Non-sale of the century

Nicholas Parsons reveals his biggest financial mistake
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The Independent Online
"My own financial nightmare started in September 1979, and went on till the end of that year. Sale of the Century was on at the time, and I was earning fairly well. We had a little cottage on the edge of Hampstead Heath, which we'd bought about 20 years earlier, and which was now worth quite a lot of money.

My wife had been talking about moving to the country, so we put the house on the market. In 1979, property prices seemed to go up every week. However, the day we put our house on the market was the day it went to reverse.

We found a really lovely place in Berkshire, which seemed to be the kind of place we'd dreamed about. So we decided to go for it. I think it was about pounds 120,000, and we were asking about pounds 140,000 for our property in Hampstead. We had money to cover the move, but we hadn't sold our cottage in Hampstead yet.

I phoned up the bank manager, who I now think behaved rather irresponsibly. I told him I wanted a bridging loan of pounds 100,000 and he said: `Do you want it today or tomorrow?' I said tomorrow would do, and that he could have our house as security.

That, on paper, is fine. But bank managers should realise that we're not all finance experts. He should have called me in and said: `You're quite confident about what you're doing? You realise that if something were to go wrong, we could then sell your house for whatever price we can get?' But he didn't go into any of that.

A lot of people came to see the Hampstead cottage, and said it was lovely. But one woman said she couldn't get her furniture in there because it was too small. Another said she'd feel too vulnerable living right on the edge of the Heath. There was always a reason - a genuine reason - but the house just wasn't selling, and we had borrowed pounds 100,000.

People were seeing the property market going down, and, I think, waiting to see if it might go down a bit further. Adding to these problems, interest rates went up to 22.5 per cent, which I think is the highest they've ever been.

We were getting very anxious, so I started to sell any investments I'd got. At that particular time, the stock market was at an all-time low, so I was selling investments at a loss, just to try to service this bridging loan. We'd paid the deposit on the house in Berkshire, we had to settle up within a month, and still the cottage hadn't sold.

Then a journalist on the Evening Standard - I can't remember his name, but I'll never forgive him - wrote a piece saying: `Is this the Sale of the Century? - Nicholas Parsons has got his property on the market at pounds 175,000 and so far he hasn't had a buyer.'

The estate agent rang him and told him the figure was completely untrue, and would he correct the error. He responded by writing another article saying: `Nicholas Parsons can't sell his property at pounds 175,000, he's now brought it down to pounds 135,000.'

As it happens, we'd just had an offer of pounds 125,000 - which was a realistic figure - and we were just about to sign. The buyer phoned up the day after the article, said he'd changed his mind, and dropped his offer to pounds 110,000 - which we refused.

By now it was October and, to compound everything, the technicians at ITV went on strike. I had agreed to do recordings for the next series of Sale of the Century in October and November, which would have given me a solid income, but we hadn't agreed dates. I'd turned down other work in order to be available. Then the TV company phoned my agent to say that, because of the strike, they'd had to postpone the recordings.

I can laugh at it now, because you can't believe everything can get compounded like that. But, at the time, we were desperate.

The clouds only started to clear when another estate agent suggested we rent out the Hampstead cottage. We found a company let from some Americans, who loved the cottage, and they stayed for about two years, which let us service the bridging loan. They moved in just before Christmas so, at last, on Christmas Day 1979, we were in our new home in the country, and we were off the hook.

When they moved out, my wife decided that while she loved the country she didn't like living there, so we moved back into the place in Hampstead. Eventually we sold it, but this time we waited till we'd got a firm offer and the sale had gone through before looking elsewhere."

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