Simple Structures

There’s something so charming about miniatures and scaled down versions of everyday domestic products. I can’t say why I’m drawn to them but even something as simple as a miniature bottle will have me cooing, so I’ve got a bit of a confession, I have a thing for cottages.

While I recognise that I would quickly run out of space in a traditional farmhouse cottage, I just love that simple pentagon shape that kids draw when they’re asked what their house looks like. Of course, most houses don’t look remotely like that especially in the UK where much of the built environment is terraced and long rows of residential properties share walls with their neighbours. Nonetheless, we all know what that square with the triangle on top means – home – shelter and privacy; a refuge, a haven.

It is this same simple shape that gives agricultural buildings their reference point, pared back and stripped of any detail they make quite a statement of their silhouette. Picture the skyline with a stark building rising above it, projected against the setting sun. See what I mean? These simple shapes are powerful.

While on holiday recently in New Zealand I was really smitten with a number of homes that have taken their design references from their agricultural neighbours. The scale was modest and the rooflines key to the overall impact, but what these buildings achieved was the relationship between the surrounding countryside and the simple proportions of a cottage. I was charmed. And I took lots of pictures.

Set within an orcharding area in Hawkes Bay, this is a permanent residence and the building has more solidity with its pebble dashed walls than the other images. What they all have in common though is the honestly of the architecture; uncluttered shapes, simply expressed.

This is the only two storey example, but what I like so much about this one is the relationship between the roof lines and the way the materials chosen create areas of contrast.

These are both waterfront properties on the edge of Lake Taupo (and available for rent through bookabach.co.nz) I’ve walked past these properties so many times and have either not had a camera with me or been pushed for time, so it’s actually the first time I’ve ever seen the second place with its front gate open. To have so much privacy on what is often a very busy walk way – and then to reveal the view when they open it – the best of both worlds.

The modernity of these two is what appeals; the colour and the choice of materials is a very conscious expression of the architecture, considering steel and concrete are more often in the supporting role; (literally) here they take on a feature element.

Again a waterfront property in Lake Taupo, this cottage is built up to a retaining wall. From the other side, you have no idea that a building is tucked in below.

Where the view is undeniably the key ingredient, what I see with these homes is a connection between the past and the type of buildings that were used on a lakefront – boat sheds – the sister of agricultural buildings. They sit happily on the shoreline and ‘mind their own business.’ They don’t try and compete or relate to the landscape, what they do is offer the view as the focal point – they are there because of the location. Even more, they serve the age old purpose of providing shelter in a way that connects the past activities of buildings along the shoreline with moderns needs. Timeless.

Another One Bites the Dust

This property – the third – was supposed to be the lucky one. It was supposed to be mine! And to be honest I really did want this one, but I didn’t get it. Why? It’s another long story.

When I first lived in London over twenty-five years ago I lived in a shared flat on the Fulham Road. There were 10 of us; it wasn’t exactly private. Or quiet. We shared everything and it was CHEAP, which made living in London affordable on a very low salary. It was also a fantastic flat in a fantastic location; you could hear the Household Cavalry trotting off from the stables to exercise in Hyde Park a couple of times a week.

I lasted there three months and then moved to leafy Putney… And it always stuck in my mind that if I had the chance to buy a property on the Fulham Road, I would go for it.

So after the warehouse disaster, I started looking in the areas I knew and this little, tired, gem of a flat on the Fulham Road just called my name. It hadn’t had anything done to it since the 90’s, it was just waiting to be taken in hand (by me) and given a new lease of life. So what was the catch? HA – you figured that out already, did you?

first floor flat

It needed its lease extended.

And that was going to cost. The agent mentioned this at the first viewing, so I did know I was going to have to pay for this and the agreed purchase price certainly accommodated the lease premium. I was happy to take that on, but things unraveled really quickly.

Within the first week of my offer being accepted I discovered that the sellers hadn’t had a leasehold survey done. What is this? Well, its jolly expensive is the first thing I should say. It’s a report done by a surveyor to set the value of the lease premium in relation to the value of the property and others of the same ‘type’ in the same area. Essentially the premium compensates the freeholder/landlord for loss of earnings (ground rent) but does not factor in things like the general condition of the building and certainly not the decorative order of the property. What we found was that the premium we’d been told was likely to be asked was a fabrication – though not a million miles from what was an accurate value – just more than I wanted to pay for a building that needs a fair bit of TLC – because the moment I became a leaseholder, I too would have a share of those costs.

