Temporary Measures

Some of you may have noticed that I’ve never shown pictures of the bathroom or ensuite. There is a good reason for that, they’re both hideous. And this isn’t just a matter of taste, it’s much more to do with the fact that whoever did the work in the first place was quite happy to go for the cheapest method possible, so the ensuite is carved out of the bathroom – which would have been a really rather lovely bedroom at some point in the building’s history. But now that all the pipework is in that part of the house, there’s really no point in me relocating the bathroom anywhere else, so I am left with two rooms that are ugly and vulnerable – both have issues with leaks because the work has been done so poorly – (which doesn’t show in a building survey because a new mastic run makes it look like it’s in good repair) until such a time as the builder can put me on his schedule. It looks like February… but holding my breath would be a mistake…

The textured plaster effect is actually wallpaper, so it’s coming away at the joins of the strips and in the corners. It doesn’t matter what anyone tells you, the high steam levels in a bathroom will make wallpaper come away from the walls. I mean, my old friend the wallpaper steamer uses exactly that method to encourage wallpaper to part company with the wall, so even modern ready-mixed wallpaper paste will eventually succumb to the invasive nature of steam. See what I mean about the cheapest method of updating? This was done so they didn’t have to do a skim of plaster to the walls. You’ve probably guessed by now that I won’t be keeping this wallpaper…

I won’t be keeping that bathroom suite either. The loo cistern has a big crack across the top and the hand basin is too deep for the plans I’ve drawn up for the new ensuite (hoorah.) And now you can see the full extend of the mosaic tiles. They are the cause of the leaks in this shower. Whoever did the tiling has stretched the mesh backing to the mosaics, which come in squares of about 300mm. The adhesive can’t grip onto something that is stretched because the tension of the mesh won’t bond and this has made the grout lines crack…

Don’t get me wrong, I like mosaics. I love the Mediterranean but loving the Med is no excuse for slapping every wall with textured effects because guess what? All it really is is a cover up for laziness. Beware. Mosaic tiles are tricky to install, if the grout lines aren’t straight, this is how you can tell that the adhesive bond is likely to be substandard and there will be issues where water penetration is concerned. You will also have quite a job to make good walls that have been covered by this type of textured wallpaper – it is used as a disguise. In this case though, I knew I would be changing the bathrooms as soon as I could, so I took that on board…

To get me to that point I decided that as shiny paint is my pet hate, (and even worse, shiny Magnolia paint) it had to go. So enter the ‘what colour will make fake Mediterranean mosaic tiles look less fake?’ dilemma. I considered greens and browns that would tone with those in the tiles and then came unstuck because my bedroom is blues and greys. I considered various blues and found that they changed colour in the lighting so much that I really didn’t like them in situ. I really don’t like yellows… not that keen on terracotta in this space either… Step forward good old navy blue, or Stiffkey Blue by Farrow and Ball to be precise.

And then I had the ‘exciting’ idea of painting the tiles in a metallic paint to disguise them. Disguising the disguise, hmmm, good thing this is temporary. I settled on a bronze colour and then went off to get my preparation layers. The tiles need to be primed.

I looked at various options and felt my brain glazing over. This is temporary, how much prep did I really want to do? In a nutshell, the shiny surface of tiles requires preparation for paint to adhere successfully. There are different formulations, either oil based or water based will work, but in a bathroom I was best off using an oil based primer. Most primers are coloured and generally have to be brushed on. I didn’t want brush marks, so I selected a spray primer that was colourless and just about asphyxiated myself applying it. Blimey o’riley, I had to go off and have a little sit down.

Then I cut a sponge into a square much the same size as the tiles and started by sponging the bronze onto the mirror frame. The grout lines on this were so wide that I did get quite a bit of paint on the grout, oh boo! Repairs were done with an off white eggshell paint, so again I was disguising the disguise, something that I wasn’t all that happy with.

