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Sunday Times

“Home” Supplement - 24 September 2006

With more SSIA investors about to see their wads of cash mature in the coming months, a rash of companies claiming to special­ise in building quality extensions in record time are expected to follow hot on their heels.

The number of planning applications to build extensions is rising by 10-15% year on year in Ireland, roughly in line with house-price increases. And surveys have shown that a. high proportion of investors plan to plough their money back into their homes. Now, with an extra €16 billion swirling around the economy, it's not surprising that some people will try to cash in.

How can you avoid the cowboys, and what exactly can you expect in return for your money? "Those of us who squirrelled away €250, the top rate of saving, to our SSIA every month are looking at getting back a lump sum in the region of €19,000-€23,800," says Kevin Johnson, head of savings and investments at EBS. In dual-saving households this amounts to a windfall of about €40,000: not enough to trade up in the property market, but a helpful contribution towards super-sizing your current home.

Extend is a company that promises to slice through the planning paperwork and jargon to ensure you get your exten­sion built on time and within budget At prices starting from €200, the firm will make a house call, determine the level of work required and quote the job for you. The idea was set up by the architec­ture firms Bennett McCleary and Bren­nan Browne, who were turning away business because they were too busy.

"We realised we were letting work go because our practices were simply too busy to take on the work," says Liam Brennan, a director. "Many architect firms don't want to take on domestic extensions because they are time­ consuming and less profitable than bigger jobs. There is also a snob factor at play."

Extend says it offers a complete design-team service, from architects and builders to engineers and surveyors. While the average extension costs €150,000 in Ireland, Extend's entry ­level projects start from about €70,000, excluding fees and Vat, which, when added to the equation, raise the cost to about €90,000.

A second option is to engage an up­-and-coming architect hungry to make his or her name, and who may be willing to negotiate a flat fee instead of the usual 10-15%. "Prices for building work on any meaningful job will still cost about €2,000 per square metre," says John Duffy, of John Duffy Design Group, which recently completed work on No 1 Lower Beechwood Avenue, Ranelagh, now for sale for €1.8m. "Add Vat at 13.5% and in reality you won't get' much for less than €100,000. Your SSIA won't get you an extension, but the nest egg will go a long way towards putting in Dew windows, for instance, which can lift the overall look of your property."

Niamh O'Connor bought a period property in Terenure with her husband in 2003 at a cost of €360,000. A friend recommended Extend's services and they rented while the firm got to work on their home. The programme included rewiring, replumbing, new heating and underpinning, and it added 150 sq ft of space to the property. The total cost was €90,000. The project included converting a boxroom into a bathroom and opening up the kitchen to the garden by adding a pivot door.

The couple. both SSIA investors, have just had their first baby; another child might force them to move and begin the renovation process again. "We'll proba­bly hold on to our SSIA savings and explore that option in time," says O'Connor. "While the last job was delivered on time and on budget, it was still a lot to take on, particularly as both of us work full-time. I swore that I would never, ever entertain the idea of that kind of building work again. But, like childbirth, the memory fades and I may find myself eating my words."

If you do invest in an extension, what is the best way to maximise your return? "The kitchen is still king of the extensions, as are swanky bathrooms upstairs," says Ronan O'Hara, a director at HOK Residential. Wet rooms, especially if you have teenagers, are another selling point, he says.

"Assuming the work and finishes are of the highest level, a kitchen and bathroom extension can add between 1 0% and 15% to the value of your home. An attic conversion will add 5%. The star selling point, a glass box, will add up to 20%," O'Hara says.

New styles of extension, such as the glass box play with internal space and volumes. "Clients are also exploring the subterranean environment," says Peter Cody, of Boyd Cody Architects. "While digging up to a metre in depth has become the norm, digging down an entire floor is a significantly more expen­sive exploration of space. But when you take into account the cost of trading up, including stamp duties, a case can be made for this option."

Naturally, the bigger the job the better the economies of scale, but Peter Carroll, of A2 Architects, cautions against a "size matters" approach. "Fin­ishes are the first thing to be cut from an extension budget. Size matters, but I would recommend cutting back on the scale of the extension in favour of retain­ing high-spec finishes that will stand the test of time. They are worth the invest­ment in the long run."

Despite the influx of new design agencies offering all-inclusive services, anecdotal evidence shows many Dublin­ers still can't get a builder for love or money. "If you haven't got someone to give you a word-of-mouth recommend­ation, Golden Pages is probably the best place to start," says O'Hara.

"When buying, keep your eyes open for any work being done by your neighbours. Ask their builders if they might consider taking on your project when they've finished theirs.'" Another option is to ask your neighbour for a recommendation. O'Connor recently received a letter from one of her neighbours asking her to rec­ommend a good builder and architect. Word of mouth works wonders. But before you commit yourself to a builder, see some other work the firm has done. "Take a look at the level of finish yourself," says John Duffy, "and ask the other owners how happy they were with the job."

For those who want an upgrade, Spendyourssia.com offers members a 10% reduction on materials for bed­room, bathroom and kitchen upgrades. Stephen Murphy, the website's manag­ing director, says home improvement accounts for 46% of his 10,000 mem­bers' proposed spending choices.

"By doing an extension, you will sell your house faster," advises HOK Resi­dential's O'Hara. He also says that' in today's competitive property market, purchasers want quality, and to get it, they are prepared to walk away from dated or dowdy interiors.
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