Thursday, 20 July 2017

From Doer-Upper to Starter-Upper: The London Property Week diaries.


I don't like risk.  And, believe me, I can see risk in almost anything.

The centuries old bridge I'm crossing will surely choose that moment to collapse. The truck hurtling down the road will have a brake failure and swerve into my path. The bloke coming towards me in a hoody is a knife wielding mugger who fancies my iPhone.

It's a hard life when you're this paranoid. That's why I don't go out much.

Seriously though, I can't afford the financial downside or take the day to day stress of too much risk, which is why I've kept out of the doer-upper market for the last year or so.

So what do I decide to do instead - try and start up London's biggest property show, that's all.

No risk there, obviously.

_______________________________________


The idea for London Property Week was born out of disbelief.

Disbelief at how little there is to help young buyers find a new build property, buy it and even furnish it.

Oh there's lots of talk about the Bank of Mum & Dad or Help to Buy or even normal mortgages, and we all know there are are thousands of new flats going up all over the metropolis.

But when I started asking around I found that both young buyers and their parents were at a loss to know where to start.

The portals like Rightmove and Zoopla are wonderful things. If you know what you're looking for and roughly where. But people don't.

Estate agent offices are all well and good. But each one only has one or two new developments on their books.

The Evening Standard and Metro have lots of ads and interesting articles. But they are hardly comprehensive, certainly not on a weekly basis.

Of course you could take a tour of Show Apartments (if you know where you want to buy) but they can be a bit like car showrooms - full of sharp suited sales people out to entrap you into signing on the dotted line at almost any cost (may not be true, but it's how people feel).

In the end, it's all a bit of a nightmare.

So we did a survey and asked young professionals in London who want to buy whether they'd attend an event where they could find out about dozens of different developments and thousands of apartments. Over 40% said 'yes, please'. They also overwhelmingly wanted to meet mortgage people in a neutral location and attend seminars on how and what to buy.

Unbelievably, there is no major consumer event celebrating, promoting or informing people about the huge number of developments going up all over the city.

The trade (or perhaps I should say profession) has endless events. From MIPIM downwards, there's an opportunity for agents, developers, builders, banks etc etc to get together and do deals most weeks. There are awards shows, lots of 'summits', lots and lots and lots of talking (and a certain amount of drinking, of course).

The blurb for these events usually includes words and phrases such as strategic key stakeholder investment-led future regeneration summit.

Nothing wrong with that. I'm sure it's enormous fun.

But where's the 'end-user' (or buyer, to you and me) in all this? Where do they find out about all thats available to them?

There's a show for buy-to-let investors, there's a show for luxury property buyers keen on places like Dubai, there's even a small show for young people desperate enough to take on the complexities of a Shared Ownership mortgage.

And that's it.

Which is a shame because as I delved deeper into the London new build sector I realised just how much it has to offer.

London is being transformed. Across the city, new communities, new homes and new lifestyles are fast replacing the old. Regenerated and re-energised, London's once neglected areas are being reborn for a new generation. And, contrary to what you hear, it's not all about multi-million pound penthouses for money launderers.


Property Week will be an event that celebrates this and helps the young, the downsizer, the incomer and the city itself understand the scale, the ambition and the sheer variety of what's available out there.

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Next time....we talk to developers and a few 'movers and shakers'.

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Monday, 26 June 2017

A postcard from Paris.



171, rue Saint Jaques, Paris V. 



Rue Saint Jacques is unusually wide and straight for a pre-Haussmann Parisian street. It runs south from the tourist magnet of Notre Dame uphill past the old Sorbonne and the even more imperious Pantheon until it narrows and enters a mess of medieval streets at the heart of The Latin Quarter.

Where the buildings either side begin to close in on each other, you will find the usual neighbourhood services essential to French life. The butcher, the baker, the wine shop, the greengrocer, the traiteur and the inevitable hairdresser.

There are chickens rotating on spits, fat butchers with bloody aprons, students grabbing a sandwich between lectures, little old ladies scuttling about for their daily supplies and one of the oldest (and cheapest) restaurants in the city, Perraudin.

It was here, in the Vth arrondisement, back in 1999, that we took our first foray into overseas property ownership.

Our top floor garret at 171 rue Saint Jaques was no more than 350 square feet, built in the17th century and arrived at by climbing 84 narrow, worn, stone steps.

