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Dear Delia

Dear Delia I am in negotiations to buy a house which is suffering some disturbance because of the close proximity of a London Underground line. Does this affect its value and why does it occur?

By coincidence, the property also has a blue plaque attached and I am interested to know the history of the blue plaque movement, and again whether or not the value of my house is affected. Can you help?

Delia says: This unusual query requires some specialist advice. Here to help is our resident surveying expert Simon White from Ashdown Lyons.

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Intermediary response
Simon White is director of surveyor Ashdown Lyons
One of the first houses I surveyed in London was affected by what is commonly called Tube rumble – but not in a way that you would expect. The house in question was a five-storey mid-terrace late Victorian property sandwiched between a kebab shop and a bookie’s in darkest Balham. My brief was to value the entire building and also each floor individually because my client wanted to convert the building into five flats. Debunking a wide spread misconception about surveyors, I actually got out of my car and carefully inspected each floor in the company of the vendor who reminded me very much of Robinson Crusoe’s Man Friday, but not as smartly dressed.

Below, and nearly 25 yards away, lay a branch of the Northern line and, as you can imagine, the vibration and noise at basement level was almost intolerable. I swear I heard the words ‘mind the gap’ at least twice. This did not, however, worry my Man Friday who was apparently deaf. But what was interesting was the effect on the building the higher up you went. Disturbance levels became noticeably quieter at ground and first floor level but significantly increased again at second and third floor level.

Being a chap with an enquiring mind, I set about to try and find out why this was case. The reason is quite straightforward, but for a full appreciation we need to look at the London Underground in greater detail.

Whether we love it or loathe it, the Tube plays a major role in the life of all Londoners. On January 9 1863, the Metropolitan line was opened with the first section running between Paddington and Farringdon. The pioneer and visionary for all this was actually a solicitor by the name of Charles Pearson who got the idea from Brunel’s ill-fated Thames Tunnel of 1843.

The first ever four mile long track initially used steam engines with the smoke mostly engulfing the carriages and those inside them, until the company’s engineers had the idea of diverting the steam into tanks connected to the rear of each locomotive. These dirty, noisy and uncomfortable, but nevertheless pioneering, trains were replaced as early as December 1890 with engines powered by electricity. There are now 255 miles of track below London, including around 40 abandoned ghost stations. As an example, look through the window next time you travel on the Central line between Tottenham Court Road and Holborn and you will see a station where no passengers have alighted since 1932. This station used to be specifically for the British Museum.

There is a simple explanation why many buildings in London suffer from Tube rumble and it is all down to how the underground was originally built. In the 19th century, digging deep level tunnels, especially underwater, was a dangerous and tricky business. As a result, most subterranean railways in London were built using the cut and cover technique. This involved cutting a deep trench in an existing road into which the railway was then laid. The trench was then covered over and the road re-opened. Next time you look at an A-Z London, you will see by reference to station locations just how many lines follow the capital’s major roads.

So, back to my Man Friday and his house in Balham. The reason why his house and many others were affected was because of the proximity of a railway line directly beneath the surface of the adjacent frontage road. The effect on this building and others in the terrace was therefore collective rather than individual because when a train passed the entire terrace shook rather like standing dominoes knocking into each other. Why was a greater degree of disturbance experienced higher up in the building? Simple. It is like a pile of pennies on a shaky table – if the table shakes, it is the pennies higher up which wobble and fall over rather than those that are better founded at the bottom.

In truth, there is not one of us who isn’t just a little bit fascinated by London’s underground. The most recently closed down station is Aldwych which even had its own small branch line and ran directly into the heart of theatre land. This line section and station was closed in the early 1990s and is now hired out by London Transport for film sets and private parties.
We think of terrorism as being a modern phenomenon but in 1884 the London underground actually had to be closed down because of the bombings threat by Irish conspirators!

Blue plaques are among the most familiar features of the London streetscape but their origin is largely forgotten. Some blue plaque buildings are grand while some are ordinary, but all are connected by the fact that a remarkable person lived or worked there at some time.

Here is a question for you. Can a blue plaque mark the residence of an imaginary person? Think carefully, but for those who can’t wait, the answer is at the end of this article. Blue plaques were first proposed by a man called William Ewart MP and the first one appeared on Lord Byron’s house in 1867. The oldest surviving plaque also dates from 1867 and pinpoints the house of Napoleon III. The blue plaque scheme is now run by English Heritage which erects around 20 new plaques a year. So, what are the consequences for a property with a blue plaque or a true rumble problem?

The first certainly does not add value but the latter will reduce value to an extent. By how much, however, is difficult to quantify but London is a busy cosmopolitan 24-hour city so does an occasional subterranean rumble really lower a property’s value by that much? I don’t think so.

By the way, an imaginary person can be commemorated by a blue plaque. Sherlock Holmes didn’t exist but at 221b Baker Street there is a blue plaque nevertheless.


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