With the advice of the surveyor and my solicitor I asked the sellers if they would consider extending the lease in their name – if I increased my purchase offer to cover the premium – so that it would be transferred to me as part of the sale. That way the whole process would be ‘friendly’, they already knew the freeholders and it would be a simple conversation between them to get an agreed price for the extension. Or so I thought. They would only agree to doing this if I paid them a consideration – which they would split with me if the premium was less than what was agreed between us. Hmm. And then I got a really weird call from the agent to tell me that they could get more for the flat with the lease extended, if they remarketed it. Hang on, I was buying it, it wasn’t being remarketed. Was it?

From that moment things got nasty. The sellers refused to talk to the freeholder on my behalf, they would only allow us to start the lease extension after exchange of contracts – so at the point I owned the property and deposits had changed hands – and they kept pushing for me to agree to their terms. I got twice weekly phone calls from the agent, to see ‘how I was getting on.’ One of them left me shaking. So after three weeks of this I couldn’t take it anymore and withdrew my offer.

That was nearly three weeks ago and more pieces of the puzzle have revealed themselves, but the bottom line is that the sellers wanted more money for the flat than the market was prepared to pay. The place had been for sale since March of 2016 and they hadn’t accepted any offers before mine. Somehow in the process of accepting my offer they decided they would recoup some extra funds from somewhere. But how to do it?? Aha. Inflate the lease premium. Thing is they hadn’t done their homework.

the palette for the updated interior

If they had initiated the leasehold survey and agreed the price with the freeholder in advance, they could have added their little bit extra and no-one would have known. I’d never have questioned it because it would have looked like they were organised sellers, paperwork in order and all ready to go. But because the agent kept making ‘out of nowhere’ comments, I knew something was up. Every time he tried to coerce me into accepting the sellers terms he would mention that they could get more if they remarketed it.

In the end they got what they wanted, but the market is pretty uncertain right now; maybe it’ll be another year before they actually have it off their hands. And have I found another place to buy?

YEP…

Planning a Space

I’ve mentioned before how important it is to have your interior space work for you. Not only does it have to house all your belongings, it has to accommodate you, your family and visitors too and if you live in a period property the way it functions now will be very different to how it functioned when it was built.

A house I’m working on at the moment had a raft of alterations done to it about 16 years ago that modernised the property. The clients signed off on the plans and liked the work, but considering my brief, I’m not sure they were ever particularly happy with the function of the space afterwards. So it’s been an interesting task because what those improvements did has actually created problems that in rectifying, I’ve had to decide not to do anything with. I know, that sounds mad, but where steels have been put in, I’m leaving them; where windows have been fitted, I’m leaving them; where ceiling heights have been reduced, I’m leaving them and where soil stacks have been installed, I’m leaving them too.

Yes, I am actually planning on doing things to the house – in fact we’ve finished the first two phases and the final, most invasive scheme was kicked off at the end of January. The clients gave me the go-ahead to radically update the downstairs by putting back in a wall – a glazed wall – early in December. But more on that another time, the space just finished is a master bedroom suite and so far, it seems to be a success.

miranda bedroom

We started out with two adjacent rooms – the bedroom which was the full width of the house and overlooked the street and the ensuite which had been created by borrowing from and reconfiguring the bedroom behind it. The ensuite was also able to be accessed from the bedroom behind and I think when the family first moved in would have been a practical nursery for their new born son. But times have changed, the rear room is now a study and both parents have said how they wanted to have their room back – privacy was definitely a motivating factor in this redesign.

existing layout

At first I approached the layout in a very conventional way, left the ensuite where it was and just closed in the door to the rear bedroom/study, but the issues surrounding this were largely of storage and whichever way I looked at it, I couldn’t get enough wardrobe space by leaving it in the bedroom. It just didn’t feel very exciting, the bedroom would still be long and dominated by a wall of wardrobes. Yes, I do put together schemes that are simple and don’t involve a lot of building work – but they usually happen when the space is good to start with – and when the client wants a lot from a space, sometimes there is no choice but to spin it on its head.

refurb

That’s when I started to think about this annoying soil stack that had been installed from the upper floor and came down on the party wall through the master bedroom and the front entrance way! It wasn’t at all noticeable but it couldn’t be moved, so why not use it?? Why not spin the layout round and put the ensuite at the far end of the bedroom? That’d mean the old ensuite would become the dressing room and we could double the amount of wardrobe space, the mess would be out of the bedroom and the whole space would have a more intimate and enclosed feel to it.

new layout

I re-drew the space to see if it worked and it really did!

