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A house stripped of its period fittings: how to stop your property becoming a target for thieves.

Valuable fittings were stolen from this house in Warwickshire, Katie Gunning looks into why the owner believes his application for Listed Building Consent was to blame.

Ten brass 'jelly mould' light switches, a cast iron radiator, a brass letter box and a lion's head knocker. The tally of period items lost from Chris Wright's Victorian villa in Warwickshire makes depressing reading.

'The house has been home to just four families in 150 years, and on our watch we lose all the original door furniture. You can't replace that genuine patina of an old door knob, or the sense of history that comes from knowing that everyone who has lived here has touched it.'

Chris's 19th Century home was stripped of its valuable period fittings shortly after he submitted an application for Listed Building Consent to the local council. The thieves clearly knew what they were after and either stole to order or took pieces they knew they could sell. He is convinced there is a link between the application and the burglary, and that anyone renovating a listed building is at risk.

Chris and his wife, Judi had been advised that their application should be supported by drawings, plans and plenty of photographs. The pictures were taken with a wide angle lens and clearly showed the relevant architectural features. The local paper listed their application and printed the planning reference number. Ten days later they were burgled.

Still just a coincidence?

Except that armed with the planning reference number, anyone had access to their address and all the details of their application, including the photographs. And to a trained eye those photographs revealed a lot more than just the architectural features. In the background you could see the brass light switches, radiators, and even a tool box left lying on the floor. It was also pretty clear that no-one was actually living in the house while it was being renovated.

And this was probably the clincher. A visit to the address would have quickly established that while Chris, Judi and various workmen were busy there during the day, come the evening the curtains weren't drawn and the house was dark. To make matters worse one of the photographs even showed where the door bolts were, just in case you needed a handy tip on where to force the door.

Sadly the Wright's experience is not unusual and Rugby Borough Council's Conservation Officer, Rob Parker-Gulliford wasn't surprised to hear they had been targeted by thieves. ‘You have to remember that burglary is what these people do for a living, and they do their research. They might spot a target while out walking, but how much easier to go online and browse estate agent sites or planning applications. If a quick visit then reveals the property to be unoccupied you are in trouble.'

He admits the issue of photographs is tricky; 'Images do need to be submitted with an application. You really can't get a proper feel for a property without photographs, but householders need to be aware of the risks.' The Freedom of Information Act means all the documents associated with an application are made available to the public, but according to Parker-Galliford there may be a way around the legislation when it comes to photographs. Is it really in the public's interest to see the details of, say, your living room or bathroom? If you can argue that it isn't then Rob Parker-Gulliford suggests marking images as ‘confidential' and insisting they are not placed on the internet.

Chris Wright's advice to other first time renovators is simple; 'start to view your home like a criminal would. Imagine what sort of information would be useful if you wanted to break in, and then what would you steal? Don't make our mistake of thinking it's just a building site, dusty and chaotic, because to a trained eye your uninhabited period property could be a goldmine.'

'The police told us later that it's a good idea to hang curtains before you start work, then you can draw them when you leave for the night. Use timer switches to turn the lights on and off and install an alarm'. If you can safely remove valuable fittings while you work on the property then do so, but take care and label things carefully to prevent loss or confusion later.

To add insult to injury many of the fittings were probably removed using Chris's own toolbox, also left overnight at the property. 'I've ended up with a penknife. Every tool I've owned since the age of 20 was taken. They carried memories of all the jobs I've carried out; my hacksaw fitted my hand perfectly. Now I have to start again.'

High quality period features are very popular but most buyers want to know that the fireplace or door they covet hasn't been 'salvaged' illegally from someone else's home. Architectural salvage is a broad term covering architectural antiques, garden ornaments and reclaimed building materials. Most dealers are above board and are signed up to something called the Salvo Code, where dealers agree not to buy an item if there is the slightest suspicion it is stolen, not to knowingly buy anything from a listed building and to record the provenance of all items put up for sale.

Trevor Banks of Architectural Treasures in Kent says the regulations make it hard for stolen goods to make it into a bona fide salvage yard; so such items often have an ignominious end. 'Six months ago the price of cast iron was very high, and a radiator stolen then probably ended up being sold for scrap.'

None of Chris's property was ever recovered and so we'll never know if those brass light fittings were scrapped or are now wired up in someone else's home.

'In a strange way I feel honoured that parts of my home were considered so covetable, but I was naïve in not realising how valuable these items were. Not any longer.'

Thursday 28 January, 2010

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