Personal Finance

Rich People’s Problems: time to hit the beach hut

Zut alors! This week’s travel ban has put the skids under my planned French road trip. Quarantine restrictions mean the closest I’ll get to France this summer is rebranding my north Essex stamping ground of Frinton-on-Sea as “Frinton-sur-Mer”.

Nine out of 10 self-catered accommodation options in the UK have been booked ahead of another summer of staycations, according to one recent survey. So I’m staying put, and my beach hut will be a holiday lifeline.

To the uninitiated, a beach hut is a bit common. This single-roomed, painted wooden structure with a shallow pitched felt roof is just a tacky shed — even if it is next to a beach. But to those of us in the know, they are superb venues for beachside entertaining and relaxation come rain or shine.

They have also been a good investment. Lockdowns and travel bans have boosted the value of the UK’s 20,000 beach huts, as well as our desire to spend time inside them.

Average sale prices surged by 41 per cent last year, according to Hoo, the digital assets trading platform.

Mersea Island in Essex saw hut prices rise to £31,000. Across the border in Suffolk, a very plain hut in Felixstowe sold within hours of going on the market for the £65,000 asking price. Further up the coast in Southwold, a hut on the prime pitch will set you back an eye-watering £150,000.

Most huts are for daytime use only. In places like Mudeford in Dorset, you can stay overnight, pushing the prices up even further. One was recently sold for £330,000 — higher than the average UK house price — for a shed with no mains water or electricity.

My own beach hut perches on stilts at the Walings at Frinton-on-Sea, where two recent transactions have confirmed a new high-water mark of £65,000. One didn’t even make it to the open market; whispers that it might become available led to a pre-emptive “off-market” bid.

James Max’s Battenberg-themed beach hut at Frinton-on-Sea, Essex

Having bought mine in 2013 for £28,500, you may think I’m feeling smug. But it’s a bit like owning a Patek Philippe — you’ll never sell. Nice that the value has risen, but a financial burden nonetheless, because a flimsy wooden structure next to the sea requires constant maintenance (and insurance).

Seeing as we’ll be spending more time there this summer, I’ve decided to invest in a bit of a refurb. However, I certainly won’t be taking any inspo from the “beach hut challenge” episode of Alan Carr’s Interior Design Masters on BBC2.

The segment was filmed down the coast in neighbouring Walton-on-the-Naze, where it triggered a frenzy of panic buying and hideous makeovers.

The winning contestant created a “tiki” Hawaiian-themed bar, which was more like a tacky bar. This is a beach hut, not a caravan park! A garish 1950s-style diner was the runner up, but I can tell you, plastic seating and wet bums are not compatible.

Soft furnishings just rot, mirrors will rust and putting the kitchen at the front is a basic error. Not only will you ruin the view, but the only whistling will be from the wind, not your kettle, as it blows out the gas.

Poorly maintained huts are frowned upon. Some owners like to do the renovation themselves, but I’d rather pay someone else to do it. Every four years, after being buffeted by storms, wind, rain, and salty sea spray, your beach hut will need a fresh coat of paint. It is here where owners can show a bit of hut-upmanship.

Mine is currently painted pink and yellow in homage to the Battenberg cake (if you’re going to be garish, be inventive).

I have considered switching to Veuve orange or Fortnum’s green. Alternatively, I could stick with the cake theme and go for a two-tone yellow with a swirl of red. “Arctic roll” is what I’d call it (well, we are on the North Sea).

Room with a view: the North Sea from James Max’s Frinton beach hut

I suspect I’m going to stick with the bright yellow and pink squared Huttenberg moniker. I have, however, decided to embrace the green revolution. I’m installing a solar panel to power and charge electronic devices and light the hut with colour changing LEDs. I am sure they will be very tasteful when they’re switched off.

If you’re minded to turn beach hut ownership into a moneymaking proposition, beware. Rents of £150 per week for a three-month season aren’t likely to give you much of a return. Daily rental fees between £25 and £60 a day off-peak, and up to £80 for a peak bank holiday, may sound good, but you’ll have to clean the hut at the end of the day (or pay someone else to). You may cover your costs, but the best return you’ll get from a beach hut “investment” is spending time in it.

It’s amazing what you can cook up on a gas ring, and the retro appeal of high tea with sarnies, scones and biscuits is always a crowd pleaser. Under lockdown, we’ve been indulging in app-purchased takeaways delivered to our hut door. Anything goes. And the same applies to the dress code — even flip flops are acceptable.

All mod cons: the Frinton beach hut kitchen

Some hut owners install gas-powered fridges, but I keep my fizz in a cool box full of ice blocks. As for entertainment, a summer of playing “pop the cork” beckons (assemble your groupies on the beach below to catch the cork as it flies out of the hut window).

Plus, you can people-watch. Ah, the poor souls who have brought a picnic. And look! A puff of wind has coated their boiled eggs with a sandy outer crust and the local dogs are having a field day snatching sausages from their unsuspecting children. Because it’s England, if you want to feel good about yourself, there will always be someone nearby who’s older and fatter than you are.

A hut isn’t cheap to run. There are site fees to pay to the local authority (mine is nearly £500 this year; for a non-resident it’s nearly £1,000). Add another £500 for insurance in case your hut is damaged in a storm or washed away by the sea. Thankfully, beach huts qualify for non-domestic rates relief, but you must remember to apply, otherwise that’s another £300 you’ll be shelling out.

Like owning a second home, half the fun of hut ownership is decking it out with your old toot that should be in a skip. Like my neighbour’s glitterball, which is having a wonderful new lease of life.

In addition to my fancy new electrics, I’m having to replace some rotting boards the dog chewed through. We’re creating a BBQ area, and I’ve gone for a full repaint inside and out.

In a week or two, Huttenberg will be ready. The £4,000 spent on this refurb is cheaper than my delayed summer holiday plans and money well invested. I’m ready for my summer holiday in Frinton-sur-Mer and if I were you, I’d jump on the beach hut bandwagon before you get cabin fever.

James Max is a radio presenter and property expert. The views expressed are personal. Twitter: @thejamesmax


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