Popular tv property guru Sarah Beeny is an authority when it comes to bricks and mortar, having vetted and restored houses both on and off the screen. She talks to Optima’s Al Gordon about her career and philosophy…
She didn’t start her working life in property, but Sarah Beeny, 43, has been surrounded by people in the business for a lifetime. Her father was an architect for Bovis Homes, a 1970s home-building powerhouse, and she admits that his job (along with his habit of building sheds in the garden), “probably did pique my interest in property, on a subconscious level”. Her early childhood was spent in a style that she describes as “a bit like The Good Life”, living with her parents and older brother in two converted brick cottages in a nine acre plot on the edge of the Duke of Wellington's estate at Stratfield Saye, Hampshire. It’s not hard to imagine the young Sarah sizing the place up and seeing the potential.
It was without any formal training that Sarah founded her own property developing business along with brother, Diccon, and husband, Graham Swift. If that seems insular enough, Beeny adds that, “I met my husband because my brother is married to his sister, which was all very convenient…”
She recalls buying her first property for a mere £57,000, but the details of her first actual development leave her scratching her head. “I couldn’t remember the figures,” she says, “unless I dusted off some files which have been buried for a long time, but I made a profit…” I’m hardly surprised.
In her personal life, Beeny remains happily married to Graham; having met when she was just 18 years old, the two eventually wed in 2003 and now have four sons. In 2010, they embarked on perhaps their most ambitious property challenge yet, putting Brand Beeny on the line to convert Rise Hall, in Yorkshire, a Grade II listed historic property, in Sarah Beeny’s Restoration Nightmare, a programme that engagingly mixed the personal and the professional. Sarah lived up to the challenge – despite council setbacks and mammoth costs – and the once dilapidated 97 room building is now a stand-out wedding venue up North. Beeny shuttles between her Yorkshire and London properties, and with Rise Hill now long complete, perhaps she’s tempted to buy beyond the British Isles… “If I could buy a holiday home anywhere, it would probably be the South of France; we love spending time down there,” Beeny hints.
She might have the property market covered these days – her online property business, www.tepilo.com, puts another finger in the pie – but she has actually dipped far and wide across the jobs market in her time. After being rejected from drama school as a school leaver, Sarah travelled the world at 17 (alone, and largely lonely, by her own admission) before returning home and taking on all sorts of odd jobs. It’s hard to envisage her selling vacuum cleaners these days, although the image of her fronting a sandwich-making business or a window washing enterprise is easier – even if these early start-ups rapidly fell apart.
It was through studying at the weekends to accommodate her fulltime jobs that Sarah was able to swot up on the property market and step into her most successful niche. “In the 1980s, I started buying property to do it up and sell it and everyone thought I was mad…” but since the early days, her business has grown enormously. It now also includes the successful dating site mysinglefriend.com – which grew out of her overwhelming desire to matchmake among friends and acquaintances.
Ten years into her property career, she was invited to audition for a new programme, Property Ladder. “I met a producer at a hen party one day,” she explains, and like one of those chance things, everything came together. Sarah originally, “didn’t think it would last more than one series,” but it was the start of something special, although it became known for participants’ refusal to take much of Sarah’s advice seriously, carrying on with their own impractical plans and making unbusinesslike decisions while a nation shouted at the television in fury.
Her tv career blossomed despite this, however, with several spin-off series and accompanying books and has expanded to include programmes such as Help! My House is Falling Down, Village SOS and the current show, which reflects a different approach: Double Your House for Half the Money
Her eye for property extends past the exterior, and today, she recommends ensuring that if you have the space, allocating different areas of the house for different activities. “If you work from home, keep that work separate from your living area, and make sure you have a place where the family sit down to eat. It’s so important for quality of life, and that separation will make you feel like you have even more space.”
For Beeny, outside space is also important. “I was very lucky to have the childhood that I did,” she says. “I was always out playing in the fields, going for walks in the woods, climbing trees with my brother; it was really quite idyllic. We were not indoors very much; we had nine acres to roam about in. I hate that it’s much harder for kids to do that these days.”
Business and property developer, mum and presenter, Sarah Beeny has plenty of home-making tricks up her sleeve – but her top tip is one that we can all employ, even if we can’t wheel and deal: “to make a house a home, you need to fill it with the people who matter…”