Homes: Dirty work well done

Property developers are not all cowboys, writes Jack O'Sullivan
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A year ago, Josephine Seccombe, a management consultant, was devastated to learn that she had narrowly failed to buy a derelict Victorian house in Shacklewell, north London. The three-bedroom property was not much to look at - plaster falling off, rotten windows, collapsed ceilings, a damp cellar, once beautiful rooms partitioned, bricks missing. "You wouldn't have washed your hands in the bathroom, let alone done anything else," she recalls. But the house retained many original features - cornices, wooden shutters and double doors in the living room - hidden under strips of ply-board, as were the spindles of the mahogany banisters.

A London property developer had also spotted the potential, however, and outbid her. The usual story seemed set to unfold. House snapped up for pounds 77,000 is tarted up for fast sale and developer walks off with fat profit, leaving a bodged job.

But Ms Seccombe was in luck. The developer, Martin Fitzgerald, doesn't conform to stereotype. Where you might expect a smooth charmer in a BMW, offering emollient smiles and a handshake loaded down by gold, what you get is a 50-year-old in a beaten-up red van with a load of timber on the roof rack and half a house in the back. Locals go so far as to say he is that rare commodity, an honest developer.

Indeed, such was Mr Fitzgerald's reputation that after viewing previous work, Ms Seccombe bought the dilapidated house from him within days of the original sale. But the price wasn't pounds 77,000. She paid pounds 120,000 for Mr Fitzgerald's promise to do his "usual job". Twelve weeks after she'd first seen the wreck, Ms Seccombe moved into a restored home, with replastered walls and ceilings, new sash windows, modern central heating, rewiring, and a new kitchen with French windows, created by knocking through an outside loo, a scullery and an old kitchen. "I could never have project- managed the work so efficiently," says Ms Seccombe. "And it would have been much more difficult living here through the mess." Indeed, using a developer worked out cheaper: she had budgeted to pay pounds 72,000 for the house and spend pounds 50,000 doing it up.

Her story is repeated throughout the Stoke Newington and Clapton area of north London where Martin Fitzgerald has cut a swathe through decayed housing stock for more than a decade. "There's one road which they say should be renamed Fitzgerald Street, because I've done so many of the houses," he says. "The last time one came up for auction, three local residents rang to tell me. They wanted me to do it up because it improves the street."

"Martin is an original," says Josephine Seccombe. "He appreciates these old houses, and his work reflects that."

So what is life like for that rare beast, a Nineties developer with a conscience? "We're making hay while the sun shines," says Mr Fitzgerald, who has seen prices rise by 30 per cent in two years. A recent sale tells the story. "I bought a three-bedroom place off the council last year for pounds 98,500, expecting to spend my usual pounds 30,000 on it and sell it for pounds 145,000, leaving me with pounds 16,500. We've just sold it for pounds 160,000. On a rising market you make a bonus. The trouble is, you then have to pay more for the next derelict house you buy."

The late Eighties and early Nineties were rocky. "We made a lot of money up to 1988 and then went on a curve downwards. The combination of falling prices, high interest rates and tax bills for the good years got us into trouble. We waited eight years for the recession to end." Though he avoided bankruptcy, there were dark days. At the top of the market in 1988 he owned, virtually outright, a huge, pounds 350,000 Victorian detached house in Hertford. In 1992 debts forced him to sell a third of it off for pounds 150,000 and remortgage, for pounds 150,000, the four-bedroom remainder where he now lives with his wife and four children. "We dropped nearly 300 grand in the bad years. It was enough to make you a bit religious.

"A lot of people left the business and went into letting, where you do up a place and bring in tenants. But that ties up your cash. I like to be buying and selling. That way you can respond to the market quickly."

The turning-point for Mr Fitzgerald was when Britain left the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992. "We decided to go for growth," he says. That means developing a dozen houses a year.

"I like to think of myself as a renovator and an organiser," he says, standing in the debris of a recent acquisition. It has been cleaned back to its plain Victorian brick and the back wall is missing. The job ahead is like transforming a mouthful of rotten, filthy molars into a set of beautiful milk teeth. But it's a task that is becoming increasingly urgent. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, houses built today will have to last longer than the Pyramids or Stonehenge, given the rate of building new ones.

"I like to have six houses on the go - two or three identified for purchase, a couple being built, two or three being decorated."

Holidays, he says, are difficult to take. "In a recession you're worried about not doing enough work, and when things are going well, you don't want to miss out on the good times." But this year he expects to spend a fortnight in Florida. "The wife's booked it. She's told me I'd better be there."

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