Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Let the X-Factor auditions begin..

The problem with being a Do-Er Upper in Central London is that everyone is now a Do-Er Upper.

You only have to walk the smarter streets of SW London to see just how all consuming the passion for doing up property has become.

Every few yards another basement is being dug out, another gang of loud mouthed scaffolders is busy encasing yet another total refurb, another group of Polish builders stands morosely waiting for instructions, skips take up half the parking bays and white vans occupy the rest.

You can pick up brand new kitchens
in a London skip!

We've become a nation (or world) of renovators, improvers, Sarah Beenys and Grand Designers.

And this is a problem for those of us in search of an 'honest' profit.

The margin is an endangered species for smaller developers because there is now very little difference between the 'newly renovated' price of a property and the 'would benefit from some updating' price. Sometimes, no difference at all.

This is fine if you are an 'end user'. Prepared to buy your house, do it up, live in it for five years and wait for the market to overtake your investment. But if, like us, you want to be in and out within six months or a year, it's a problem.

As I ventured into this opaque world, more and more people crawled out of newly laid wood floors to tell me that there was no money in it any longer, the good days of massive profits were over, our project was doomed and I'd be better off buying a few cheap buy-to-let fleapits in Streatham.

The bland leading the bland.

So, full of all this optimism and encouragement, we set out on our search.

My secret weapon in all this is of course Ms Kellett, the buying agent, who took us out on a couple of 'tours' back in early summer so we could see the problems.

These fast sorties round six or seven properties in a day helped refine our brief for when we started searching in earnest after a few weeks idling in the sun, sea and silly prices of St Tropez.

So, with many apologies to Mr Cowell, this is what we've been looking for:

X-tra space

With prime London property fetching anything from £1500-£4000 per square foot, any extra space you can create via extensions, basements, mezzanines or mansard developments is like finding a goldmine. And the way some people excavate, you'd think they were literally digging a mine.

Along Walton Street from where we live someone is planning to go down 50ft, create three new subterranean floors and 1000s of square feet. It will add millions to the value of the house, and ruin the lives of local residents for up to four years! 

In our more modest way,  we're just looking for places where we might steal a hundred or so extra square feet.

X-traordinarily complicated

You can't normally create extra space in a flat, and our budget doesn't extend to most houses in central London.

What you do find in flats however is legal complexity. Short leases that need extending are guaranteed to put off most overseas buyers, who quite rightly see it as a legal and financial hell hole.

Still, it's one way to acquire something with the potential for profit. But you have to be very, very careful. Otherwise you could be stuck with the flat, unable to extend its lease until you've owned it for several years and at the mercy of a complex and unpredictable valuation system.

It's a bit like spotting a gold bar in the middle of a minefield. Terrifying but oh so tempting.

X-citing possibilities

I get alerts each morning from Primelocation and Rightmove listing the latest properties, within certain categories, to find their way onto the market.

Sadly, it's usually an extremely depressing daily ritual looking at these new 'opportunities'. Not because the prices are too high and not because there aren't often some great properties in brilliant locations.

No, the problem is more an aesthetic one. They all look the bloody same. Especially the 'recently completely refurbished'.

A £3m flat in Cadogan Square looks just like a £1m flat in Shepherd's Bush - empty, soulless, characterless, cold....and very, very boring.

I appreciate the reasons for this. People don't usually want to acquire an eccentric, quirky, messy personal statement by someone else.

They want - as people constantly tell me - a blank canvas. Well, I only believe this up to a point.

The houses I want to live in (and buy if I had the money) are full of interest, look like real people occupy it and feel like a home.

My sister-in-law once bought a house from a developer, and it somehow never lost that bland, cost driven soulless feeling.

So anything we buy has to have the potential to make it feel like a special home, and provoke an emotional not just a rational reaction.

Ultimately, we want properties with personality.

Next time, we start making offers and getting depressed.

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