Initially I was thinking I would paint the tiles in the shower enclosure as well, but having done the frame and splash backs, I’m not so sure now. And this area is constantly wet, so I really don’t know how long the paint will adhere. I think I’ll live with it a few weeks and see what I think. Right now, I’m mildly pleased with the results, not sure if that’s quite enough to want to do more.

The moral of the story is when someone tells you not to bother painting the tiles because you won’t like the effect – and if that someone is a professional decorator who knows you well – they’re probably right!

A word on paint coverage: the decorators I’ve worked with over the years have often mentioned that they don’t like working with Farrow and Ball paints because they’re a thin consistency. What that means is you can build up layers which is fine if you want a chalky finish, but not fine if you need to touch up the paintwork or if you’re painting over a dramatically different colour. To get around that it is very common for decorators to get colours mixed into trade paint bases – because they know the performance will be better and more reliable. Having moved recently I don’t have a decorators merchants around the corner the way I used to so on this occasion I did buy the Farrow and Ball paint from the shelf. And guess what, it is thin and it doesn’t cover well. Going from magnolia to dark blue was three coats. No wonder decorators don’t like it, when time equals money having to do three coats is another half day or more on the same job. Sorry Farrow and Ball, much as I love the colour, I was disappointed with the coverage.

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What Colour is Grey, Really?

When I was stripping wallpaper back in May, I discovered that the plaster walls in the master bedroom were pretty well intact, I really loved the subtle grey-toned colour and the wallpaper was very willing to come off and be disposed of. Just as well, because it was ‘not to my taste’!! One thing I did find though was that there had been an alteration made to the rear wall at some point. A door had been put in and then taken out – and made good rather badly. So I had this scarred surface very clearly visible in my bedroom and it was even more obvious after the decorators had sanded it back and filled the worst of it.

In the back of my mind I was thinking I could play around with some paint and see if I could disguise it at all.

Because the rewiring still has to be done in that part of the house, I didn’t want to go as far as getting the room fully redecorated. And because of that, I’m reconciled to the idea that I may not be able to keep the plaster walls, it’ll depend on how much making good needs to be done after the re-wiring happens. So this idea of disguising the worst of the imperfections has been simmering away and I woke up on Saturday deciding that today was the day…

First things first these walls look grey, don’t they? I thought I’d analysed the colour quite carefully, I could definitely see tiny particles of red oxide and burnt umber, but the overall impression was grey. A stone grey, so earthy toned, but a grey none-the-less. They so aren’t!! My grey whites – and I have so many tester pots I thought this’d be the easy part – were all way too sooty, or blue/green. So I added a grey-pink, too purple. Then I got out the colour charts and did a proper assessment and the overwhelming result was that the walls are almost apricot in tone! I was totally off beam with this… Suddenly you understand how tiny particles of seemingly unrelated colour contribute to the shade one can see – and grey is the most deceptive of all!.

A quick trip to the decorators merchants and I had a supply of colours delighting in the names of Clay, Portland Stone, Roman Plaster, Julie’s Dreams and Hollyhock. (https://www.littlegreene.com)

I started with the mid tones of Portland Stone – a grubby, sludge beige and Clay an ochre, yellow beige. These were my base. I cut a bath sponge into pieces about 3cm square and I sponged the colours on and mottled them together. Them I did the same with Julie’s Dreams, but leaving areas where it was much lighter in tone so that the effect was more open and then stippled in the Roman Plaster – a red oxide, to add depth and help it blend with the walls. Over this I stippled Hollyhock, a soft white.

I really had to work at this. If an area was too uniformly one colour, it looked flat and not at all like the walls surrounding it, if I overdid the blending it looked cloud-like.

In the end the layering of colour was totally random and it’s really just a happy accident that it looks the way it does! What I did discover when I repaired some other areas where there were patches of plaster (the chimney breast wall, which is now partially obscured by my wardrobe and some repairs around the door frame) is that I had made it much more difficult for myself with having used the grey paints before I assessed what colours I actually needed!

The pink plaster was much easier to disguise than the grey paint I had already used. Hmmm. So the paint effect on the exposed pink plaster was much quicker to achieve and looks much closer to the surrounding walls. When the wardrobe is pulled out at some stage I will do all of the area where the fireplace was removed and hopefully remember this!!