It had a sitting room/kitchen, a bedroom and a terrifying balcony.

From the tiny back bedroom there was an almost Disneyesque view across Parisian leaded rooftops towards the towering cupola of The Pantheon. From the front you looked down on the bustling narrow street.

It had original tiles and an old fireplace, walls that had probably never been straight or square and a charm that felt terribly foreign and yet very homely at the same time.

If I appear to be waxing lyrical, it's because the whole experience was pretty good.

We found the flat through a couple who were friends of friends and ran an estate agency in Paris.

It was in a terrible state, of course, but Issy and Olly, the agents, took charge of the renovation and within a couple of months or so there was a new kitchen, a new shower room (well, cupboard) and crisp clean white walls.

We 'lived' Parisian weekends as often as we could cajole our two youngest children onto Eurostar. At
3 and 10, they weren't really into strolling around The Left Bank looking at the shops and stopping for leisurely lunches. Anything we did had to be 'sweetened' with long trips to the nearby Luxembourg Gardens for ice creams and carousel rides, the occasional day at EuroDisney or lunches of roast chicken and mashed potatoes brought home from the Rue Mouffetard market.

We didn't rent out the flat (no Airbnb back then), it didn't seem worth the bother. The flat had cost us €100,000 plus notaires fees and taxes. And the annual service charges and local taxes were pretty negligible on such a small place.

After so many years, my memories are of course rather rose-tinted. But it can't have been that bad - our son and daughter seem to have grown up sharing our love of the city. Indeed, one of them just spent a happy year there as part of her French degree.

Eventually we sold the flat (much to my regret now) and moved south in search of somewhere our young family did want to go (which, of course, was the beaches and, as they got older, bars of St Tropez).

Why am I reminiscing about this now? Well, not long ago we went back for a weekend to visit our old Paris haunts and pass by our apartment building.

We've been back numerous times since we sold the garret, but this time I wasn't working, we didn't have our daughter to see or friends in tow or anyone other than ourselves to please.

It gave me the chance to properly compare it to our own capital. And reflect on what has changed in both London and Paris.

We had a wonderful weekend. We ate well enough, visited the extraordinary Louis Vuitton Fondation and possibly the smallest concert hall known to man on the beautiful Ile St Louis. We stayed in a great little hotel and wore out our shoes walking all over the Marais, St Germain and the Latin Quarter.

I can't remember a much nicer weekend, if I'm honest.

But, and it's a big but, the city itself looked a bit frayed at the edges, a touch run-down, a tad down-at-heel.

When we first bought the flat, the Metro seemed such an improvement on our own Tube. Today it's the other way round. The Metro looks old, tired, unloved, full of unhappy, slightly shabby people.
Our Tube looks newer, feels faster and seems full of people wearing better clothes, earning more money and with energy.

Above ground, the architecture of Paris is of course (and quite rightly) unchanged. But it's dirtier than before, scruffier when you look closely, and just feels poorer.

Arriving back in London, the opposite is again true. Gliding to a halt in St Pancras is like arriving in the new world. Our gleaming arcades of safe, bright, new, jolly restaurants and shops are a welcome relief after the Gare du Nord's sense of menace and dreadful Eurostar facilities.

London pulses with an energy and style Paris cannot even imagine. Of course we have our poor, our destitute, our marginalised and many, difficult social problems. But London is vastly bigger and hugely more cosmopolitan. It absorbs races, cultures and religions in a way our neighbouring capital never has.

While Paris has atrophied, London has seemed alive to the future.

Wherever you look, whether it's the restaurant scene in Soho, the hipster cafes of Hoxton or the swathes of new developments regenerating run down areas, we are a city of tomorrow whereas Paris has clung to an outmoded and crumbling edifice, both architecturally and socially.

But is that all about to change once again? Is it the turn of Paris to move forward and London to go backwards?

It is certainly beginning to look that way.

Brexit, of course, will almost certainly cast our city adrift from its continental neighbours far more effectively than the English Channel once did. Perhaps the droves of creative, hard working, well-educated young Europeans who have been drawn to London in the past will now head for Berlin, Paris or Amsterdam instead. It will be our loss.

Macron could well be the Blair France so desperately needs. Already he is giving the country a confidence, a swagger and a relevance that it has seemed to lack for so long. If he can translate that into economic reform, Paris will be revitalised.