Usually there’s a point where all the thinking and the drawing comes to a natural conclusion – and I know I’ve got it right because I get all excited about it – I can see it in my mind. In this case, I wouldn’t have suggested putting in a new soil stack but because it was already there, I was able to take advantage of the location it was in – and in making that decision the whole scheme fit together like puzzle pieces.

creating the ensuite

creating the ensuite

creating the dressing room

creating the dressing room

Yes, it has created a smaller bedroom, but it is one that is focused solely on sleep and relaxation. It has a serenity to it; a sense of calmness. There used to be two entrances to the bedroom before, now there is only one. It’s become a destination instead of a corridor and each piece of furniture in there enhances that feeling of peace. The ensuite has that same sense of tranquility too – and this really is a small space. These are all issues to consider when you’re planning a bedroom suite. How much time do you really spend in your bedroom as an adult? In your own home, not that much! So the important function is to promote rest and allow you to start the new day refreshed. It’s worth considering the surrounding rooms if you want to get the space right, but most importantly, take advantage of what you already have. Don’t make something that can’t be moved a negative, instead make the things you can’t change a ‘feature’ or at the very least the pivot for changing the way you think about the room.

using the existing drainage to be concealed in a cupboard

using the existing drainage to be concealed in a cupboard


ensuite

miranda's bedroom

Resolutions – or Projections?

You will have noticed I haven’t been posting recently, I got caught up in the chaos of house buying again – and had another property slip through my fingers. When things go wrong the process of buying property in England – Scotland has a different system – really induces anxiety. As a buyer you get to ask questions and so long as your finance is secure you pretty much get left alone, which can be very difficult if you need advice. Your solicitors are only there to offer legal advice. For anything else they’ll say ‘It’s up to you, I can’t advise you on that.’ And there are some aspects of the property process which are not legal but are important, like knowing how a block of flats pay for maintenance work.

Gatti's Wharf

The most recent disaster was a one bedroom flat in a warehouse development near Kings Cross. It was very cool, all exposed brick and bed platforms, but tired and needing a bit of love. It was in a gated courtyard and was on the first floor balcony. It backed onto Regent’s Canal and each property had a key to the canal, just like the private garden enclaves of Knightsbridge or Notting Hill. I really liked its simplicity and how I would be able to use the raw materials to create something unique. I loved how quiet it was and especially how close to such excellent transport links it was – Kings Cross-St Pancras was about half a mile away through a pedestrianised piazza – great for Eurostar, the South coast, the North and central London.

courtyard

But right from the start the owner wanted as much as he could get out of me. There was another buyer interested and that pushed the price up. I should have walked then because as the conveyancing progressed it became apparent that the documents held at the Land Registry were irregular and that to have ‘clean title’ they would need to be rectified – and the owner was adamant he wasn’t paying for it.

The tussle went on for a number of weeks with the other sides solicitors saying ‘you can do that when you own it.’ But really, why was it my problem? And as my solicitors pointed out, he had owned the place since the development was created in the early 90’s, his legal standing (to prove that the documents were the only copies) was greater than mine would be as the new owner. It all became very heated and then the issue of how maintenance work was paid for raised its head. The development freeholders had had a report done to help them define what maintenance should be done first and then over a 10 year timescale – naturally there were costs attached and I wanted to know how they were intending on paying for them over and above the service charge. Not an unreasonable question but no-one had the answer because it hadn’t been voted on by the owners.

exposed brick

So they agreed to share the minutes of the AGM with me. When they came through I got a bit more than I had expected because not only were the service charge costs going up they had also voted that there would be no AirBnB in the development. And right there, the property was suddenly not fit for my needs. Because I had planned on setting the place up as an AirBnB. That way we could also use the flat ourselves, family and friends from abroad, overnight guests who just needed a single night in town and even me, if I fancied a change of scene. It’d be like a city break without having to go away!

regents canal

Anyway, it wasn’t to be. As the new girl I wouldn’t have been able to get them to change their minds (the owners association) and I couldn’t take the risk of ignoring it because what kind of protection would that have been for my investment?

bed platform

So here I am – again – just having put an offer in on another property and what will I do differently this time? Well, that’s the burning question! As I sold my house last year and the funds are just waiting to be put toward a property, I’m ready. As a buyer all I need to do is appoint a solicitor, order a building survey, read some documents and transfer the funds to my solicitors. I think this time that is all I will do. No chasing and getting upset because people aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do.

The thing I have learned though is that in selling a property you should expect to be challenged – if the building has a long and quirky history and a commercial aspect as well or if it is part of a development that was converted from warehouses – any buyer will want to unravel the paper trail to understand how and why things have been done. It isn’t enough for you as a seller to say ‘ that’s just the way it is,’ no-one would give you the legal advice to trust an answer so vague and unfocused. So, when you want to sell a property think about how you would feel if you encountered a mess on the property if you were the buyer. They will feel nervous and need reassuring. If you want to sell, you need to be able to reassure your buyer. And the way you do that is by making sure your paperwork is in order.

