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£1 houses a boon for some UK buyers but it's no easy ride

As well as requiring major renovation, properties are commonly in areas that face challenges from crime to anti-social behaviour, economic deprivation

Derelict terraced houses in Wavertree, Liverpool could be bought £1 by Liverpool City Council. Alamy
Derelict terraced houses in Wavertree, Liverpool could be bought £1 by Liverpool City Council. Alamy

Graduate student Victoria Brennan knew she was taking a risk when she bought a home in a run-down neighbourhood in the northern English city of Liverpool for less than the price of a cup of coffee.

But the move has paid off, getting her on to the property ladder - something that would otherwise have been impossible.

"It seems mad ... It sounded too good to be true," said the 31-year-old, who got the keys to her dilapidated two-bedroom house in 2016.

"It's hard work, but actually if you're prepared to put that hard work in ... it's going to be an amazing place to live," she said.

The £1 (Dh4.47) homes programme run by Liverpool City Council - the subject of a new TV documentary - is one of a handful of schemes by cities across Britain and Europe searching for innovative ways to solve housing crises.

Selling homes for token sums has become a popular, last-ditch strategy for towns, cities and villages fighting depopulation and decay.

The schemes allow local authorities to fill empty homes and pass much of the costs of renovation to the buyer.

But there is a catch.

The properties, as with Ms Brennan's in Liverpool, are commonly in areas that face challenges from crime to anti-social behaviour, economic deprivation and under-population.

Ms Brennan said she had experienced theft, fireworks outside her home and her car windscreen being smashed on her largely abandoned street, after the houses on it were earmarked for demolition.

Inspired by Liverpool, authorities in the northern French town of Roubaix - which like the British city has been hit by industrial decline - have launched a €1 (Dh409) housing scheme to encourage economic regeneration.

And in Italy, southern towns are auctioning homes with a starting price of €1 to fight depopulation. In May, bargain hunters from Argentina to China snapped up abandoned homes in the dying hilltop town of Sambuca.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Lo Bianco/Fotogramma/Ropi/Shutterstock (10075208g) Sambuca di Sicilia, Sicily Houses for sale for 1 Euro, Sambuca di Sicilia, Sicily, Italy - 27 Jan 2019 Crowds of buyers, especially foreigners, flocked in Sambuca di Sicilia after mayor Leo Ciaccio - here pictured - put up empty houses for sale at 1 Euro in the hope of saving the town from depopulation. Sambuca di Sicilia was named 'Most beautiful village in Italy' in 2016
Authorities in Sambuca di Sicilia put up empty houses for sale at 1 euro

"Whether it is in Liverpool or Italy there are lots of examples of councils selling homes for a pound or a euro," said Henry Pryor, a property expert.

"It's a great way to try and invigorate an area and to draw people back to parts of a town or city that have been abandoned."

About 75 homes are occupied so far under the Liverpool scheme, with a further 33 under work and 13 more in negotiations, according to the council.

More than 2,500 people applied to join the scheme, which is no longer taking applications due to over-subscription, according to the Thompson Reuters Foundation.

JCB7NX Houses for sell in Webster Road, Liverpool, UK. Alamy
Houses for sell in Webster Road, Liverpool, UK. Alamy

Ibby Alasaly, her husband and two children live in a cramped home with her mother, who alerted her to the novel Liverpool scheme.

She signed up with few expectations, got the keys to her new home in June 2018, and hopes to move in later this year after lengthy renovations and delays due to legal restrictions.

"It's definitely not as easy as it looks," said Ms Alasaly, who filled skips with fallen walls, broken plaster and debris.

"It's literally [building] everything from scratch. Things that I've never had to deal with before, like where do you want your plug sockets? Where's your gas meter going?"

Liverpool devised the scheme after the national government pulled funding for renewal and refurbishment of public housing, leaving it with empty homes it could not afford to demolish, restore or replace, said Mayor Joe Anderson.

"What we have seen is something quite remarkable in terms of a community being rebuilt from scratch and residents investing a great deal of blood, sweat and tears into their new homes," said Mr Anderson.

He credited the scheme with helping to breathe new life into areas previously "haemorrhaging residents".

Not everyone is as impressed, however.

Polly Neate, chief executive of housing charity Shelter, said the answer to the country's homelessness crisis lay in creating more social housing - not taking houses out of council hands.

"While we applaud councils who give any run-down empty homes a new lease of life, they must ensure this is best meeting the needs of local people, and that it's not done at the expense of delivering more social housing," she said.

Shelter has said England needs a "historic renewal of social housing" and at least 3.1 million new social homes over the next 20 years if it is to plug the supply gap.

In the 1980s, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher allowed council tenants to buy their homes at rock-bottom prices and heavily restricted more council building, depleting the stock of cheaply available homes.

Since then, Britain has experienced years of chronic underbuilding, rising rents and cuts to benefits that have exacerbated housing shortages, say property experts.

Last year, Britain's government said it would invest £2 billion to address an affordable housing shortage.

Claire Masters, executive producer of the television series on the Liverpool scheme - The £1 Houses: Britain's Cheapest Street - called it a "brave experiment" viewed by local governments in Britain and elsewhere as a possible blueprint.

"I don't think it's a gimmick at all," said Ms Masters, who has filmed participants since 2015 and has watched the council and residents adapt, butt heads, resolve conflicts and finally move in.

"It is something that is ambitious. It's a small price tag with some big risks."

Elsewhere in the UK the traditional housing market appears to have taken a break from Brexit worries.

Uncertainty about the UK leaving the European Union had weighed on house prices, especially in London and south-eastern England, since voters decided in June 2016 to leave the European Union.

But there have been signs of a stabilisation coinciding with the decision to extend the original March 29 deadline for Britain's EU departure until the end of October, and the closely watched RICS poll of surveyors has recovered in recent months. The Bank of England said the number of mortgages approved for house purchase rose to 66,440 in June from 65,647 in May.

That was the highest since January and above the average forecast from economists in a Reuters poll. Net mortgage lending, which typically lags behind approvals, also rose more than expected, up by £3.7bn in June.

"June's mortgage data ties in with the view that housing market activity has got some help from the avoidance of a disruptive Brexit at the end of March," said Howard Archer, economist at EY ITEM Club.

Faster wage growth and a jobs boom are also supporting house prices but Mr Archer said he expected them to rise by no more than 1.5 per cent this year, about their current growth rate.

If Britain leaves the EU without a deal on October 31 - something Prime Minister Boris Johnson says his government is actively preparing for - then house prices could quickly fall by around 5 per cent, Mr Archer added.

Updated: July 31, 2019 01:06 PM

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