It is true that there is no such thing as a free lunch, but there can be a such thing as a free home improvement.
Government and local council grants are available for a wide range of repairs and alterations to your home – work that can make your house more comfortable and safer, or more economical and eco-friendly to run.
Here is a rundown of what is available and how some homeowners should go about getting the funding.
Bear in mind that when a grant has been made, accredited installers have to be used – your local authority or Energy Efficiency Advice Centre will provide a list of approved local contractors.
Local councils have been known to offer grants or loans for small-scale repairs. Ask about their Home Repair Assistance grants.
The help you can get depends on where you live and whether you are a homeowner or a tenant. Each local authority runs its own schemes according to its own criteria, so eligibility varies, but grants tend to be for older or disabled people and are likely to be means-tested. Get in touch directly to find out exactly what is available.
If you do want help to repair, improve or renovate your home, it is important that you do not carry out any work until you have been in touch with your council.
Keeping fuel bills down is a priority for everyone on a budget – particularly as gas and electricity become increasingly expensive.
The Government has also offered grants for installing heating and insulation - depending on where you live. The scheme is known as Warm Front in England, Warm Deal in Scotland, the Home Energy Efficiency Scheme in Wales, and the Warm Homes Scheme in Northern Ireland.
To qualify for the grant you must be aged 60 or over, own or privately rent your home, and you must be receiving one or more of these benefits: pension credit, council tax benefit, housing benefit, attendance allowance, disability living allowance or income-based jobseeker's allowance.
You will have to pay some of the costs if they exceed the grant but in England you can go back to your local council and ask for a top-up grant.
Your local Energy Efficiency Advice Centre has information on energy-saving schemes and grants. Find your local centre by calling the Energy Saving Trust. The Affordable Energy website also has details of grants.
If your home already has central heating you may qualify for a grant to insulate it. Pensioners and people on certain benefits can claim energy-efficiency grants or discounts – contact your local council.
In London you should ask your local Energy Advice Centre or contact the London Home Insulation Scheme.
By entering your postcode on to the Energy Saving Trust website (est.org.uk), you can get a breakdown of what's on offer in your area. Click 'Home Improvements', then “Search for grants and offers”.
Adaptations for disabled people
Disabled Facilities Grants will pay for a wide range of adaptations, from installing hand-rails and stairlifts to full-scale conversions, such as adding a downstairs bathroom.
These grants are not discretionary. Every local council has a legal obligation to offer them to people who need them. They may, however, be means-tested, with the council paying very little or up to 100% of the cost.
If you do have to pay, it’s worth knowing that some adaptation work for disabled people is VAT-free. This includes building ramps and widening doorways and adapting bathrooms to make them easier to use. Contact your council for information.
Approved alterations that have listed building consent may be VAT-exempt: check with the conservation officer at your local council.
If your home is a listed building, you may be able to get help to restore or repair it; the Funds for Historic Buildings website has details of grants available.
Steffan and Angela Gregory succeeded in having almost £4,500 worth of work done to their home with the help of the grants system.
Their home – a Victorian house in Malden, Essex – had not been improved for some time, and it was not an energy-efficient property.
"Our gas and electricity bills had soared," said Steffan, 62, "so when we heard that grants were available for updating our heating system we applied."
Steffan and Angela, also 62, applied to Affordable Energy, a grant scheme for private households, to have oil-fired central heating installed. They both qualify for disability living allowance, so were eligible for a full grant.
"Our village does not have gas lines, so we needed an oil boiler," said Steffan, who used to work as a management consultant.
The couple also received just under £300 for loft and cavity wall insulation through another grant scheme.
"Our monthly bill has dropped from £75 to just £40," said Steffan, who added that securing the funding was easy.
"The forms were simple and the work was carried out quickly. We had to pay £900 towards the work, although the council gave us a £149 top-up to help with this, and the Polio Fellowship, of which my wife is a member, gifted us £500. The grant money was paid directly to the contractors, so there was no hassle involved."
For further information
For all grants it is a good idea to get your application in as soon as the new financial year begins and the grant coffers are at their healthiest. The further into the year you go, less money will be available and applications may be delayed until the following year.
Useful numbers and websites:
Energy Saving Trust 0800 512 012 or est.org.uk
Warm Front (England) 0800 316 2805 or warmfront.co.uk
Home Energy Efficiency Scheme (Wales) 0800 316 2815 or heeswales.co.uk
Warm Deal (Scotland) 0800 316 6009
Warm Homes Scheme (Northern Ireland) 0800 181 667
Affordable Energy 0800 096 6356 or affordableenergy.co.uk
Funds for Historic Buildings - ffhb.org.uk
Disabled Facilities Grants - direct.gov.uk/en/disabledpeople/homeandhousingoptions/index.htm
London Home Insulation Scheme 0845 070 5059, london.gov.uk/insulate/
* Holly Thomas is Deputy Personal Finance Editor at the Daily Express and Sunday Express. Holly's views represent her own opinions and are for general information only. Always seek independent financial advice.
This article first appeared in the January 2008 edition of Saga Magazine.