The Ard na Derige housing estate in Killaloe, Co Clare, was launched amid much fanfare back in 2006. The €375,000 asking price for the larger houses was no deterrent in an era of easy credit and several were snapped up that year.
But progress at the ambitious development in the picturesque Shannon-side village started to slow down amid uncertainty in the property market in 2007. It came to a virtual standstill the following year when the global recession compounded the national problem.
A number of potential buyers withdrew their interest when they realised that they would be purchasing homes in a development that had become stillborn.
But others were not so lucky. At least three people who bought houses in 2006 have not been able to live in them in the intervening years. Although they own the full deeds to their properties, they don’t have the keys.
Last year, one of them, John Ryan, became so frustrated by having to repay a bank loan on a property that he had no access to, that he forcibly gained possession by breaking into the house. He was joined in his protest by other homeowners in a similar predicament.
But the once notorious ghost estate has been comprehensively refurbished in the past few months after being taken over by a new developer. The first residents, including John Ryan, are set to move into their homes by the end of this month.
With the asking prices for the houses at Ard na Derige a fraction of what they were in the boom years — three- bedroom properties sold for €145,000, as opposed to the €300,000 that was sought in 2006 — there have been queues of potential buyers visiting the site.
Within a matter of weeks 18 properties have been sold — a total outlay €2.73m — and such is the level of interest in the revitalised scheme that John Walsh of Cherry Fox Developments says 10 people are on a waiting list should any of the sales fall through.
It’s one of numerous ghost estates that have been made habitable in 2014 , and something of a good news story for those who thought that Ireland would be pockmarked by developments conceived in times of plenty, but left to stagnate during the recession.
John O’Connor, CEO of the state-funded Housing Agency, says the number of ghost estates has greatly reduced since the agency was established in 2010. “There were 2,846 unfinished developments in 2010, but the number had fallen to 1,258 by November of last year,” he says. “We are currently conducting a new survey of such developments and will have results in September, but the preliminary findings are showing that the number of unfinished developments left standing is far less again.”
O’Connor considers two or more houses to be a “development” although several of these smaller clusters of houses would not usually be characterised as ghost estates. According to the National Institute for Regional Spatial Analysis at NUI Maynooth, a ghost estate is defined as a development, of 10 or more houses, where more than 50pc of the dwellings are unoccupied or incomplete.
“There is considerable demand for housing in certain parts of Ireland right now,” he says. “Especially in Dublin and around, and in cities like Galway. It makes sense to finish those developments that can be salvaged and are in areas where they can be viable.”
O’Connor believes there are many developments that “are in the wrong area, where there is no demand for them” — these will have to be demolished. Some have already been levelled by the bulldozers and more will experience the same fate.
“Up to 300 developments around the country are simply not viable,” he says. “They are remnants of the mistakes of the Celtic Tiger years. They were half-built in depopulated counties where there was simply no demand for them. Others were built in parts of the country that were considered to be within commutable distance of Dublin, but there was little interest in them.”
Ned Brennan, chief operations officer of the Respond! social housing agency, has noted the resuscitation of once forlorn estates, but urges caution.
“Prospective buyers have to be very careful about what they’re spending their money on,” he says. “There is an awful lot of bad building in some of these estates and that’s even before you consider that they might have been open to the elements for six or seven years and have been very badly damaged.”
Respond!, which was set up to help secure social housing stock throughout the country, has inspected more than 2,000 unfinished properties over the past few years and Brennan insists that a large proportion of those are in an “unsalvageable” state.
“It’s not just the houses themselves, but also crucial aspects like the sewage system could need to be completely redone and at great cost. There have been examples of disgruntled subcontractors who deliberately caused a lot of damage when the work dried up.”