We on the other hand have perhaps the worst set of political leaders I have ever seen.

The Conservatives seem bereft of ideas, leadership or direction. Riven by endless angst and anger over Brexit, they may retain power but seem powerless to move us forward.  Labour, on the other hand, is now controlled by an ultra-left, near Marxist faction (hidden for much of the election) committed to bribing its way back into power with undeliverable goodies for the young.

It's a choice that makes you long for the country to magic up its own charismatic, progressive and inclusive leader. Someone who will take us forwards rather than return us to the catastrophic 70s.

(Where are you, David Milliband, when we so desperately need you?)

But that looks as unlikely as a reversal of the Brexit decision.

What doesn't seem so unlikely, however, is a reversal in the fortunes of these two great cities.
Paris on the up. London on an almost suicidal spiral downwards (in the hands of either party currently).

And that's a shame. I was just getting used to boasting about London.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Little Englanders and Tricky Trots: The only hot properties in town.

Its been a funny old summer. And I'm not just talking about the weather.

As the thermometer see-sawed, so too has my view of the property market.

One moment I think it's probably the best time in years to buy something. The next I worry that everything's on the point of collapse and I'd be better investing in a one way ticket to somewhere far removed from both the Brexiters and the Corbynistas.

Little Englanders and Tricky Trots dominate the political landscape and are busy exploiting a population now hooked on xenophobia, entitlement and blame.

That's not exactly an environment that encourages confidence in the future.

It's all a bit depressing. To say the least.

But where does it leave the property market? And, in particular, the Prime London market?

The so-called experts seem to be suffering from a particularly extreme form of schizophrenia.

One minute they tell us prices are tumbling across prime areas and nothing is selling. The next we are being told that the fall in the pound is spurring a new influx of cash rich overseas buyers looking for a bargain.

My guess is that neither view is entirely accurate. Or entirely false. It's just a bloody mess. And nobody really knows whether it's going to get even worse or gradually start to improve.

Which just leaves me feeling confused and wary.

Although I recently extolled the investment virtues of family homes in deeply middle-class areas just outside Prime London like Barnes, Kew and Putney, I can't help, even now, being pulled towards the parts of town I'd prefer to live in myself.

We've just started renting a place close to Chelsea Green that I think was built for The Borrowers. It's the smallest house I've ever lived in. Although a bit run down in parts, it is a perfect pied-a-terre (as the agents would say) for the few days each week we spend in town.

On one of these days I wandered past a small house in one of Chelsea's classic, colourfully painted little streets between the King's Road and the Green. It is perhaps the last house on the street still unmodernised, and a little flyer in the window announced that it was For Sale.

Bingo. Just what I was looking for. That's what I thought, anyway.

A visit with the agent confirmed everything I'd hoped for : you could extend this very grim and near derelict little place upwards and outwards, making a perfect small 3 bed 'cottage'.

It had been to 'best and final' bids before the Brexit vote. But one by one these buyers evaporated after the unexpectedly disastrous referendum result.

Given the state of the market and the property, an offer of maybe 10-15% below asking seemed a reasonable starting point. At that level, the numbers might just stack up.

The owner, however, refuses to even consider offers and is sticking with his original asking price.

At this level, the young agent explained, there is no upside for a 'developer'.  (This endearing, upfront honesty did not go unnoticed.)

To give you an idea of how unrealistic this seller is being...here's some numbers.

Just to break even on the project (after stamp duty, realistic renovation costs and, of course, the owner's silly asking price ) the 'done up' house would have to be worth about £3000 per square foot.

The market value for houses on this particular street, however, has rarely exceeded £2500 psf. Even at its peak. Even renovated to the highest possible level.

So, unless there's a Prime idiot wandering around, this house is dead in the water.

On the other side of Chelsea, close to the river, we visited a very different property. A rather grand 2,000 square foot mansion flat.

It is perfectly proportioned for a kind of living that seems long past. Wandering from room to room, I could imagine an Edwardian 'gentleman' of slightly rakish inclination dressing in faded black tie, taking an early snifter from a well-stocked trolley, calling the porter for a cab and then heading off into the night for dinner at his club.

It's not that everything is old and run-down. Far from it. The bathrooms are traditional but almost new and exquisitely fitted out. The kitchen has a vast, and hugely expensive, French range cooker. The wallpapers are a masterpiece of faux antiquity. The ornately framed pictures hint at an aristocratic pedigree.