Creepy Crawlies

Happy All Hallows Day! I was ready to post yesterday and the trick and treating started earlier than I thought!

halloween decs

With the day falling on a Monday this year, it seems that the weekend has been full of ghosts and ghouls – I certainly spotted plenty of great costumes and makeup in town on Saturday night. Last year we had a party and managed to make Halloween last for a number of days, this year I’m content to just open the door to trick or treaters. Our pumpkins are carved and the decorations have just been flung about, the sweets have been purchased and the bowl is waiting to be filled. All set!

halloween

We even have some truly marvellous cobwebs hanging in the hall – and not the manmade kind. In this house the ceilings are so high that removing them involves a ladder and long handled duster. Does that even seem like something I want to do on a regular basis?? No it does not. But of course after the decorations come down, I’ll have the excuse of ‘clearing up after Halloween…’ So why are there so many spiders in the house at this time the year, anyway?

Apparently it’s spider breeding season.

I did not know this, but it certainly explains why there is always a sudden increase of spydies (so called in my house) at this time of the year. It seems that the influx of late summer flies (and we had a few of those this year) entice the spiders to come indoors – nice rich food supply just waiting for their attention. And that of course is the perfect situation for breeding. Hmm, I’m starting to feel that my inattention to house work might even be contributing to this situation – they must love it here! And yes, one of the ways that the spider population can be controlled is by removing dead insects quickly. Oh dear, that’s me at the bottom of the class then.

aragog

I’m consoling myself with the fact that I don’t hate spiders, so cleaning up their food source isn’t such an obsession as cleaning up crumbs and foods that might attract mice – which I really do hate! In fact, aren’t spiders supposed to be good for the house?? Isn’t a house with spiders in residence supposed to be a healthy house? I’m sure that spiders are considered to be good luck too and so it seems – in European folklore seeing a spider in the afternoon is a good omen and you are supposed to receive a gift soon. The superstitions seem even more fitting at this time of year because the ancient Greeks and Norsemen believed that spiders connected the past with the future and at Halloween the division between the physical and spirit planes feels very slight. Does this make us more susceptible to superstition? It’s possible, especially when you come across an old English nursery rhyme that states, “If you want to live and thrive, let a spider run alive.” Hey, I even fish them out of the bathtub!

luminous spider

The interesting thing is that at Halloween we use siders webs to create a barrier; they’re the embodiment of our ideas of the spooky, undisturbed house. Something that is more the realm of the spirit than the living, which is a very literal interpretation of what a web does – traps its prey and immobilises it. Folklore is kinder, focusing on luck and fortune and the transition from one plane to another.

lanterns

There is also a group of spiders (Linyphiidae) called money spiders. They are tiny in size and it is said if one climbs over you, it is spinning you a new set of clothes that will introduce you to a more wealthy lifestyle! I remember my grandmother talking about money spiders when I was small, but I guess their magic takes quite some time to work – I’m still waiting for this new wealthier lifestyle.

cobwebs

The Search Continues

I did what you all said you would do. I walked away. There was no point where the sellers and I seemed to be able to agree – they really didn’t understand that they would no longer be the landlords of the shops and as such that their concerns were not the priority. And I had to concede that I just didn’t have the experience to take on a property with complicated commercial leases. Anyway, all gone now. The place is back on the market, wonder what will happen next time round? I guess that’s not my problem! Time to start looking again…

lordship lane

When you walk around your neighbourhood, what do you see? Do you notice front gardens; front doors; gates; trees? Colours? A friend of mine really loves street art. She regularly posts pictures on Pinterest or Facebook and as she’s a secondary school art teacher, I’m guessing this search becomes resource material for her students. Street Art is a controversial thing. There are still people who prefer a wall to be a wall and because its a wall, it should be well, blank. But here’s the thing, you adorn your walls inside your home, don’t you? And when you see a blank page, its almost irresistible to not make a mark on it. Same with blank walls – and they’re cheaper than buying canvas or artist’s paper. People have been doing it for quite some time…

sign writing

Yes, I agree, there’s nothing that pretty about squiggles of black spray paint but when someone has taken the time to plan a mural and has executed it with style – well the sheer scale takes it from being a picture to something monumental. At the very least it becomes a landmark – and we all still use them regardless of how often the mapping on our phones comes out. I’d rather navigate by art than by supermarkets or service stations!

queenie

My new area has a lot of good art. Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that there’s an Art Gallery in the neighbouring village, or it could simply be that this area has a bit of a vibe anyway – it’s the louder, younger sibling to the genteel village; smaller, punchier, livelier. Lots of pubs and cafes serving good food and three big (in size and in league table standing) independent schools all judging each other by the cut of their uniform.