What I have now decided is that if the bedroom does have to be re-plastered in areas after the re-wiring is done, I don’t have to necessarily get rid of my plaster walls. I’m happy enough with my paint patching that I could do this again if required. Best buy more paint then…

Stripping Wallpaper

I bought a wallpaper steamer. I bought scrapers and rubble bags and dust sheets. I naively assumed the wallpaper would just leap off the wall. Ha! Not likely. The shiny paint when it gets hot from the steam is like stringy cheese, or mutant’s slime depending on the colour of paint.

It stretched out, clinging to that sodding wall as if it was being ripped from its mothers arms. And then underneath all this was the wood chip paper that as my daughter said, ‘looks like the old fashioned B&B’s we’ve stayed in on the Isle of Man’ (harsh – but fair) which also had no interest in leaving the wall – and then under that was the 70’s floral with a light foam surface – and then plasterboard. Not sealed, just straight onto the plasterboard. So, impossible to remove with out damaging. Waaaww. It was such hot work that I couldn’t actually see out of my glasses, they kept steaming up! And them the steamer would overheat. Below is about two days work – my fingernails were more effective than the scraper! I gave up.

Oh my god, now I understand why decorators charge what they do.

A few days later when the wardrobes were being removed – yes, they are all gone, *do a little dance* – I discovered that underneath the wallpaper in my room (a very interesting collection of 80’s textured plaster effect in orange and a floral sprig with a blue background – and the lovely feature wall of chocolate and silver blooms) was grey lime plaster. Isn’t it sad when something as mundane as grey plaster is exciting? I got excited. I started pulling off that paper and it just fell into my arms. It was meant to be.


I got the steamer out again but discovered that a wet sponge and patience was actually more effective – and much less hot! I developed a technique: slide the scraper under the top layer of paper, removing the shiny paint, strip that off, wet the area exposed. Move to another spot and do the same thing, go back the first place and wet the area down again then, attack! Lo and behold it came off cleanly and easily! I am now completely hooked. A friend of mine said he loved stripping wallpaper, which I thought was a bonkers thing to say. Who could ever love something like this? But oh my, when you get good results, it’s fantastic!


And exposing that plaster has completely changed how I’m planning on decorating my bedroom. I’m going to keep the plaster exposed. All it needs is filling, patching, sanding and sealing. Hello, rough luxe! Alright, you might just have to bear with me on this.

And, you will have noticed that there is a big patch of pink plaster where the fireplace was taken out, so there is a bit a remedial painting to do.

I actually do have decorators on site at the moment. They’re doing the top rooms – including the study (which has more wood chip paper covered with shiny paint) and a beeoootiful mango-custard coloured floor! My word, were these people colour blind?? Who ever would look at the colour and say ‘it’s perfect’? but, again that has changed the way I’m going to decorate that room. I’ll paint the floor and put one of the rugs I currently have up there.

So, already I’m making changes that respond directly to what the house is giving up.

And here is the first bedroom – of the wood chip over 70’s floral foam topped paper – lined and ready for decorating.

The front bedroom is ready too, so the decorators will finish these two rooms this week and then I’ll get the electrician back to do the second fix.

This is the point that you realise it is worth spending the money on getting someone to do the lining for you (and in this case the stripping too.) Would I have persevered if I’d been living in the house already? Given that this was my first experience of stripping wallpaper in a house that has only had surface decorating done in the last (at least) 20 years, probably not. I was too worried about damaging the plasterboard and thus making the whole thing much more difficult to sort out. It’s taken three decorators three days to do this – (8am-4pm.) I imagine that it would have taken me a week to do each room and I can’t hang wallpaper, so I’d still have had to get someone in to do it. The mess is quite fantastic, currently we’ve removed about ten rubble bags of paper waste from these three rooms alone. I’ve also cleared four from my room, so if I’d been living in the house, this level of refurbishment would have been very invasive. Obviously if you move into a property as soon as your purchase completes, this is something you have no choice about, but these are the kinds of things that sour a house move pretty quickly and it really pays to consider what level of refurbishment you think you can cope with. This is just re-decorating and it’s been hard work. If you hate disruption, maybe a house that needs work done to it isn’t for you.

