Hurry if you want to experience living in a historic hutong courtyard house - they're vanishing Beijing's hutongs, or alleys, are magical places: narrow, atmospheric lanes trailing their way through the city, lined with old walled courtyards, known as siheyuan. Most date from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), although a few may be Ming (1368-1644). There were about 6,000 hutongs during the 1950s but the developers? wrecking ball has devastated many areas in recent years and it is believed that about 2,000 are left. Of these, only a fraction are deemed worthy of preservation. The romance of the hutongs has drawn interest from both foreigners and locals keen to experience real Beijing culture. Competition is cut-throat. As one property agent put it: 'I'm not telling you anything about the old houses market, because it will tip off my competitors. This market is booming.' Beijing resident Lawrence Brahm, a lawyer, filmmaker, columnist and political econmist, has deep experience of the market for old houses in Beijing, having converted three of them himself. One is the popular Red Capital Club Restaurant, another the boutique Red Capital Residence. A third is his house. 'It used to be that only Beijing residents could buy the houses to protect the interests of local residents,' he says. 'But then in the early 1990s, in the run-up to the 1997 Hong Kong handover, some 'patriotic' Chinese and myself got permission to buy courtyard houses.' Since the housing reforms of 1998, foreigners have been increasingly snapping up old places and renovating, often making millions of renminbi in profit once they sell. It has seldom been easy for either the buyers, the residents, or the government to manage the process. In contrast to Shanghai, where the old houses are colonial-era in style and the municipal government had little incentive to pay for their upkeep - so it marketed them to foreigners ? Beijing faced a quandary as its city developed over the past decade. The suburbs were growing at a furious pace so a decision was needed about what to with the central area inside the Second Ring Road around the city. A scheme of semi-privatisation was introduced. Mr Brahm explains the process: 'Take a courtyard with, say, six families, but only large enough for two or three families. The government will give the existing residents the option to buy it, and in return it will hook up the electricity and water, or move, where they would receive compensation.' This was done in the hope, he says, that owners who stayed behind would then have a stake in repairing and renovating the old houses. The city government has ruled that all restoration of courtyard housing should use traditional materials. It has also been lately encouraging foreigners to buy in, though Brahm reckons that much of the good housing has already gone. ?There are only 25 protected areas of hutong, but a lot of them are in the same area - Jingcheng Park has four zones, the Forbidden City has four zones, the neighbourhood around my house [Dongsibatiao] has six areas. So there are probably only half a dozen being meaningfully protected. The rest is basically gone or going.' Chang Lei, marketing manager at Bohwa & Thunis Real Estate, says reconstruction of new courtyards is difficult. 'I don?t think there is such a strong trend, because it?s hard to find such a big area to build the old style houses, say, the quadrangles. I know there are some saleable quadrangles in the downtown area, each worth about 25 million to 30 million RMB. But those that are not located inside the inner city won?t be very appealing,' he says. The downside of a courtyard house is that many have poor heating, no hot water and insufficient sanitation. Restoration work can be expensive. It's also worth trying a couple of nights in a siheyuan before you decide to move there. 'Due to the living habits, few foreigners get used to them,' says Luo Yang, a property consultant from Beijing Waveland Realty. 'And there are problems in terms of community security, which is harder to guarantee in these old places.' They are certainly atmospheric places in which to live and you do get a sense of being close to nature when you wake up and walk across your courtyard to the bathroom. But then again, if it?s 20 degrees below zero, that might not exactly be your cup of Oolong cha. Tips on buying an old house There are 26 officially protected zones in the city. Any agent should be able to secure a list of these from the city government?s planning department. Find the neighbourhood you want, then start looking for a house within it. Check who actually owns the house ? ask for the title deed, which is different from a land-use agreement. Don?t just take an agent?s word for it. Don't take it for granted that because there is only one family living there, that they are the only ones with a claim. Check the number of families who have their hukou, or family registration, listed at the address. Double-check the planning status for the neighbourhood with the district planning office. When in doubt, go to the local government office for official documents. Once you have been through all this, bought the place, and the job of restoration work begins, check the local regulations again. In some areas, restrictions have been placed on the kind of materials you can use in restoring an old house.