north cross road

Maybe people are too busy to notice the walls they walk by, but I defy you not to smile when you look at HRH ‘walking’ the corgis. Regardless of whether you like it or not, it inspires a response. And that is what artists over the centuries have been wanting to achieve with their work. A Street Artist is no less interested in the viewer just because the work is outside. And it’s quite likely that their work will have a much shorter lifespan than something in a frame and hung indoors, so their choice of subject matter is a point of curiosity, but funnily enough the rest of the local street art doesn’t appear to be topical, there is no theme; it crosses generations in content and execution. There is a mix of colour and monochrome. Some are on shops, others on hoardings. Their only commonality is their location – and my sense of joy at having spotted them.

frogley road

goodrich road

And that I think is important, in spotting something unexpected the viewer experiences a shift in focus; a distraction, is diverted. You may simply be going about your business and bam a whacking great piece of art is right in front of you. Yes, you could be too immersed in your phone to notice but if you weren’t, that surprise discovery would take you out of yourself for a moment. It would give you pause and direct your focus away from whatever was preoccupying you. You would be in the moment, connected to something unexpected in exactly the same place as you. And that focus outside of your problems and concerns – for just a moment – is like drawing air deep into your lungs, reviving and realigning your body and soul.

Mrs Robinson

For the artist this work has probably taken thought, planning, preparation maybe even research. But for the viewer, it is just there same as you. I saw something on Facebook recently about meditation techniques, in our busy world even slowing our breathing for 20 seconds reduces stress levels, so taking the time to notice the little things and to put aside our concerns for the smallest amount of time can have a positive impact. If just looking around and noticing your environment changes your focus for a moment, then the artists are achieving something great in modern day reality – and that would give street art as much relevance as the works of the Great Masters.

the lordship

How Not to Buy a House

Earlier in the year, I sold my house. As you may remember I marketed it through an online estate agents and was pleased with the results. That was back in June. I decided not to buy in London immediately because I wanted to invest some money into small scale property development and didn’t want to tie up all my capital. I did however fall for a property in Rye, East Sussex which had two shops attached to it and would be a wonderful place for holidays and to rent out as a holiday let. So the property would pay for itself and I would get the added bonus of being able to enjoy it myself.

High St Rye

I put my offer in and it was accepted. That was in April. I booked my surveyor and almost from the very moment I started to follow the normal process of buying a property in the UK, I encountered issues. The survey had to be done by someone who also specialised in commercial property, because of the shops. Surveyors are cautious people – they give you every possible worst case scenario and you as the prospective owner have to decide which bits scare you and which bits don’t. He expressed concern about several areas – the shop windows, damp in the cellar and about the building being on a hillside. So, I booked a structural engineer to report on the hillside behind the property (the garden was on terraces below the building). He was happy that there was no evident subsidence or land slip but expressed concern about the open cellar (mentioned by the surveyor) to the building called the Undercroft and suggested it might be caused by the drains. So, I booked a drain survey. He expressed concern about a blockage to one of the drains. I asked the owners if they would get the drains jetted. NO.

undercroft arch

cracking to undercroft

Before I go any further I should say that the house is a listed building. It was built in 1580 and remodelled in the mid nineteenth century, so the street frontage is Victorian. That didn’t worry me particularly but the idea that the drains were possibly affecting the cellar that supported the building did. Especially since the current owners had done extensive refurbishment in 2010-12. So this was a sticky issue for a bit. But then early in July, my solicitor threw in the curve ball – the leases on the shops were irregular, old fashioned and the tenants had a protected tenure under the 1954 property act. To make matters worse they were new leases, one was only signed a week after my offer was accepted.

stairs to loft

All of a sudden my legal team grew and I was called in for a meeting to explain exactly what the pitfalls of these leases could be. Lawyers are risk averse, they want you to make an informed decision because let’s face it, buying a property is a big investment. So, the partner specialising in litigation explained that the 1954 property act was written to help tenants who were setting up businesses (after the war) to be able to establish themselves in a community and to be able to rely on the premises becoming part of their identity in that community. It was a way of offering stability at a time when life was fragile and so the 1954 act protected tenants by offering them an automatic right of renewal of their lease when the term ended. In 1954 that was good for business. In 2016 it isn’t. I was potentially buying a property with two tenants who had an automatic right of renewal to their leases at the end of every term of that lease. And as there was no rent review in the leases either, at the same rent. In theory that would be fine if everyone were happy, because no-one wants an empty rental unit, right? But the minute there was a problem (like rents not being at market value) these leases would be a noose around my neck because I would have to compensate the tenants – or take legal advice to rewrite the leases so that they were no longer protected tenants. Either way I would have to pay.

