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Welcome to Tonypandy in Wales - where you can buy a house for just £5,000

The Independent logo The Independent 06/09/2015 Paul Gallagher

Nick Treharne: Nightmare on Oak Street: houses up for auction in Tonypandy © Nick Treharne Nightmare on Oak Street: houses up for auction in Tonypandy The views from Clydach Vale on the outskirts of the Rhondda Valley town of Tonypandy are spectacular. They could easily entice someone looking to snap up a home in this part of South Wales – yet few people are buying.

Property prices might be rocketing elsewhere in the country – it emerged last week that even in the most affordable regions of England and Wales, buyers are forced to spend six times their income – but not here, where cars can sometimes cost more than houses.

Over the summer, the area became known as the location of the cheapest property in the country, when a three-bed terraced house on Oak Street was sold at auction for £5,000. Another on the same road went for £7,000. A row of seven houses on the steep street – it has a one-in-five gradient – has also been sold at auction recently, yet no one lives in them. The windows are spattered with paint and unruly vegetation is taking over.

Neighbours in better-kept homes are upset. “The problem is people buy them at auction and don’t move in,” says a man in his sixties who has lived in Oak Street all his life, but doesn’t want to be identified. “Buyers just sit on them. I don’t understand it. The local authority should force owners to upgrade them or repossess them and do it themselves.”

Until the summer auctions, Tonypandy was best known for being one of the few areas in the UK not enamoured of Winston Churchill. In 1911, as Home Secretary, he sent the army into the area to back up the police after months of riots in and around the Rhondda Valley between striking miners and the local constabulary. Many never forgave him for what they saw as overreaction.

These days, the ill-will is reserved for homeowners looking to make a quick profit. The auctioned homes are often sold as “ideal investments for a builder” and one of the empty Oak Street houses, also a three-bed property, has already been put back on the market with a guide price of £35,000-£40,000. The online advertisement describes it as “a bay fronted end-of-terrace house with solid masonry elevations ... beneath an interlocking pitch tile roof”.

The tale of Oak Street’s empty houses is symptomatic of the wider area. Dozens and dozens of “for sale”, “to let” or “sold at auction” signs line the streets. There is no such thing as a housing shortage here.

Darlows estate agent held an auction of 25 properties last week, prices ranging from £10,000 to £135,000. But just because property is cheaper does not make them easier to shift.

Gareth Brackin, the firm’s regional partner, says: “The price for those two houses [on Oak Street] just gives you some idea how crazy the market is and how volatile it is in the Valleys. In neighbouring towns, you can walk along a terraced street of approximately 70-80 houses and may find up to 10 houses for sale in one street – all ranging from £60,000-£80,000.”

With the average wage for the area at around £23,000, this means many people struggle to buy even the cheaper stock. The rate of claiming benefits, including in-work benefits, is more than 25 per cent higher in Tonypandy than the national average and just under one in three residents leaves school without any qualifications. For many here, getting on the first rung of the housing ladder is proving very difficult.

“We haven’t got the first-time buyers with the capability of buying £60,000-£70,000 houses, so no one else can move until the wheels start turning,” Mr Brackin says. “The whole market is quite saturated at the moment. It’s not the problem of London or Bristol, say, where they have 10 buyers to every property. We’re the opposite: here we have 10 properties to every buyer at the moment. It’s a tough market up in the Valleys.”

Estate agents in the area say they have been dropping prices for a number of years to try to put some life back into the market. The tightening of bank lending criteria has not helped either – although banks such as NatWest are starting to relax the reins slightly.

A spokesperson for the Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council says housing remains a priority and it is working with landlords, owners and builders to tackle the empty properties issue and to increase the supply of affordable housing. 

“The county borough is unique in that it encompasses both semi-rural and urban communities, with large disparities between very prosperous areas to some of the most deprived communities in Wales. Correspondingly, the average house prices in the borough range from between £49,000 and £213,000 depending on the area. However, house prices must be considered in the context of local household income.”

Although the council has no powers to force owners to occupy properties, the spokesperson says a “proactive and strategic approach has been taken to encourage the re-use of empty properties” – such as taking enforcement action against dilapidated properties and the appointment of a dedicated “empty property officer”.

Making her way home from the High Street is Ann Jefford-Baker, 75, shortly leaving Tonypandy for a bungalow by the sea in Porthcawl, two hours away by bus.

“I’ve been here for 55 years, but this hill is killing me!” she laughs. “So much housing is available for rent around here. That’s been the biggest change in recent years. I don’t know what will happen to mine when it goes on the market in the next week or so. It’s a big house, so I’m hoping it will sell. I hope it soon becomes someone else’s home.”

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