Belgravia or bust!
Alison Cork – writer, broadcaster, web wonder and self-confessed ‘aspirationalist’ – tells Cassandra Jardine why only a home in London’s poshest square mile will suffice
Alison Cork would probably sell her body or her soul – though she might stop short of flogging her children – to live in one of the best houses in Belgravia. “Nothing is more beautiful than the blue sky against the white stucco houses on a sunny day,” she says, looking misty-eyed at Chester Square, home to Lady Thatcher and Roman Abramovich. “I reckon I’m two steps away from living there.”
There’s one slight hitch. Cork is a successful writer, broadcaster and website businesswoman. For many years, her ambition has been to be Britain’s answer to Martha Stewart and – give or take a prison sentence for fraud – the 43-year-old is well on her way. But she is not spectacularly rich.
Nor is her husband, Efi Zazo, even though he works in the financing of big commercial properties. So she has to edge her way up the property ladder the same way as everybody else by buying cheap, decorating wisely, selling at a profit, renting while prices fall again, then starting all over again. At times, her mother has begged her to “sit still” and be content with what she has. Girlfriends have told her not to be a “princess” about living in Belgravia, but Cork is not to be dissuaded.
She’s a woman who generally gets what she wants through hard work and the application of a good business brain. While at Cambridge reading classics, she made money by setting up a tourist guide to where to eat. Next, as an enthusiast for what she calls “luxury for less”, she set up a publishing house that sold books such as the Guide to Government Auctions, which told buyers where to buy goods sequestered by the VAT man for 10 per cent of their value. Within two days of leaving publishing, having floated the company in the mid-1990s, she had her own television programme and now reckons to reach about nine million people a week through her writing and broadcasts.
“Aspirational” is a word she doesn’t balk at applying to herself and it all comes, she says, from being brought up in deepest suburbia. “I spent my first 18 years in a 1920s semi in Bexley, Kent,” she says. “With the greatest respect to my parents [her mother was a housewife, her father a civil servant], I did want to escape. Something in me railed against the sheer crushing predictability of suburbia. I wanted something big and exciting to happen and I knew that it wouldn’t in Bexley.”
From the start, she fancied Belgravia. “It’s clean, quiet, central and, because of all the embassies, safe. I would never want to live in Notting Hill where you can have someone shooting up on the doorstep of your £5 million house.” But arriving there was bound to be a struggle, and her first venture into property wasn’t a happy one.
She bought a £63,000 flat in Blackheath at the top of the market in 1988. When interest rates soared, her bank manager begged her to chuck in her mortgage – but Cork is no quitter. Five years later, she sold the flat for only slightly more than she paid, but at least she had some capital.
Next she tried Pimlico, hoping that being close to Belgravia would suffice. “I found myself looking longingly over the railway bridge,” she says. “So when I married – I met my husband when I dialled a wrong number for a girlfriend – I tried to buy something there, but there was nothing we could afford. My husband told me then that we had to analyse the market cycles if we were to go up the greasy pole.”
Accordingly, having rented in the area, they bought a flat in Hampstead when the market was low, replaced the dark wallpaper
with acres of Homebase caramel paint, made a big open space of the kitchen/ living area and sold it three years later, when the market had improved, for £800,000.
This led to her first toehold in Belgravia: a £1.1 million maisonette snapped up for £300,000 less than the asking price with the help of a professional negotiator. In September, she sold it for £1.9 million having spent £300,000 doing it up.
Her skill lies in cutting only the right corners. She knows the obscure outlets where the big chains sell off their returned goods for a fraction of their value. She haggles mercilessly. And she employs top craftsmen who provide a first-class job for much less than the bespoke kitchen and bathroom shops on the high street. But before she can get to work again, she needs to find a house – in Belgravia or possibly Mayfair – to which she can add value. She is now at the nerve-racking stage of being poised for the next deal.
In the meantime, the family are renting just over the road from Chester Square, near the Plumber’s Arms, the pub to which Lord Lucan’s wife fled in terror when she found the family nanny budgeoned to death.
It’s a waiting game. There is nothing much on the market, but she is talking to everyone from the milkman to local estate agents, telling them that she is poised, with cash, ready to pounce.
“I’m expecting interest rates to go up next month, which should make a difference even to people who live in Belgravia,” she says. “I’m hoping that someone will want to sell before Christmas when the rich are all looking to go off to Barbados. It pays to be a relative pauper in a rich man’s playground.”
It seems a safe bet that Cork, her husband and two small boys will soon be a crucial step closer to Chester Square.
How to shimmy up the property ladder
Don’t spend money doing anything kooky; think of the next buyer.
Clean bathrooms and kitchen sell a property. Invest in them.
Make sure there’s a room that will appeal to a man. Try creating a library, even if it means sacrificing a bedroom.
Don’t decorate yourself; use professionals to get a good finish.
Integrate even a small garden with the kitchen and eating area.
www.problemsolved.co.uk – Alison Cork’s guide to recommended tradespeople – goes nationwide in November. Bargain Hunter, page 9 and exclusive deals online, www.telegraph.co.uk/property
All this – and more: Alison Cork at home in Lower Belgrave Street. ‘Something in me railed against the crushing predictability of suburbia. I wanted something exciting to happen’
Round the houses: (top left and top right) the rented flat in Hampstead and nearby home that Alison (above right) bought in Brewery Mews. Above left, Chester Square, where the family have set their sights