Last year, Respond! purchased a 56-unit estate in Tullow, Co Carlow and, after refurbishment, it is now fully occupied — primarily with people who had been on local authority housing lists. “It is an example of a ghost estate that can be salvaged and made to work,” Brennan says. “The houses are structurally very sound and a lot of attention has been given to the development itself. It also satisfies the need to make houses available in that particular part of Ireland.”
Brennan says the agency will soon sign off on another former ghost estate. “Unfortunately, a lot of the developments that you see around Ireland will never be viable and not just because of the poor state they are in. Those in areas with low population should never have been built in the first place because there wasn’t a need for them then or now.
“I really hope we have learned from the mistakes made, but it’s worrying to hear that the shortage of available property in certain areas, especially Dublin, is encouraging people to panic-buy again.
“They need to think long and hard to make sure that they’re buying the right property in the right area because there are a lot of people out there who find themselves trapped in negative equity in estates miles from their work and without proper facilities.”
The renewed interest in finished housing estates reflects a more buoyant environment than at any time in the past six years although this week’s report that 50pc of all sales are cash purchases suggests the mortgage market still has some way to go towards normalisation.
Meanwhile, the economic think-tank, ESRI, this week forecast that 54,000 homes need to be built over the next seven years in order to cope with demand — and to alleviate a housing market in Dublin whose average price continues to spiral upwards. John O’Connor says it is essential that the “right mix” of property is built — especially smaller units to suit the growing phenomenon of two and three-person households. “The one-size fits all approach of the past has to be re-thought,” he says. “And the culture which allowed housing estates to be built in unsuitable areas can’t happen again.”
Ned Brennan believes the speculative greed of the boom years, characterised by large, poorly conceived housing estates in the wrong areas, flies in the face of what housing should be about.
“It’s very simple,” he says. “Housing is about providing shelter and support for families, not a millstone to wreck their quality of life. We have all seen the pain and suffering caused by poor developments like Priory Hall (the notorious apartment complex in north Dublin built by disgraced developer Tom McFeely).
“The fear is that there are plenty of other developments that went up in the past but will one day reveal themselves to be uninhabitable.
“So those who are thinking of buying a house for a knock-down price in a former ghost estate need to make sure they have done their homework, asked the right questions and got the appropriate answers.”
Valerie Anex was born in Switzerland to an Irish mother and Swiss father. An artist and photographer, she is a regular visitor to Leitrim, her mother’s native county and the place where her grandmother still lives. “Change doesn’t happen that quickly in Switzerland,” she says, “but from the late 1990s onwards there was a huge rate of change in Ireland — new roads and supermarkets and all the brand new cars that everyone seemed to have.”
When the recession first hit, she became aware of the infeasibly large number of ghost estates that blight the Connacht countryside and she set about photographing them at their most eerie and inhospitable.
“Some of them, such as Holly Park in Leitrim Town, were almost completely finished but were completely devoid of people,” she says of the project she undertook in 2011. “Others were left in a very dangerous state with machinery left behind and pools of water gathered. They can be dangerous places for young children to be playing in.” Two years ago, a toddler drowned in a pool of water at a ghost estate outside Athlone — the housing development has since been destroyed.
Anex says she met numerous residents in the half-completed estates she photographed and was struck by how soul-destroying their living environments were. “I met people who were living with vacant houses all around them and in developments that look as though they would never be completed. They had found themselves in negative equity and felt trapped by the situation they were in. As a visitor, I only needed to spend a short time in one of these estates to see how lonely and alienating it could be. In others, I would be the only person there and it was a very eerie feeling.
“Ireland’s ghost estates are a symbol of what went wrong during the Celtic Tiger. There weren’t enough regulations put in place about where they could be built or how extensive they could be. It didn’t seem to matter if there was inadequate transport in the area, or if the infrastructure could support it, or if there were sufficient facilities to cater for all the people who would live there. When I walked around some of them, it was clear that they had been built on ground that flooded easily and just wasn’t suited for large-scale housing.
“It is so obvious that most of the developments were not built for people — they were built for money.”