Something rotten in my bargain basement

BAD DEALS A new series in which people reveal their worst investments. By Corinne Simcock
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Ann Jousiffe, 41, is a writer and photographer specialising in the Middle East and North Africa. In 1995 she appeared on Channel 4's Cutting Edge after taking a group of British mothers whose children had been abducted to Libya for a three-week reunion.

"At the tail end of the Seventies, all my friends were buying their first flats and houses - mostly on the cheap - and doing them up," she says. "Being freelance, I didn't have much money and my income was very erratic, so when I heard about a house in Olympia going for the bargain price of pounds 3,800 I was immediately interested.

"As soon as I saw it, I thought 'What a lot of house for so little money ... I wonder why?' In my mind's eye I could already see how it would look when it was done up.

"In fact, the reason it was so cheap was that it was falling apart and besides two of the three flats had sitting tenants. Because of these tenants the council had attached an order of works, so there was a legal obligation to refurbish it.

"Despite all the problems, a bargain is a bargain ... or so I thought at the time. No mortgage broker would touch it with a barge-pole, but fired up with optimism and complete inexperience, I went ahead and bought it, having browbeaten my bank manager into giving me a loan.

"The mood at that time was that property prices were about to spiral; it was the best possible investment you could make and it might be my last chance to be able to afford anything.

"My bank manager had always been very accommodating and agreed that the house was a bargain, but wanted to know how I was going to raise the money to do the work. I said that some of it was going to come from my projected income and the rest was going to come from a private loan which had already been agreed. Unfortunately that loan never materialised.

"I wasn't too worried about the sitting tenants because another friend of mine had bought a house in the same circumstances and within a few months his local council had rehoused them so that he could get on with the work.

"There was no guarantee of that happening in my case, but I was hopeful that the council would be more helpful than they subsequently turned out to be, especially since the ground floor flat was grossly overcrowded. Despite the fact that it only had one bedroom, it was housing an entire family with four children of mixed sexes.

"Naively, I had imagined that I could do a lot of the work myself, but of course I was wrong. This house had so many problems I didn't know where to begin: wet rot, dry rot, a leaking roof and a most unpleasant bulge in one of the outside walls. Basically, I had jumped in and bought it without investigating how much it would cost to put all these problems right.

"I never did move in because it simply wasn't habitable. Instead, I was sleeping in somebody's spare room and working on the house during the day. Most of it was of the sledgehammer variety; I started to rip things out and fill a lot of skips, but it very quickly became clear that this was a gigantic job. And to make matters worse, I was spending so much time there that I wasn't working.

"For about eight months I would turn up at the house each day, put on my overalls, stare at the mess and burst into tears.

"Meanwhile, I had a responsibility for the tenants. I couldn't just go ahead, demolish the house and rebuild it - which is what it needed - while they were living in it. I approached the local council for help with rehousing them while the more drastic work took place, but they said there was nothing they could do. At the same time they were putting enormous pressure on me to get the work done.

"My relationship with the tenants degenerated within months. They couldn't understand why I had bought it in the first place if I didn't have the cash to do it up. I had no alternative but to go back to the bank and try to borrow more money to get professional builders in. But the mood for lending at that time had changed from overt generosity to downright meanness, and my bank manager turned me down flat. He said he wasn't in the business of property speculation.

"I started casting around for a buyer and eventually sold it to the Notting Hill Housing Trust for pounds 20,000, which shows how much property prices had increased in such a short period.

"By the time I had paid back the bank loan plus interest, settled my credit cards and the rest of my debts I was left with about pounds 5,000 in my pocket, which certainly wasn't enough to buy anything else. The only good result was that the tenants got rehoused in smart new flats.

"I went back to see the house about a year later, by which time it had been completely restored. The property boom shortly afterwards did indeed send prices soaring, and I have kicked myself ever since because today that house is worth pounds 200,000.

"It was a hard lesson to learn, but there really is no such thing as a bargain property unless you have the money to invest in it."

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