TV presenter and property expert Lucy Alexander tells journalist Karen Glaser about creating her dream home in Thames Ditton and why bungalows are brilliant.
Say ‘bungalow’ and images of net curtains, pebbledash and garden gnomes spring to mind. In fact, it’s fair to say that for most people, this humble single-storey home has been the epitome of uncool ever since it was built in large numbers in the 1960s. But Lucy Alexander is not most people.
“The bungalow is an undervalued building type,” says TV’s Homes Under the Hammer presenter. “Having everything on one level is a very sensible way to live. And a bungalow is easy to extend and convert, which gives it great development potential.”
Put another way, the dowdy bungalow is a building to which you can add instant value. And if you are looking to make money from bricks and mortar, as opposed to creating your dream home, this is the only prism through which you should see any property purchase. In short, if you can add value to a property, you can make money from it.
“She fizzes with excitement when she walks into buildings that most of us would condemn”
Not surprisingly, Lucy thinks the best place to start looking for such a property is at an auction. This, after all, is the premise of the daytime programme she has so successfully presented since its inception 14 years ago. The formula is wonderfully simple: buy an old wreck at auction, get stuck in and do some DIY, and then rake in the profits.
“Prices at auction are usually below market value, so if you have ready funds, it’s an obvious place to start looking for property,” says Lucy.
There are other ‘obvious’ things you should look out for when buying the property which, if all goes according to plan, will earn you more in six months than you could from your day job in a decade.
“Any property where you can easily increase the square footage is going to be a good buy,” she says. “So, if you can extend a house backwards, ping! And if you can go into the loft, ping again!”
Not that adding extensions is the only way to make money out of real estate. “If a house is on a big plot, you can sell that land separately, or, build another house on the land and then sell it. Or sell the existing property, and live in the new-build, mortgage-free,” advises Lucy.
“In one Homes programme, I met a fabulous couple who did just that. They bought a beautiful old chapel in Kent and turned it into a stunning glass-and-steel themed home. But instead of living in it, they sold it and used the money to build another house next door. And that became their home.”
Other good business ideas include buying a premises with flats above which you can let, or, indeed, a commercial property with flats stacked above. “One guy on Homes bought a place with a shop at street level and residential space above which he then converted into several rental apartments. He turned the shop into a pooch parlour. So, he basically bought the property to develop the flats, and got the business for free, as it were.”
Meanwhile, if you have bought a commercial property, pooch parlour or otherwise, and don’t want the responsibility of running a business, turn it into a residential premises, advises Lucy.
The money-making possibilities of bricks and mortar seem endless. What, conversely, does Lucy caution against buying? Are there properties to which you cannot add value?
“Well, bad sightlines and noisy neighbours such as car mechanics are not a good idea. But that’s about it. If you have the money, most properties have development potential because most properties can be changed for the better.”
As Lucy knows better than most. She and her husband, ex-Premier League footballer Stewart Castledine, recently bought a Thirties house in Thames Ditton – and are busy transforming it into a building that looks as if it has been standing for 200-plus years.
“We are copying the Georgian period. We have deepened the floors, extended the ceiling – stretched the place, basically! The Thirties windows have gone and will be replaced with sash ones, and we are going to put in deep skirting and deep cornicing. All you need is the bare bones of a building, and then everything else can be changed.”
Homes Under the Hammer, of course, demonstrates this premise every day of the working week. During her 14 years presenting BBC1’s highest rated mid-morning programme, Lucy has seen a toilet block, in Canterbury, turned into a sandwich bar, a derelict warehouse in Dartford become a dance studio, and a former repeater station in the middle of a field, in Dover, transformed into practice room for a local band.
On screen, Lucy’s enthusiasm for these unlikely acts of urban and rural regeneration never wanes: dead pigeons underfoot, rats scuttling across the floor, she fizzes with excitement when she walks into buildings that most of us would condemn.
And off screen, her passion for property is every bit as strong: “I just love the challenge of turning an ugly duckling into a swan.”
It’s a challenge she has now relished for 36 years. Lucy took out her first mortgage, for a flat in Clapham, when she was just 18 and still at drama school. She’d saved a £10,000 deposit from the TV adverts she’d been doing since the age of nine, and her dad was her guarantor.
Since then, she and Stewart have bought and sold 14 more properties, several of them in Surrey. In fact, it was property that first brought the couple together. “We met in a bar in 1999. At the time I lived in Clapham, but I wanted to move to either Teddington or Barnes. Stewart telephoned and, by way of a date, offered his property-viewing services, saying he knew the areas well as he lived in Teddington. In the end, I didn’t buy a property in either Teddington or Barnes. We were engaged shortly after our viewing date and I ended up moving into his house in Teddington.”
Meanwhile, she hopes to move into the Thames Ditton property the couple is renovating at some point this year. With its slate roof, wider-than-average doorways and charcoal-coloured kitchen with white marble worktops, Lucy describes the house as her “dream home.”
It is probably safe to assume the dream abode will feature neither pebbledash nor garden gnomes.
Lucy Alexander presents Homes Under the Hammer on BBC One at 10am daily.