Next, I need to contact the carpet fitter…

Let’s Start at the Top

After I got the keys, the first couple of visits to the house in Ramsgate were about taking lots of measurements and coming to grips with the fact that it wasn’t quite as I remembered it at the rear of the house…

While I was waiting for the purchase to complete I planned all kinds of projects that would turn the house into a gem. I really love stripped plaster and exposed brick, I’d want some of those. I love painted floors, I’d want some of those. I love bold wallpapers and I have a thing for vintage lighting, I’d want some of those too – and I got excited about having all my things out of storage again; my big dining table and church chairs, my chandeliers and armoire, a wicker sofa and gardening tools. Oh, I had a lovely time spending money that wasn’t going to stretch quite far enough to do everything on the list… So the reality of that first visit shattered a few of my lovely dreams.

This is the breakfast room (and will be my studio) and immediately to the right is the kitchen, the weak spot of the entire building – it’s dark and has no connection to the garden – but I’m not all that bothered because the first time I saw the place I knew that I would want to do a kitchen extension to improve this. I had thought that as a temporary measure I could slightly reconfigure, move the sink and put in french doors, but I hadn’t even spotted that the ground and floor levels don’t line up. That’s what happens when you view a house in the dead of winter and it’s too cold to spend any real time outside poking into the positions of windows.

Inside, the kitchen window is 900mm above the floor, outside the kitchen window is 400mm above the ground. Naturally this is causing issues with damp – which would obviously be solved by doing the extension – but there will be a lot of soil to move and groundworks are expensive; this is not something that can be done as a temporary measure.

Now you can see my dilemma. This area at the rear of the kitchen is really unlovely – and when I first viewed that didn’t concern me at all – but if you’d asked me a few weeks later what the rear of the house looked like, I’d have said it was the original brick. Clearly it’s not, but I didn’t even notice – and I’m used to looking at buildings with a critical eye. And what about that garden gnome?? Is he a keeper?? They left so much junk behind.

So, how best to spend the money that I do have right now? I’ve decided I’m starting at the top and working my way down. With both children abroad from October I realised that if they moved to a house that had had nothing done to it, they’d go away and not even know what their bedrooms looked like. That pulled me up quickly, they wouldn’t even know what they were coming home to – because the rooms are not staying as they are now.

The children’s bedrooms are at the top of the house, they’ll have their own study (the fourth bedroom) which will have a daybed for friends to use when they stay over. All of these rooms came to us with fitted wardrobes that I was just never going to keep, never ever! So, they have been dismantled and will be discarded. I tried listing them online for sale – no takers. I tried offering them to a charity, they didn’t want them either. Take note, if you are buying flat pack furniture, no-one will want them when you no longer want them. There is no resale value and you will have to pay to get them removed. Yay, me. Yes, I could pay the council to remove them, but I’m not able to get them out of the house on the prescribed day by myself, so this is not an option either.

Next will be the bathrooms and my bedroom. The bathrooms are a total reconfigure as they’ve carved up the rear bedroom on the first floor to create an ensuite and family bathroom. The line to the far left of the shot is the wall they’ve added to create the ensuite, the bathroom is L-shaped. It’s badly thought out and awkward, so this will be an invasive process but not completely mad as the pipework is all in place. What they haven’t done is put in an extractor fan in the family bathroom. This is now a regulation for any bathroom refurb, so there will be re-wiring to do and in the course of this whole process each floor will be re-wired and linked when we get to the bottom of the house and do the kitchen extension.

Just in case you’re now thinking I’m completely crazed and have taken on a wreck, there are plenty of areas in the house that are simply decorative updates. I’m not keen on shiny paint on walls, but the stairs, landings, front room and my bedroom only need a refresh and I will likely tackle them myself. I have light fittings for all of them already and with those small changes this house will take on a new identity.

