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

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - Front Page -

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

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