Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The Doer-Upper Gossip Column....February.

I don't always have a soap-box to jump on or a disaster to report on. So, new for 2014, here's my first irregular Gossip Column:

Bloody Neighbours

We are about to start work renovating 'Wrecksville W8' and in preparation we had the front garden cleared by a terrific bloke called Andy McCormack who I found on Rated People.

As he was busy stripping out various overgrown plants in the pouring rain, the neighbouring front door opened and the elderly resident (she's actually Lady somebody or other) poked her head out. Most of us might have expected her to offer this hardworking, self-employed and rather wet gardener a cup of tea.

Not this little old Daily Mail reader. She simply shouted "Bloody Foreigners" and then slammed shut the door again.

Fortunately, being more English than most of us, Andy took no offence. (He did suggest, however, that the next time I visited the house I should take my passport with me.)

I'm now rather worried how she'll react when there's a whole troupe of Polish builders on site in a couple of weeks time.

Blame the agents

I have an American friend who lives in Streatham. Strangely, he seems to like it.

Anyway, he and his new wife are keen to add to what I call their local buy-to-let property portfolio ( a slightly pretentious description of their 3 flats).

Such is the demand in this unassuming part of London, however, that he's having trouble buying anything. One bedroom flats are going to sealed bids the day they come to market. And then selling for unheard of prices.

Last week in his frustration he wrote to say "estate agents are now charging crazy prices."

The phrasing of this is interesting in that it assumes that agents just make up the prices. And I wonder how many others blame the agents for driving the rise in prices.

Even a drop-out from economics studies like myself understands that it's the market not the sellers that determines prices. But such is our national distaste for the role of the agent that we're happy to blame them for anything and everything. Including a housing market 'bubble'.

If it wasn't for the fact that their commissions keep getting fatter, I could almost feel sorry for them.

Somerset, the level-headed approach

For about six months now we've been looking for a small place to buy in Somerset.

The fact that this county has recently become a very large inland lake is a bit of a worry. And, to be honest, has rather put me off the idea.

So I emailed a friend who already has a house there and asked if his property was affected.

His reply was as follows: "we resisted buying in any area with the words 'levels' , 'lower' , 'under' , 'bottom' , 'brook', 'mill'  or 'lake' in the address."

Sensible man. Brilliant answer.

France Calling

As readers of this blog and my Tweets will know, I have a love/hate relationship with France.

We have owned 5 properties there and done well out of them both financially and in terms of lifestyle.

The country is fine, the problem is the French themselves. Many are lazy or unpleasant or just deeply suspicious of anything that smacks of Anglo-Saxon enterprise. Their taxes are onerous and spiteful. Their paperwork ridiculous and antiquated. Their rules and regulations unfathomable.

These days even their food is often below the standards of a decent English country pub.

Because of this, I swore we'd never return.

But, in truth, I love Saint Tropez and its surrounding area. Especially when it's not August and not packed with the chavs and chav-nots of Greater Europe.

Out of peak season it's a quaint town, with quiet, unspoilt beaches. Rural but sophisticated. Developed but not over-built (unlike the Cannes end of the coast).

So, when I saw a tiny little place right at the heart of its beaches priced at what looked like 'le snip' my resistance melted.

Ok, so it's only 1000 sq ft and close to a busy road. Ok, so it comes with an acre of vineyard (and I don't drink). OK, so I can't afford it and there's lots of work to do.

But if I let my head rule my heart, I'd never buy anything.

Whether we'll actually buy it or not, I don't know. But I think it's proved that I don't really want to live in the wetlands of SW England.

Property Doctor

On Saturday I'm due to take a look at a west London property owned by a GP practice. The doctors are thinking of retiring early....and they can afford to because years ago they bought the freehold of the building in which they have a surgery.

The floors above the surgery they have always rented out as flats, but they're now thinking of redeveloping the whole building and selling off the flats one by one.

After owning it for about 20 years, it could prove to have been the ideal (if accidental) pension plan.

They've already calculated that they could earn more from redeveloping the property than they have in their entire GP careers.

I'm not sure whether this implies we undervalue GPs. Or over value property.

Location, Location, Square Footage

I don't remember ever knowing the square footage of the first few houses we bought.

The one in Putney was a pretty big semi, the one in Fulham was sort of standard size terraced, and my flat in Queen's Club Gardens was the size a one bedroom flat should be.

We bought them because we fell in love with them, the price was sort of right and they were where we wanted to live. It would never have crossed my mind to check the price per square foot.

Now, it seems to me, that's all changed.

Agents have taken property and turned it into a mathematical equation rather than an emotional judgement.

We're all obsessed with pushing out every wall, roof and basement to create more of the most valuable thing in London - square footage.

And property viewers are as likely to turn up with a calculator as they are a colour chart.

I understand why its gone this way, and I'm as guilty as anyone when it comes to checking the value of a property.

But it's still a shame, somehow.

It is perhaps the most telling example of how property has become an investment first, and a home second.