We’ve all seen the headlines — Jamie Oliver’s restaurants, Poundworld, Toys R Us, Debenhams, Maplins and other famous names going into administration or closing scores of stores.
It’s stating the obvious to say the High Street is in crisis. It’s worse than many think. In the year to April, the number of empty shops across the UK increased by more than 7,500.
A report last month entitled UK Town Centres: What Next? by commercial property experts Cushman & Wakefield says: ‘As we see a growing proportion of retailing shift online, there’s a need to introduce alternative uses in town centres.’
So given Britain’s shortage of homes, is there an opportunity to convert these empty stores into houses?
Reinvented: The Old Co-op in Kelbrook, Lancashire, is for sale with Hunters at £500,000
The Treasury estimates up to 400,000 new homes could be created by converting the upper floors of shops into apartments, or using empty stores as houses.
A 2018 report by the Federation of Master Builders looked specifically at six shopping centres — Bishop’s Stortford, Bridgend, Castleford, Harrow, Motherwell and Stratford-upon-Avon — and concluded that scores of shops had space for homes.
‘There’s plenty we can do to convert unused and under-used shops. This will boost supply of new homes and breathe new life back into our High Streets,’ says FMB chief executive Brian Berry.
‘No one should be allowed to have a property left empty for years,’ it says.
There are several clear advantages. For example, most shops tend to be in primary locations at the centre of neighbourhoods especially in towns.
‘Being in urban, amenity-rich environments is absolutely ideal for young professionals, renters, even down- sizers,’ says Edward Church of estate agency Strutt & Parker.
Shops frequently have outbuildings and substantial storage space and if you buy when the property is still classified as commercial — having checked with the council that you’ll get planning consent to convert to residential — you are likely to pay only 5 per cent stamp duty.
Depending on the purchase price, this could be much less than the duty on a property that’s always been a home. On top of that, the likelihood is that a former shop will give you a more distinctive home, whether you do the conversion yourself or buy it after completion.
‘Converted shops appeal to creative buyers with vision, who enjoy their quirks and potential to create unique spaces,’ says Tom Page, of London estate agency, Fyfe Mcdade.
‘One of the design challenges is what to do with the glass frontage area, which can feel quite exposed if used as a living room. Beyond frosted glass or paint, one option is to put up a stud wall, providing another layer with the main room behind it,’ he says.
His agency recently sold a converted barber’s shop in Dalston, East London: it is now a two-bedroom home featuring a handbuilt kitchen and breakfast bar formed out of reclaimed materials sourced from the original shop — a good example of the unique home that a conversion can give a buyer. But there are difficulties, too.
It’s often the case that utility connections and wiring standards in stores are below residential requirements.
In older shops, which have not been renovated for decades, there could even be asbestos, while redundant banks may have safes and security features which may be expensive to remove. And the flip side of being a centrally-located shop is that there may be little parking, which could be an issue if you wanted to sell.
But if you have the determination to see beyond these problems, the rewards can be great as letting agent Ajay Jagota will confirm.
He has converted two retail units in South Shields. The first was a corner shop which presented more of a challenge than expected: to ensure the end product looked like a home Jagota had to remove windows, door furniture and a sign, and render the outside.
He then converted a bed shop that became a three-bedroom apartment, and he has let them both out.
‘The cost of buying a shop is usually pretty low, especially if it’s empty and if there are several vacant ones around. My two were good earners, with their value rising 50 to 75 per cent even after conversion costs,’ he says.
So for many, the pros outweigh the cons and a shop conversion can be stylish and convenient — and most of all, it could be one step on the road to creating enough homes in a country where there is a housing crisis.
On the market: Charming conversions
STAFFORDSHIRE: This six-bedroom Georgian house in the village of Barton-under-Needwood, used to be known as Goodwin’s General Store. The old shop signs can still be seen in the village. Fineandcountry.com, £1.25million
KENT: Most recently this building in Canterbury was a boutique, but in the past it has also been a theatre. Now it’s a three- bedroom house with two bathrooms. n Struttandparker.com, £1.35million
SUFFOLK: This former antiques shop, in Debenham, has now become a four bedroom family home, called The Weavers, on the village High Street. It’s Grade II-listed and has a courtyard garden. n Bedfords.co.uk, £495,000