What Sarah Beeny learnt with her first home, aged just 19
Sarah Beeny tells Arabella Youens she owes everything she knows about property to the mistakes made along the way, starting with her first buy at the young age of 19
The seasoned property developer, entrepreneur and TV presenter Sarah Beeny confesses she had “a terrible relationship with education” while at school. Instead of following her friends to university, she headed straight into work – any kind of work. And while friends were balancing social lives with their studies, she was in London negotiating her first step on the property ladder.
As a child of an architect who spent many hours waiting in the family car while her father was at meetings, it’s fair to say that Beeny’s eyes were opened to the world of property perhaps earlier than most. Precocious though it sounds, she started to look for something to buy from the age of 16. “I wasn’t like my contemporaries,” she admits. “I knew from a young age that I wanted to work with buildings and own my own home as soon as possible.”
In the end, it was a gamble that paid off. By her mid-20s, Beeny had established a development business and had already bought and sold her first property. A few years later, a chance meeting at a hen party led to a screen test for her first TV show, Property Ladder, and her career took off. She says: “By the time my friends had started working and were buying their first flats, I was buying Rise Hall [her 97-room, Grade II* listed house in Yorkshire].
“It happened as a result of coincidences and a lot of luck. But I tell my children now that the main reason we’ve ended up where we are is because we started so young, when we had the energy and were prepared to compromise so much.”
Comfort was probably the first thing that was compromised when it came to Beeny’s first flat: a run-down, two-bedroom ground-floor property in Battersea, south London, with no bathroom and an outside loo. A probate sale, it hadn’t been touched for many years.
“It was 27 years ago and I was only 19,” she explains. “People have the impression, especially in London, that in those days you could go out with your spare change and buy a three-bedroom house, but it wasn’t the case.
“Together with my brother, whose room you could just about squeeze a 4ft by 6ft bed in, and my then boyfriend [now husband, Graham Swift], we bought the flat for £52,000. It seemed like a huge sum of money.”
While working two jobs with a total salary of £5,500, Beeny had a helping hand with the deposit. After her mother died, in 1982 when she was only 10, she was left a trust fund that was meant to be kept intact until she was 28.
With the clarity of purpose, the young Beeny asked a solicitor that she met by chance while working as a waitress whether it was possible to break the terms of the trust to access the money early.
“He could see that I wasn’t going to whittle it away on nothing, so on
‘When my friends started buying their first flats, I was buying Rise Hall’
agreed to my plan,” she recalls. “That provided a £7,000 deposit.”
Photographed standing underneath the “sold” sign with her now familiar wide-beam grin, she borrowed nothing more complicated than a hand drill and hammer from her father (the dexterity with chisels and chainsaws would come later).
Beeny and the others set about reno- vating the Battersea property with what little spare time they had. “My father gave me a Readers’ Digest annual with some rudimentary advice on DIY home renovating.
“We immediately made a number of first-time renovation errors, including blocking access to the garden while we converted what had been the pantry into a bathroom. It meant that for quite a long time we had to climb out of the kitchen window in the middle of the night to go to the loo.”
Weekends were consumed with paintbrushes and white spirit. “My friends were all having a high old time at university, while I was scouring the small ads in Loot in search of fireplaces or second-hand furniture. I remember feeling quite middle-aged and annoyed about that, but it was the sacrifice I’d decided to make.”
Each lesson Beeny learned from the mistakes made in SW11 all those years ago helped prepare her for her future career. “I had a fight one weekend with wallpaper,” she recalls. “This was the early Nineties after all, and wallpaper was still the rage.
“My father had taught me how to wallpaper and underlined the importance of soaking it to prevent bubbles.
“I couldn’t be bothered and tried to solve the problem by getting some syringes from our local GP practice and injecting the bubbles with wallpaper paste. When that didn’t work, I tried a new tactic of slicing through the bubbles with a blade. In the end, it had to come off and we started again.”
Like any DIY renovator, Beeny and her flatmates had to outsource electricals and plumbing to the professionals. “They were really good and ended up working with us in the early stages of our property development business,” she says. “It also taught me another golden rule to renovation: it’s really hard to find good tradespeople.”
‘We made a number of first-time renovation errors’
BUILDING A CAREER Sarah Beeny, main, and outside her first flat in south London, far left; she is supporting John Lewis’s Home Solutions service to help find tradesmen