front bedroom

According to the estate agents – who had written one of these leases – there was no intention for the tenants to have protected tenure and they suggested that the owners might be amenable to re-issuing the leases. So I asked the owners if they would terminate the current ones that my lawyers were so concerned about and arrange with their tenants to enter into unprotected leases. Initially they said NO. And that I thought was that. But then they came back and said ‘alright.’ And this is where it got really tricky. One of the points of my survey was the repair of the shop windows, he felt they needed immediate attention, but under the terms of the leases, the decorative repair of the windows was the responsibility of the tenants – and it hadn’t been done. How was I, as new owner, to get my brand new tenants to undertake repairs to the windows (because my surveyor suggested it should be done before the winter) when they likely had made no provision for the expense?

shop 1

The problem with taking over leases that you weren’t party to is that they are likely not to suit your idea of how you want things done. I could make no changes after these leases were re-issued until the term ended in two or three years. And that to me seemed like a long time to have to wait to get things done – or to interact as landlord with my tenants. So I asked if we could add a clause to the leases (that were in the process of being rewritten) that would work as a service charge – payments that the tenants already made coming to me for me to administer as owner of the property. That way I could keep the maintenance of the building on track; wouldn’t that be of benefit to the tenants as well? This idea went down very badly. Not only was it a NO, it was a ‘we don’t do things this way in Rye’ NO.

view to the rear

I took advice – from my lawyers who really were only able to say ‘the owners aren’t obliged to do this. When you buy a house you buy it as you find it, the leases are the same.’ I spoke to a dear friend who is a property law lecturer – who said ‘do the tenants have their own independent legal advisors? Even though they’ve agreed to give up the current leases (with protected tenure) and go to unprotected leases, without the rubber stamp of a lawyer, they can come back at any time and say “we were misinformed” and you would have to compensate them for that because you would be the owner.’ And then I spoke to my Dad (who worked in property for 50 years) who said ‘you’re doing too much running around. You’re the buyer, they should be trying to convince you it’s a good buy. Personally if they won’t include the maintenance clause, walk away.’

So, what would you do?

We Need to Put Some Love In

For those of you who get my Facebook feed, you’ll know I had a holiday in Italy earlier this summer. Verona, to be precise and it was wonderful – I already want to go again. We visited Venice too and although I posted a few pictures I didn’t tell you the whole story – about how shocked I was to see how run down the city is, about how heartbroken I felt to see this gem crumbling before my eyes. I was last there 25 years ago and it has held a special place in my heart ever since. So much so that I wanted to go there for my birthday last year – I’m so pleased I didn’t, it would have ruined my day.

We’ve all heard the stories about ‘how Venice is sinking’ and yes it is, a couple of millimetres per year. But that isn’t what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the buildings crumbling from the rooftops down.

Campo San Polo

Plaster falling off walls, lintels cracking and exposed brickwork being left to the punishment of the elements. We all know how harsh sea air can be – salt water carried at high speed by gale force winds will have the same effect as a jet wash or a water canon. This is a city at risk from the elements but rising tides aren’t the only story, the neglect in areas that don’t face the sea is almost more pronounced.

Venice pathway

Venetian piazza

And where are the people? Where are the homeowners, the live blood of the city? Is it all just for tourists? My heart breaks; how can this wonderful, charming, seductive city have become a ghost town? Our hosts in Verona asked how we had enjoyed our day in Venice and I blurted out how shocked I was. Their reply, though understandable, doesn’t make it right: the taxes are so high no-one can afford to live there, the people who do buy homes there only come for holidays and do nothing to maintain the building the rest of the year, the politicians can’t agree on which action to take and because they want to be popular with the voters, they choose to do nothing, the city is so full of tourists that to get any work done is difficult because everything has to come in and out by barge – and it costs too much, so it becomes mired in apathy. And the clincher, Italy has so many World Heritage Sites that all need to be maintained, how can you choose which ones get the money? Oh my God. There was nothing I could say.

Venice canal

I spoke to another Italian friend who lives in England and he was of the opinion that in true Italian fashion, the minute it looks like Venice will fall into to the sea, it will be saved. A bit of drama and a bit of attention, whipped up to a frenzy and it’ll all be fixed. But why does it have to get to that stage before anything will be done? The tourist areas in Venice are hell, congestion has a totally different meaning there, the alleys leading to the main Piazzas are so crowded, you’re literally queuing to get into the squares, there are bins of overflowing rubbish and the canals can be smelly, drainage is obviously an issue. And don’t even try to use the mapping on your phone – too many people, too many buildings. But these areas – San Marco, La Fenice do get funding and have been restored beautifully. At the moment the Rialto Bridge is undergoing a facelift of the most comprehensive kind. But it’s not enough, for a city to have a soul – and to be cared for – people need to live there. Their identity and lifestyle need to resonate with the tempo of their community. Without that neglect happens, decay sets in, apathy becomes a state of mind and history is allowed to crumble – just fall into the sea.

