Arts & culture

Home is Where the Hammer is

Martel Maxwell is property programme Homes Under the Hammer’s newest presenter. She gives us an open door into buying at auction, tricks of the renovation trade and how to snag a bargain

Interview: Cheryl Caira

You were a showbiz reporter for years and a presenter on Lorraine before Homes Under the Hammer. How did you end up in property?

It’s a good question. I loved showbiz, but it has a shelf life, and I knew that I wanted to do something else. I had a chance meeting with somebody at the BBC and I mentioned in passing that my husband and I had just bulldozed a field and built our own house, and I think they sensed my passion. When the Homes Under the Hammer vacancy came up, I just really wanted it – not since I got my original job in journalism when I was 22 did I want a job so much.

As a new presenter, what did you want to bring to the show?

The hardest thing – and the easiest thing, weirdly – is to be yourself on screen. The best presenters make it seem effortless. That’s what I wanted, but I also wanted to bring some knowledge. Property is in my blood – my uncle owns a building firm and my granddad was a plasterer, so it kind of seeps into you from childhood. I also wanted to bring some personality and fun – I love getting at least one funny in per property.

You’ve said that you find the stories behind the auction purchases really interesting. Have any struck you in particular?

Oh my God, so many. There was a father and son recently, and the son had been really ill with cancer – they thought they were going to lose him. The dad just made this decision that he didn’t want his son, if he ever came through it, to be grafting for his entire life. So he helped him with a deposit for a house, and they started renovating homes together, and it made them realise how much they loved each other. There was also a woman who was nearly 60, and determined to get out of renting and onto the property ladder. I love the fact that a lot of ordinary people have been inspired by the show and want to take control of their own destiny.

What’s the top piece of advice you would give to someone thinking about buying at auction?

Absolutely, without question, go and view the property. I’m amazed at the amount of people who don’t. They’ll go, ‘oh my God, that’s 25 grand, what a steal,’ and they won’t know that it has no roof or has a 50-year lease over it. Read the legal packs, because there might be some hidden nasties – there was a property recently where you kind of didn’t own your roof because a company had leased it out for solar panels. Keep your head, don’t get excited, and know the area – you can never do too much research.

What do the people who make a success of renovating and buying at auction seem to have in common?

The people that really succeed in transforming somewhere tend to make it look quite high-end. Keep in mind your budget – you don’t want to blow everything – but sometimes it’s worth spending an extra three grand on the kitchen, two grand on the bathroom, so you have that wow factor. Also, there are the people who can go into a place that’s black with soot or green with mould and see past it – there’s just a knack. They’re normally pretty ambitious, whether it’s thinking, ‘I can knock down that wall, I can have an open plan kitchen-diner, I can make patio doors, I can add an extension…’ These are the people who really make a success of it.

Is there a renovating style you can’t go wrong with?

A lot of people are going for clean, slick colour schemes, like white and grey. People also love the thought of open plan living. In so many 1930’s-style houses, it’s common for the kitchen to be separate and really pokey, but if you knock down that wall – and there’s usually two reception rooms in these houses – suddenly you can have this amazing, open plan place. Keep an eye on what the area has. If you know that the local estate agent has 50 two-beds on his books but hardly any three-beds, see if you can somehow get a third bedroom in, whether that’s through an extension or just changing the layout.

Are there still potential property bargains to be had at the moment?

I think there are always bargains to be had. Occasionally you’ll get a scenario where only a few people bid at auction and you get a property close to the guide price, but those are few and far between. If you’re prepared to get on a train, stay in a budget hotel, and do a reccy around areas you think might have potential, even if they’re miles away, you can absolutely find a bargain.

Any tips for investment hot spots?

You’ve still got your up-and-coming areas in London – obviously you’re not going to get a steal in Marylebone, but if you look at places like Deptford and Peckham, and also Wembley, where there’s loads of regeneration, there’s still a bit of value to be made. In Scotland, if you look at Dundee and the one billion-pound redevelopment of the waterfront – while ‘redevelopment’ is always a word to look out for in terms of adding value in an area in the near future, this really is a serious redevelopment with high-end restaurants and bars popping up all over the place. You get so much more for your money in property and Dundee is also becoming a serious alternative to Edinburgh and Glasgow as a place to live with a great quality of life.

You must have seen one or two grotty places on the show – have you had a big ‘surprise’ moment yet when you’ve been amazed at a transformation?

There was one guy on my very first day. I don’t think he really knew what he’d done – he’d bought the property but I don’t think he’d seen it properly. I was wearing a nice little dress and wedges and nearly stepped on a mummified rat – I soon learned to wear boots after that! The phrase ‘it looked like a bomb had hit it’ was so fitting, because you couldn’t tell where the bathroom or the kitchen was. There was just rubble everywhere. There was sunlight coming through the roof and holes where bricks had been removed from the wall, so you actually didn’t really have a solid house. It was this guy’s first project, so I don’t know how he did it, but he managed to make it modern and clean and bright. I was really chuffed for him.

Have you seen any properties on the show yet that you fancied taking on yourself?

A couple of times. There was a property near London that was gorgeous but it was the stereotypical ‘worst house on the best street.’ It had Victorian terraced houses leading up to it and stained glass windows, but it was really shabby from the outside, with horrible polystyrene ceiling tiles inside. It needed updated, but there were so many gorgeous features like the original Victorian fireplaces and I just thought, oh my goodness – with a bit of work, you could really transform this and make it sing again.

Homes Under the Hammer is on BBC One, weekdays at 10am