technologies, such as some types of internet connection. Others do not allow satellite television on the grounds that the dishes are too ugly and will deface the all-important façade of the building. If it is going to be important for you to have certain types of internet connection (eg wireless, broadband), or digital or satellite television, it might be worth checking the status of this in your desired block.
  • Spacious receptions and hallways must be compensated for. Kitchens and bathrooms are often pokey and dated, and particularly, wiring and plumbing can be outmoded, rickety or even (though rarely) dangerous.
  • Similarly, grand exteriors can belie a dreary maze of corridors and poorly-kept decor within. If you plan to live in the flat you are buying, it is important to ask yourself if you would really be happy spending a lot of time inside the building.
  • The flip-side of a central location means mansion apartments are often located on or near a busy main road.

What to look for

  • Look for flats with features that will hold their value, such as a central location or well-kept period fixtures.
  • Look for flats in buildings with well-organised maintenance schemes.
  • Look for a flat you like the feel of! Minor problems such as draughty windows can be easily dealt with if you care about the flat you’re buying.
  • Mansion blocks are often communal buildings in which you may have to ask a caretaker or porter in order to gain access to attics, fuse-boxes or electricity mains and the like. If you’re serious about buying the flat, find out who you’re going to have to approach and how accessible they are.

What to avoid

  • Draughty flats with old window-frames, cracks and gaps will be poorly insulated and possibly structurally unsound.
  • A few mansion blocks have been owned by local councils in recent years. If you are considering buying a flat in a building that is managed by a local authority, you need to know that they may have rights to impose charges or carry out ‘necessary’ upkeep work on your flat, even if you own it yourself. For example, if they decide to fit all the original windows in the building with UPVC frames, they can force tenants and owners alike to do so – and then charge you for it. Ask the agent or freeholder what work is planned over the next few years, as developments are often discussed and scheduled well in advance, and it may even be possible to get involved in decision-making.
  • Some mansion blocks have lengthy lists of rules – for example, dictating the hours of the day during which you might be permitted to do home improvements, listen to music or even use your hoover. Ask the letting agent, the porter and any residents about rules if you can. Rules about pets and maintenance work are common. If you feel that the stipulations of your contract are unfair, check out the Unfair Contract Terms Act online at businesslink.gov.uk
  • Avoid being taken in by a grandiose exterior. Many mansion block apartments are low-ceilinged and badly insulated or heated, expensive to maintain with small proportions and balconies. Ask yourself if you are certain that the flat merits its price-tag.
  • Similarly, avoid being taken in by a grand address. Make sure you realise how serious traffic noise will be, and try not to pay over-the-odds just to be in the right postcode – unless that is your main criteria. Old window-frames can be attractive but not suitable for double-glazing.
  1. As well as outside noise, there’s the problem of proximity to neighbours. Try tapping on the walls to see how thick they are, and don’t be afraid to ask (or snoop!) around a bit to see what your neighbours will be like.

The buying process

  • Many mansion flats are sold leasehold. A leasehold property, more often a flat, is one that is effectively rented for a long period of time, from 10 to 999 years. What you are buying is the lease, which is the right to rent the property. The flat remains the property of the freeholder, to whom, in most cases, you pay an annual ground rent. This is often referred to as ‘peppercorn rent’, as it is usually a nominal amount, often under £30. In one mansion block, the landlord collects a single white rose off each tenant each year.
  • No two leases are exactly the same – it is your solicitor’s job to scrutinize the lease in order to establish that everything is as it should be and you are aware of any small-print stipulations.
  • It is vital to find out how maintenance work is managed. Most blocks will operate on a ‘service charge’ scheme, in which tenants contribute the same amount every year (subject to inflation), from which fund all maintenance work and ground-work is paid for. Most tenants appreciate this fund as it minimises the work they have to carry out personally, and it minimises the politics involved in funding work on a shared building.
  • However, you may find yourself with a huge annual bill to carry out work that you don’t want. Residents of some of the grander blocks pay ‘maintenance’ towards communal gyms or swimming pools that they don’t use, car parking spaces they don’t need, and so on.
  • On the other hand, if you need to get some work done, the minimal annual payment may end up covering extensive maintenance work. Find out how things work if people want to carry out maintenance work in the building.
  • Find out if utility bills are included in the service charge, as they often are. This can be an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on how much energy you consume. In a very small minority of mansion blocks, tenants cannot control or access their own heating on demand.
  • Because mansion flats are often old buildings that can look deceptively grand and well-kept, it might be worth paying for the fullest type of survey possible, in order to ensure that you have not overlooked any major structural faults. A Full Building Survey, which takes several hours and will ensure all aspects of the structure are scrutinised. Registered surveyors can be found online at www.rics.com
  • The Land Registry Residential Property Price Report, issued quarterly free of charge, provides information on average house prices, including county-by-county prices for apartments. The information is drawn from the large governmental database which keeps track of residential housing transactions. You can access the report and further information online at the Land Registry website.
  • There is a wealth of informed advice at hand which can be tailored to your conditions as the buyer of a particular mansion flat. Fair advice should be obtainable from your bank, and there are a number of charities and websites offering unbiased advice. Because mansion flats can often have unusual clauses and hidden service charges, it is more important than ever to make sure you understand every little thing. This government website gives basic guides to buying a home and has links to other websites.
  • Finally, ask around for advice – friends, family and neighbours can be the most helpful resources when looking to buy a certain type of property. Or even strangers - don’t be afraid to go to blocks you like the look of and ask the porters and tenants for information on living there -and, of course, don’t be afraid to ask them to inform you when one comes on the market.

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