No kerb appeal? So much the better

29 September 2015, The Times

Estate agents will often wax lyrical about the so-called kerb appeal of a property. They might effusively flag up the elegant steps leading to a generously proportioned portico. Or the buffed front door flanked by symmetrical bay trees. The first impressions of guests or passers-by really are the barometer of the level of style or opulence within. Or are they?

What if a property looks pretty uninviting at the first glance but hides a surprisingly awe-inspiring or capacious interior, a bit like the Tardis in Dr Who or the magical doorway of Alice in Wonderland? Some artistic-minded owners revel in misleading first-time visitors by presenting a home that is not quite what it seems. No, a bland exterior or unobtrusive entrance is not always bad news for owners and agents, especially if the property is well located, and there may be benefits that are not obvious at first glance.

In fact, some buyers prefer an anonymous, unprepossessing entrance, suggests Michelle van Vuuren, of the UK’s arm of Sotheby’s International Realty. “There’s been a real step change away from overt symbols of wealth — like One Hyde Park — to very discreet and private homes,” she says. “It’s not a case of purposeful neglect of kerb appeal but a deliberate choice of nondescript doorways in the style that private members clubs such as Soho House and Blacks Club in Dean Street. The new 300 Vauxhall Bridge Road development has plain black doors with no names — ideal for those individuals who prefer to keep their assets well hidden.”

Another example is a three-bedroom penthouse in a rather utilitarian-style but sought-after block of apartments in St John’s Wood, north London. Accessed by a simple black door, the property is priced at £2.865 million through Hunters Estate Agents.

Van Vuuren adds that privacy is one of the biggest demands of wealthy buyers in crowded cities, and sometimes the conversion of non-residential buildings offers the best chances of neither seeing nor hearing your neighbours. A good example of this is a former tram shed in Camden, north London, behind whose ugly industrial metal façade hides a beautifully styled 5,000 sq ft open-plan loft conversion with four bedrooms, for sale for £4.85 million through Sotheby’s.

Camilla Dell, of Black Brick buying agents, also sells to high net worth individuals who prefer to stay under the radar. “I recently found a £12.5 million house in Chelsea for an Egyptian buyer who loved the fact that a tiny grey door opens into 8,000 sq ft of high-spec living space. Nobody passing would know the house exists which is perfect,” she says.

Of course, an unassuming home is also good for security reasons — they don’t attract the interest of opportunist burglars and they conceal what is hidden within.

That said, it might have been difficult to sell that Chelsea home to Italian buyers, however much they love the area. “They tend to be very conscious about what the property looks like from the outside, much more than what it looks like inside,” says Jo Eccles, of the buying agency Sourcing Property. “An unattractive property can certainly put off certain nationalities and minimise your audience if you are selling.”

Ah, so here comes the rub: how easy (or hard) is it to sell a property lacking kerb appeal?

A property with kerb appeal will always attract viewings, so those that don’t have it can certbe a challenge to market. “I would advise the estate agent not to show any external photos of the property so that you don’t put people off actually getting through the [ugly] front door,” says Eccles.

Charles Curran, of Maskells estate agent in Chelsea, agrees that agents have to work far harder to sell such homes. It took more than 50 viewings to sell an ex-local authority flat that was immaculately finished with a bespoke kitchen, wood floors and high-tech lighting. “Even with a wonderful interior, a series of concerns pass through an applicant’s mind about a poor exterior — how much is this going to cost to renovate, if I can’t renovate what will my friends and family think? Will I be too embarrassed entertain? People fundamentally like to have their decisions reinforced by others,” he says.

However, he adds that kerb appeal is also about the location of a property. “A tired wall surrounding a house on a prime site can be remedied by the buyer. But if there is a train behind the house or troublesome and untidy neighbours, this is not in control of the owner — either way, having realistic price expectations is the key to selling the property.”

James Robinson, of agent Lurot Brand, says that he has achieved impressive prices from buyers of unusual properties, such as converted garages, where other agents have failed — and apart from applying lots of enthusiasm, it’s about flagging up the hidden values. This especially applies to mews properties in sought-after areas of west London that were historically utilitarian service entrances to large properties and where coachmen or ostlers used to doss down. One for sale in Queen’s Gate Mews in South Kensington opens out on to a vast three-bedroom house with double-height ceilings.

“My mother taught me always to look at the ugly homes for five reasons,” says Robinson. “They are invariably better in the flesh than they are in pictures on property portals; if the location is good you can always change the house; no one else goes to see them so there is less competition; you also get better space for your money; and, finally, there is that old truism that states, ‘Always buy the worst home in the best location you can afford’.”

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