Yesterday dentures, today drains

When a dental laboratory owner sells his share of the business to renovate houses, the result is not the usual property developer, says Chris Arnot
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The Independent Online

Dominic Strangeway traded in his career for bricks and mortar, his Audi TT for a Ford pick-up van and his £50,000-plus salary for financial insecurity that would keep most of us awake at nights. No wonder he calls his company Strangeway2live. Until a year ago, he was a partner in a successful dental laboratory. Dentures, crowns and bridges were his business; renovating property was his hobby.

Today Strangeway, 32, is an unlikely full-time property developer. Unlikely because he doesn't fit the fat-cat image that tends to go with the term. Not yet, anyway. His developments are small-scale, stylishly contemporary and, by his own admission, he is very "hands-on and pernickety" about every project that he undertakes. "While I'm talking to you," he says, "I'm dying to know what Malcolm's doing next door." Malcolm is a joiner and his only full-time employee. So far. Strangeway's phlegmatic façade hides a fierce ambition.

Behind the 17th-century farm buildings, which he has been renovating at Stainland, near Halifax, a modern estate of Yorkshire-stone semis is taking shape. When I ask him whether he would like to be developing something like that, he answers without hesitation: "I would, yeah. You have to think big in this game and take calculated risks. And while you're working on the project in hand, you have to get the next thing in the bag or you're out of work. It's not easy money and there are always hidden costs."

He discovered this the hard way when he embarked on his first project five years ago. Along with his wife, Gill, and another couple, he bought a large Victorian house in Halifax with an adjoining barn in much need of renovation. "The idea was that we would all share the house while I did up the barn for Gill and me to live in," he says. "I was still working at the dental lab in Leeds (20 miles away) and it took me rather longer than expected. In fact, we were sharing that house for a year and a half, and our first child [Oliver] was born during that time."

Are the two couples still friends? "We're friends again now," he says with a wry smile. "But it became quite tense at the time." Costly, too. Strangeway's estimated outlay of £20,000 proved to be £35,000 short of the mark. "I was getting home at six and then working on the barn for four hours. I hardly saw Oliver for his first few months," he adds.

Eventually, however, the family moved into the barn and lived there for a year before selling it on for £205,000. Profit: £100,000. With half of that money, he took a 50 per cent stake in a derelict off-licence with living space above and, with an architect friend, set about converting the building into three apartments. The other £50,000 went on improvements to the new family home - a Victorian lodge to a large estate, built by a Bradford mill owner and snapped up for just £96,000 on a 90 per cent mortgage.

By now Strangeway had persuaded his partner in the dental lab to buy him out. "That gave me the equivalent of a year's salary," he says. "I'd been to bricklaying classes and learnt a lot about joinery. For a while, I worked as a labourer for the blokes I employed on a temporary basis." He adds with a grin: "I'm a lot stronger now." Mentally as well as physically: his next move required nerves of steel and considerable self-belief.

To acquire the 17th-century farmhouse, outbuildings and adjoining cottage, which he had found at Stainland, he needed an initial outlay of £280,000. So he remortgaged the family home, sold his sports car, took his credit cards to the limit and borrowed £100,000 from his in-laws.

Ellistones Farm, dating from 1607, has now been split into three distinctive properties. The central part was completed and sold in May as a four-bedroom family home, covering 1,650sq ft, for a very reasonable £225,000. "It's probably worth over £300,000," Strangeway muses, "but we had to take a fixed price in December to get the cashflow back on track."

December was obviously a trying month. "I remember struggling to shore up the roof on New Year's Eve, wearing two t-shirts, two jumpers and two fleeces with thermal leggings under my jeans," he recalls. "And I've never been so cold in my life."

As completion approached and he looked forward to some much-needed income, the bank refused to release the deeds. "It went on for five weeks while the interest on my credit cards mounted," he says. "Malcolm hadn't drawn any wages for over a month. All my suppliers were demanding payment. I remember taking Gill and the kids away for a week and we got by on just £60."

So was it all worth it? "It was when I was invited round by the couple who'd bought the house and I saw how happy they were. There's something quite challenging about taking a building back to its shell and turning it into a fabulous, contemporary home."

The next door property is now approaching completion. Again, it has four bedrooms but is slightly bigger at 1,900sq ft. Boarded-up stone fireplaces and window frames have been exposed. Beams and roof trusses, some of which had been painted pink by the previous occupants, have been lovingly restored to their natural texture.

Strangeway already has his eye on an old mill at nearby Silsden, which he plans to convert into three-storey townhouses. Developing property may be a strange way to live, but it has evidently given him more satisfaction than teeth ever did.

Ellistones Croft is on the market for £350,000. Dominic Strangeway: 07968 891888