At first glance, in fact, it's all highly seductive. Then reality kicks in.

The flat is actually all wrong. For today's market, at least.

It's on the ground floor with no view of the river across the road.

Most rooms look out onto a central core that's more Victorian workhouse than Edwardian glamour.

The living space is small by today's standards and not easily reconfigured.

Flats on the opposite side of the common parts benefit from being corner units with light from two sides and, from the first floor upwards, fabulous views of Albert Bridge and the river.

For these reasons, I think, the flat failed to find a buyer at its original asking price. (An apartment in the same building had quickly achieved almost twice this price because of its top floor views, its light filled rooms and a modern makeover.)

A couple of years ago, this flat would have been snapped up. It would have been a small developer's dream. Today, however, the few buyers there are will do the numbers, look at the negatives and move on to somewhere else.

Even with £500,000 off the original asking price, I doubt this place will easily find a buyer.

It's a shame. I'd be thrilled to try and bring either of these properties sensitively into the 21st Century.

Both are, in their way, London classics and what living in our city is all about.

The endless over-priced new builds may appeal to the lock-up and leave buyer or 'stack-up' for the buy-to-let investor. They may even suit a 'wealthy' first-time buyer.

But it is this older stock that makes London a uniquely attractive world city, and defines the capital's many 'villages'.

As the Corbynistas and Brexiters fight it out for who can take our country backwards fastest, I fear that prime London and properties like these are going nowhere soon.

And that leaves me going nowhere as well.














Monday, 4 July 2016

The Big Lemon: Letter from Amalfi.

Two days after the referendum result, we flew to the Amalfi coast to meet up with a couple who come from Hong Kong and Seattle.

As we tried to digest the chaos we'd left behind in the UK, their Asian and US perspectives were both invaluable and depressing.

To cut a long discussion short, they just couldn't believe the British people could be so short-sighted, so narrow-minded, so xenophobic.

They looked at us pityingly and, no doubt, felt sorry for us personally.

How awful is that? The world actually feels sorry for us.

Truth is, I also felt sorry for us.

In the 48 hours following the Brexit result, we withdrew an accepted offer on one property, and declined to participate in a 'best and final' bid for another.

It didn't seem like we had any choice.

As I sit on the terrace of our small and basic, but very hospitable, hotel looking out across laden lemon trees to the glamorous speed boats buzzing up and down this beautiful coast, London seems a place to forget.

A place that's had its day in the sun and is now fading fast.

I hope that's not true, but fear that it may be the outcome of our isolationism and pig-headedness.

Like many, we're battening down the hatches. Renting rather than buying. Hoping that this mistake isn't as bad as it seems. Wishing that the bitter resentments of certain sectors of our country hadn't defeated the vitality, optimism and ambition of our youth and many of our immigrants.

As yet another over-sized lemon drops onto the terrace tiles, it seems there is only one way to describe London today : The Big Lemon.



Wednesday, 22 June 2016

In for a penny......


Oh no! It's finally referendum day. Decision time.

Nobody with a brain above their shoulders wants to be even partially controlled by some ageing bureaucrat from Luxembourg sitting, oh so comfortably, in his Brussels lair.

But on the other hand, nobody can deny that we are Europeans, that we have enjoyed the fruits of a common market and that we have far more in common with a hard working German than a bible belt American with an automatic rifle.

Coming to some sort of decision, therefore, is more than a bit testing for the old brain cells, as Wooster would have said to Jeeves.

But, rain notwithstanding, a decision must be made. Votes cast. An X plopped in the appropriate box.

I don't like Brussels anymore than dear old Nige, but I do like Europe.

I feel more at home in France, frankly, than in The Lake District. And far more content in Barcelona than somewhere like Glasgow.

My daughter just spent a year working in Paris, my son worked in Austria for a couple of years; their horizons are way beyond the little channel 'Leavers' seem to set so much store by.

I'm pleased to see that our children simply don't recognise borders in the same way we used to. And nor should they if we ever want the world to be a better, safer place.

So I'm in.

I hope most of you are too.





Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Letting themselves down.

We are between homes in London.

Truth is we are unsure what to do next. And as the weeks slip relentlessly by and we need to move from the temporary flat borrowed from my stepson, I am beginning to panic.