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I’ve done a bit of reading since I got home and there have been huge building programmes to create sea defences that will control the winter tides following the same principles as the Thames barriers. It was all supposed to go live last year – but then the Chief Executive was found to have his fingers in the pot and was prosecuted. The programme came to a halt and I don’t know if it was ever finished. As the article says, at a cost of 5.4bn Euros, it has to be finished!

Grand Canal

But what about the architecture? If the foundations can be saved with the sea defences – when they actually do get finished – who is going to give the residential buildings of the city a second chance? Who is going to encourage inhabitants to come back and make their homes in Venice once again? It isn’t a theme park but unless the tides turn, Venice runs the risk of being shut permanently and not just for the winter.

Grand Canal 2

A Kitchen/Diner conversion

It’s the moment of truth. The kitchen has arrived! My clients placed the order back in March and finally, after a 10 week lead time, it is here. The space was created from two rooms – a small, unimaginative kitchen and a larger more conventional dining room. We’ve taken the wall out between the two and squeezed in a downstairs WC too, but it hasn’t been the most straightforward of processes – even though there was nothing to really cause concern. We knew we needed structural support because we also removed the old chimney breast to allow for a continuous run of units on the long wall. We knew that we needed to support a door opening we moved and we also removed the whole back wall to fit bifold doors, but all of these jobs are standard procedures in todays kitchen conversion.

the wall is out but not the chimney breast

the wall is out but not the chimney breast

the chimney is out and the stud work for the WC is in

the chimney is out and the stud work for the WC is in

And yet we had the council (Lambeth at its absolute finest yet again) jumping up and down about substack drains and not signing off the steel work because the DS hadn’t seen the drawings. Considering I’d taken in the drawings at the time of applying for building control, it was all farcical – especially when I found out that the inspector assigned to this job had been on holiday and it was someone else covering his jobs. I spent a week on hold with Building Control to speak to the right person and when we finally got the right guy on site, he was totally in agreement that we’d been asked to do things that weren’t necessary – and were wasting his, ours and the clients time!

the substack drain - that we didn't need

the substack drain – that we didn’t need

That was Easter – so much has changed since then! The kitchen company have taken the plans for the space and created something which will look wonderful. I haven’t specified the kitchen on this job; I’ve been devil’s advocate, because I’ve continued to work on the rest of the house while the kitchen has gone through the design process. It’s actually been interesting being one step removed; there are so many little things that have had to be decided because the kitchen company have simply said ‘it has to be like this.’ My usual position is that the building will throw up problems that you have to work with – and in agreement with the clients – that defines the space. As none of this job has been new build – it’s all within the footprint of the existing house – we haven’t had the luxury of increasing ceiling heights or extending rooms to accommodate the kitchen. It has all had to be designed around what we had to work with. And I’ve been pretty happy with how the drawings shaped up. With the bifold doors framing the garden, the space has such a connection with the outside, it has a 3D effect somehow. But of course this space is about the kitchen and inevitably the conversations were more to do with the problems of shoehorning an appliance into the room than how much space we’d created.

the opening for the bifold doors

the opening for the bifold doors

the bifold doors are in

the bifold doors are in

This has been a collaborative process too, with the clients actively involved in the choice of everything from appliances to sockets to door handles. Very often I include this type of detail on the sample boards and the client simply approves what I’ve suggested. On this job it’s all been sourced and signed off after many discussions, so there has been extra time involved and there have also been a few moments when things didn’t get discussed with the right person.

the bathroom kitchen

the bathroom kitchen

new space temporary kitchen

new space temporary kitchen

But for the most part the project has gone well – if not straightforward. Why do I say that? Because the scope of the project has grown and become the entire house. We knew that the clients wanted to do this but scheduling that amount of work is always difficult when you have the clients living in the building. The space they have to live in gets taken over by the need to store items away from the build area and any temporary fit out is constantly moving to allow for any work needing to be done in that area. This creates additional work for the team – for example the clients have needed a temporary kitchen throughout the process – the first was in the old kitchen, the second was in the hall, the third was in the first floor bathroom, the fourth was in the new kitchen, the fifth is currently in the front room. That means the old cooker, fridge and washing machine have been carted up and down stairs as have all the pans, utensils and crockery. This is a lot of work. And don’t get me wrong the results will be fabulous, but what it means in real terms is that our time on site is spent trying to co-ordinate the arrival of deliveries so as not to overwhelm a space that is already bursting at the seams.

the kitchen arrives

the kitchen arrives

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So, it became apparent yesterday when the kitchen arrived that our team would not be able to carry on working downstairs. They can’t go into or through the kitchen because it is piled high with boxed up units and appliances. Right now there is plenty to do on the first floor, but not being able to get the rear of the house or the patio finished is an added annoyance because any waste will now have to be carried through the brand new kitchen. Grrr.