In fact, I’ve already started… in my room. More on that another time.

Finding my Home

I made the decision a few years back that when the children finished school I was going to head to the coast. I wasn’t going to pine for the days when my children were small and school was the focus, no if they could be off having adventures, then so could I!

But then I got stuck, which part of the actual coastline did I mean? I’d looked at properties in Rye and if you’ve followed the blog for a while you’ll know I came very close to buying there. In the last year the property market down in that part of East Sussex has really stalled and I got nervous first that there was very little I liked (and I would be settling for whatever I could get) and second that I would find it hard to sell on when I was ready to move. And what if I didn’t actually like living there? Then what?

So I started looking in Suffolk; I have family there, but property was moving so fast in that area that I never even got to view any of the properties I earmarked. And then I thought about Essex because I also have friends there – but my heart wasn’t really in that search and then someone suggested Kent, by which point my search area was so diverse that I couldn’t compare the specific properties objectively. Confused of Dulwich, please step up!

The only way forward was a very pragmatic process of defining what criteria I wanted for my new home. It had to be in a town – not a village – with beach access walking distance from the house. It had to have good transport links to London; nowhere further than 60-90 minutes from the centre of town. It had to have three or more bedrooms, it had to be spacious enough in the communal areas that I could have guests regularly so that the teenagers could arrive with a crowd and not cause a problem. It had to have outdoor space for the dog and I wanted it to be pretty. It had to have reasonable street parking and be walking distance to the train station. It had to be sound – no complete wrecks, I just didn’t have the budget for that – and in good enough decorative order that I could move in without doing works immediately. (This last one was flexible but what I really didn’t want was a property that needed to be modernised; they’re as costly as wrecks.)

Then I started to refine what that might mean for locations and Rye, my old favourite was right on the boundary distance wise. Suffolk was completely out because the coast is on a branch line from Ipswich and the areas I liked were driving distance from train stations. The Essex coast is the same. Brighton of course, is the most obvious choice because it’s only an hour by train, but I’ve never been that interested in living in Brighton, it’s a bit too hen and stag nights for me. So that was when Kent raised its head and lo and behold the high speed links to France travel right through Kent (Rye is accessed by the same line,) which suddenly made this part of the world more accessible and late last year I went on a recce to Ramsgate.

And what did I find?? A very nice little town, a bit scruffy but with a handful of lovely restaurants, cafes and shops, a Royal harbour that was the departure point of the Little Ships operation to Dunkirk in WWII, sandy beaches hugging the cliff face on which the town is built, very lovely housing stock and lots and lots of building work going on. Hmmm, for an interior designer that was interesting…

Then I looked on internet property listings and found that the prices in Ramsgate were within my budget – and there were some pretty houses for sale. I went down to stay for a weekend.

I had a really nice time.

I went back and viewed two houses. I had an offer accepted on the one I fell for and was so excited! But then it transpired that there were no consents for building works and the house was listed. It’s a criminal offence to alter a listed building without consent… So after a few weeks of watching the situation unravel and having to consider the possibility of being fined because of the sellers negligence, I pulled out.

So the search began again and this time, it all went through. I’m now the proud owner of a four bedroom house in Ramsgate with a big garden and – bonus – it’s not a listed building! Naturally I want to do work to it and as we’re not moving down for another six weeks I’m hoping to get a couple of rooms redecorated before the removal vans pull up outside.

From This – To This

After much hard work I can finally reveal the transformation that has undergone the flat I purchased in June. I’m thrilled – but it wasn’t without its stresses – I have learned many lessons as ‘the client!’

If anything progress was made more difficult by not having a buffer between client (me) and contractor. Reflecting on the process has given me a totally different understanding of my role as designer. I find it quite straightforward to be decisive for clients; for myself, not so much; the agony of not having quite finalised something and knowing that my indecision could potentially hold up the workforce. I never do that for a client!