Although we've had an offer accepted on a new doer-upper (more on this another time), we won't have sealed the deal in time to move directly into it.

We could just move to Somerset for the summer, but for numerous reasons that doesn't quite work. We and my daughter, newly returned from Uni, need a base in town.

A rental is probably the answer.

But should it be an Airbnb for a month or so? Or a proper rental for 6 months or so?

Unlike everyone I've ever met, I absolutely hate the Airbnb website. OK so it's clean and neat and nice....but it seems such a random tool. I don't feel at home with its search system. It's just as likely to send me a one bed new build in Hackney as it is a two bed garden flat in Kensington.

No, sorry Airbnb, you may be cool, but you just don't cut it with me.

So we turned to conventional agents. First I contacted a Chelsea agency who we've worked with before. Their lettings team acted incredibly quickly and, on the face of it, were really, really on the ball.

The trouble was the agent they sent us out on viewings with was so oily in his sycophancy I was worried for the environment.

Where do these people learn this kind of behaviour? Is there a school called The Academy of Grovelling Creepiness?

In the end I just didn't believe anything he said, and the intensity of the pressure he applied on us to take one (very nice) flat was just too much.

It almost put us off the whole idea of renting, frankly.

Next we decided to try Barnes, close to the area we hope to buy in. I contacted one of the larger independents in the village and gave them a specific brief. 2 beds. Outside space. Must accept a dog. Preferably in what agents call 'Little Chelsea' off White Hart Lane.

Within a few hours an email pinged up saying the agent had attached several properties for our consideration. The trouble was there was no attachment.

I emailed back asking for the attachment. No response. Nothing. For 24 hours nothing. So I call and leave a message.

Finally another email pings up, this time with the promised attachments but no apology.

All the properties were 3 instead of 2 beds and significantly over the budget I had given them.

So I email back again. Nothing. 24 hours later and still no response. I give up.

I really like the sales teams at most agents I've worked with, but there seems to be something about the lettings market that attracts a very different breed. If the sales department is Waitrose, lettings is often more like Tesco Local.





Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Licking my wounds in the country.

I love doing up properties.

Seeing a tired, neglected and badly configured space transform into something desirable, comfortable and usable is immensely satisfying.

Of course there are always going to be problems - disputes with builders, unexpected expenses, inefficient suppliers, jobsworth planners, chippy tradesmen, unnecessary delays - but these bumps in the road are nothing to the pleasure of seeing a finished project.

I remember coming downstairs day after day at our Putney house and marvelling at the vast opened up space, the beautifully engineered Bulthaup kitchen and the sheer luxury of it (by my standards, anyway).

The same was true when we transformed a dull, dark beach-front apartment in St Tropez, a crumbling villa in the Var vineyards, a neglected semi in Fulham and a tiny garret in Paris. Each one has left a deep impression on me.

More recently, of course, there's been the flat in Egerton Gardens (recently marketed as London's most expensive studio flat) and the little house in Kensington.

I don't think I can ever completely give up this part of my life. But whether it's still a viable way to make some kind of a living is another question entirely.

Not only has the smug draper's son, our friend Mr Osborne, turned into a modern-day Sheriff of Nottingham with his unwarranted tax raids, but prices across the board in London do seem out of kilter with real incomes.

When very ordinary, small Fulham houses are over £2m and deeply unattractive flats south of the river are £1m, it's not just me that's priced out of the market. It's most people. Even very successful people.

All things considered, therefore, I'm taking a bit of a step back. Still looking at the market. Still keeping

an eye on what's out there. But rushing into nothing. And focussing instead on the work we need to do at our house in Somerset.

We have a lot to do. Both inside and out.

The house is currently very top heavy. All bedrooms and little living space. So we need to knock through a couple of walls. Take out one of the staircases. Put in some new windows. Fit a new kitchen. Revamp a boot room, guest loo and a bathroom. And completely rethink a small lower ground floor room that's destined eventually to be my 'study'.

Outside we need to move a 2000 litre oil tank, scrap a second tank, dig trenches for new oil pipes, complete a new 'mediterranean' garden on a terrace, manage a 3/4 acre walled garden we now rent and lay about 50 metres of brick paved paths.

All of this needs to be done while thinking up ways in which I can earn some money to be able to afford it all.

And on that note, I think I need a little lie down....