Anyway, it is what it is. The work will soon be finished and the irritation will fade because the one thing you learn in this industry is that there will always be glitches and changes to plans – and it won’t in any way affect the finished product. It just might take longer.

Choosing Estate Agents

Well the house went on the market on the 22nd March – I did pull out all the stops and get it listed before Easter. It was a bit of an anticlimax after the chaos of getting the listing to go live because I didn’t have any viewings over the long weekend, but it was an interesting exercise.

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I decided to take a punt with this house sale and to use an online estate agency – you may have noticed in the picture on the previous post. Having bought and sold before, worked at an estate agents for a short time and being the daughter of someone who is the third generation to run a family owned estate agency, this could have been a controversial move! So I didn’t tell anybody I was doing it. But the numbers stack up – SERIOUSLY.

In the UK estate agents fees are 1-1.5% of sale price and there is VAT added to that, so this is a chunk of money to part with and the previous sale had given me cause to complain about the behaviour of the agent handling my property. I didn’t want to be mucked around or to feel that I had no control, (both of my children are doing major exams this term) so my research instead was of the type of package offered if you took some of the responsibility for the sale yourself.

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At the end of the day as a designer I draw plans and take photographs almost every day. It seemed just an inconvenience to have someone else do them for me. I also liked the idea of being able to schedule the viewings according to my commitments, instead of rushing out of the house in the morning and just hoping that everything was looking ok. I work from home, so some rooms are always more lived in than others, I had a house guest (who was with me for eight weeks) and I also have a dog, a very excitable puppy who loves everyone. I needed to be able to have her contained and happy – and I wasn’t sure how she would take to having an agent she didn’t know in her domain.

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When I sat back and thought about it, I decided that having a local agency involved could possibly be more stress than I could cope with, so doing some of the work myself and having the property listed on a hosting site was the way I wanted to go. Never having done it before, I was keen to see how it worked. And for someone who does computer drawings almost every day, I was surprised at how much time it took me to do my whole-house floor plan. Who knew!

27 Queensville floorplan no text

And how has it all gone? The house sold itself really. Apart from turning my car into a mobile storage unit (bursting at the seams with laundry baskets and ironing, dog toys, partially eaten Easter eggs, leftover tiles from the kitchen and winter hats and gloves, not quite finished with for the season) I had the place looking as good as it could. I had four viewings in the space of a week and the third viewing made an offer – which I didn’t accept – and then increased to a price closer to what I wanted. So I accepted that. I can’t say that being with an online agency had anything to do with that!

In fact I’m not sure being with an online agency has done anything other than give me more control over the viewings and viewing schedule. I’ve had to chase them for information about my buyers, I’ve had to follow up each conversation with checking the website – as opposed to my ‘dashboard’ – and another phone call to check that things have been done. Considering they sit behind computer screens – the very definition of an online company – I honestly can’t say I’ve felt that they were more efficient than an agency conducting the viewings for me. So, the only real benefit then is the hugely reduced fee? Yep that’s about the size of it. From my experience at any rate.

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And this should be something you take into account when you want to choose an estate agent. If you work full time, conducting the viewings yourself will be hard, unless you can opt to work from home on certain days and take some time from that schedule. If you have a young family who need your full attention when you’re at home, then this too will make taking responsibility for the viewings hard work, especially if they have a sleeping pattern that rules out certain times of the day. And you have to keep things looking immaculate (or as close to) because when you take people around your own house, you’re aware of the things they don’t like by what they don’t say. It can feel very personal – if that’s going to make you feel unsettled, then this process isn’t for you.

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I’ll tell you the one thing it has done though, listing my house with an online agency has given me the choice to accept a lower offer than I might have done. That probably sounds counter intuitive, but because the fees are so much lower I’m actually ahead of where I would have been – by about £14,000 – if I’d sold through a local agent. So what it really does is give you more control over the money going into your pocket. That £14K will go a long way to paying my stamp duty on my next property. And as soon as I exchange contracts, I’ll tell you all about it.