When I viewed the flat and decided to buy it, it was a bland and ‘generic’ space; lots of cream and beige, very inoffensive (such a damning word!) What that really means is whoever did the initial design for the space sucked all of the individuality out of it and turned each flat in the block into an identikit replica. I genuinely believe that it is possible to create a space with personality without a high price tag, so this mass-produced look is one that feels like the designer has lost interest and isn’t actually invested in giving the end users an interior that a) looks good and b) functions well. All of the finishes were low cost – and after ten years looked a bit rough around the edges. It was light and spacious though and that was the element that sold it to me – as well as the location very close to the river and the sense of tranquility in an area that is quite heavily trafficked.

looking toward the front room

What I wanted for the flat was a look that had personality and warmth, I wanted to add more individuality and to create a space that related to a more design led aesthetic. I earmarked the ‘big ticket’ items (flooring, appliances, carpet and work surface) and decided to use finishes that would age well, I want to see if in ten years time the place still has a more considered feel to it. I don’t mind if the floor is a little scuffed and the carpet a little scruffy … in some spaces it is this lived in feel that adds to the success of the design. And this is my challenge to myself, how will the flat look when it’s been used for ten years?

So, what’s been the biggest lesson? A bespoke finish isn’t going to be quick, so I was unrealistic to think it would be achieved on a short refurb schedule.

I specced a herringbone wood floor – it took two weeks to fit. I specced hexagonal tiles for the bathroom – it took six days to tile two walls ( a space 1.70cm x 1.90cm!) Each straight edge (into the corners and trim) had to be cut, that was 200 cuts which took almost a full day. I specced black tap-ware for the bathroom and kitchen and due to changing specs I couldn’t get them without ordering from Italy and waiting for their summer hols to end, so no plumbing until the beginning of September. Needless to say the tap-ware isn’t black.

I got really frustrated with myself at having to have fall back options for the fall back options (the work surface is plan d!) and that meant the work force were critical of my choices – not that it was any of their business, but it dented my confidence – for a client they would never have questioned it. I discovered that the bedrooms were longer than the largest size of carpet (a 5 metre width) and so had to order nearly double the amount to finish them. I looked at ordering more wood herringbone but in terms of cost there was no saving and that would have added another ten days to the fitting dates (so additional labour costs) – the carpet went down in an hour and a half.

The most stressful part of the process was doing a job I don’t normally do and measuring the space for the tiles. Needless to say I miscalculated (in the teeny tiny bathroom) and ended up short – the handbasin wall short to be precise. I went back to the supplier to find that the whole shipment had gone to a developer and they weren’t getting more stock until September. ARGH. NO No no. The suppliers were amazing and tried to track down an alternative (which wasn’t quite the same colour white) and we had about a square metre to finish on one wall that would stand out like a sore thumb. I sent them a photo and effectively begged them to check the warehouse…THEN miraculously they found enough to finish our job just lurking somewhere in the back of their football stadium sized warehouse. What? The week before they had nothing left. How does that happen?? That was an awful week.

The thing I have learned from this as a designer is that it’s the build process that absorbs the lead times of the order schedule. We weren’t doing any building works, so there was no buffer between ordering and delivery. They guys needed everything on site immediately and for the most part we had an easy time with the delivery process, but some things we just didn’t allow for. The work surface for example. I was going to use a quartz (plan a) but the cost was way more than I expected (and I spec this for clients frequently) so we looked at Corian (plan b) and the colours weren’t what I wanted, so I looked at an acrylic surface (plan c) and found that as supply only it was more than the quartz when we factored in the labour costs. So I ended up settling – very halfheartedly – for a laminate. I have never specced laminate in my entire career as an interior designer. Who knew what a steep learning curve that would be! The width we needed wasn’t standard and it had to be ordered in. It took two weeks, which meant that the kitchen was the last room to be done; we had no running water for about four weeks, just a bucket under a stopcock. Joyous!

But it’s all over now and the place is being marketed for tenants. I’m also going to list it on Airbnb – let me know if you’d like to stay sometime!

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…

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.

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?

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

DSC00532

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.