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Little Englanders and Tricky Trots: The only hot properties in town

It’s a tricky time for a PCL developer with an eye on the bottom line

Finding a viable doer upper in prime London can be a bit of downer in this climate, says Alan Page, as he scours the streets of Chelsea for something with a margin.

It’s been a funny old summer. And I’m not just talking about the weather.

As the thermometer see-sawed, so too has my view of the property market.

One moment I think it’s probably the best time in years to buy something. The next I worry that everything’s on the point of collapse and I’d be better investing in a one way ticket to somewhere far removed from both the Brexiters and the Corbynistas.

Little Englanders and Tricky Trots dominate the political landscape and are busy exploiting a population now hooked on xenophobia, entitlement and blame.

That’s not exactly an environment that encourages confidence in the future.

It’s all a bit depressing. To say the least.

But where does it leave the property market? And, in particular, the prime London market?

The so-called experts seem to be suffering from a particularly extreme form of schizophrenia.

One minute they tell us prices are tumbling across prime areas and nothing is selling. The next we are being told that the fall in the pound is spurring a new influx of cash rich overseas buyers looking for a bargain.

My guess is that neither view is entirely accurate. Or entirely false. It’s just a bloody mess. And nobody really knows whether it’s going to get even worse or gradually start to improve.

Which just leaves me feeling confused and wary.

Although I recently extolled the investment virtues of family homes in deeply middle-class areas just outside prime London like Barnes, Kew and Putney, I can’t help, even now, being pulled towards the parts of town I’d prefer to live in myself.

We’ve just started renting a place close to Chelsea Green that I think was built for The Borrowers. It’s the smallest house I’ve ever lived in. Although a bit run down in parts, it is a perfect pied-a-terre (as the agents would say) for the days each week we spend in town.

On one of these days I wandered past a small house in one of Chelsea’s classic, colourfully painted little streets between the King’s Road and the Green. It is perhaps the last house on the street still unmodernised, and a little flyer in the window announced that it was For Sale.

Bingo. Just what I was looking for. That’s what I thought, anyway.

A visit with the agent confirmed everything I’d hoped for: you could extend this very grim and near derelict little place upwards and outwards, making a perfect small three bed “cottage”.

It had been to “best and final” bids before the Brexit vote. But one by one these buyers evaporated after the unexpectedly disastrous referendum result.

Given the state of the market and the property, an offer of maybe 10-15% below asking seemed a reasonable starting point. At that level, the numbers might just stack up.

The owner, however, refuses to even consider offers and is sticking with his original asking price.

The young agent explained there is no upside for a “developer” (this endearing, upfront honesty did not go unnoticed)

At this level, the young agent explained, there is no upside for a “developer”. (This endearing, upfront honesty did not go unnoticed).

To give you an idea of how unrealistic this seller is being… here’s some numbers.

Just to break even on the project (after stamp duty, realistic renovation costs and, of course, the owners silly asking price ) the “done up” house would have to be worth about £3,000 per square foot.

The market value for houses on this particular street, however, has rarely exceeded £2,500 psf. Even at its peak. Even renovated to the highest possible level.

So, unless there’s a Prime idiot wandering around, this house is dead in the water.

On the other side of Chelsea, close to the river, we visited a very different property. A rather grand 2,000 square foot mansion flat.

It is perfectly proportioned for a kind of living that seems long past. Wandering from room to room, I could imagine an Edwardian “gentleman” of slightly rakish inclination dressing in faded black tie, taking an early snifter from a well-stocked trolley, calling the porter for a cab and then heading off into the night for dinner at his club.

It’s not that everything is old and run-down.Far from it. The bathrooms are traditional but almost new and exquisitely fitted out. The kitchen has a vast, and hugely expensive, French range cooker. The wallpapers are a masterpiece of faux antiquity. The ornately framed pictures hint at an aristocratic pedigree.

At first glance, in fact, it’s all highly seductive. Then reality kicks in.

The flat is actually all wrong. For today’s market, at least.

It’s on the ground floor with no view of the river across the road.

Most rooms look out onto a central core that’s more Victorian workhouse than Edwardian glamour.

The living space is small by today’s standards and not easily reconfigured.

Flats on the opposite side of the common parts benefit from being corner units with light from two sides and, from the first floor upwards, fabulous views of Albert Bridge and the river.

For these reasons, I think, the flat failed to find a buyer at its original asking price. (A top floor apartment in the same building had quickly achieved almost twice this price because of its top floor views, its light filled rooms and a modern makeover.)

A couple of years ago, this flat would have been snapped up. It would have been a small developer’s dream. Today, however, the few buyers there are will do the numbers, look at the negatives and move on to somewhere else.

Even with £500,000 off the original asking price, I doubt this place will easily find a buyer.

It’s a shame. I’d be thrilled to try and bring either of these properties sensitively into the 21st Century.

Both are, in their way, London classics and what living in our city is all about.

The endless over-priced new builds may appeal to the lock-up and leave buyer or “stack-up” for the buy-to-let investor. They may even suit a “wealthy” first-time buyer.

But it is this older stock that makes London a uniquely attractive world city, and defines the capital’s many “villages”.

As the Corbynistas and Brexiters fight it out for who can take our country backwards fastest, I fear that prime London and properties like these are going nowhere soon.

And that leaves me going nowhere as well.

Alan Page is a serial developer at paddevelopments.com who blogs at doerupperdiary.blogspot.com and tweets @beachcomberpage

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