For the past 10 years Lucy Alexander has been handing out advice to people thinking about buying a house at auction. But when she and her husband, former footballer Stewart Castledine, bid for their own house, they broke almost all her golden rules: they didn't view the property, get a professional assessment of renovation costs or even bother to consult the local council about getting planning consent — they just parted with the cash. Thankfully their instinct for a bargain was infallible.
"My mantra on Homes Under the Hammer is that you cannot buy a house without seeing it, and I had only peered through its letter box."
The house had been converted into five flats and had definitely seen better days, but it didn't matter what state it was in as they knew they were going to dramatically alter it. They handed over their £1.1 million, invested plenty of blood, sweat and tears, and today it is a modern, glamorous family home for the couple and their two children, Kitty, 10, and Leo, seven.
"There is always an element of risk buying at auction," says Lucy, who presents Homes under the Hammer on BBC1. "We are seeing more and more people on the programme who are getting burned now the market is not going up. I always tell people that you need to see a house before you bid, get as much information as you can about it, and do your sums first."
The family were living in Thames Ditton, a pretty suburb three miles from Kingston upon Thames, happy in their modern, five-bedroom detached house. They had moved up the ladder a dozen times during their 13-year marriage and Lucy, 42, and Stewart, 40, a former Wimbledon FC player who now manages the football division of talent management agency James Grant, had no plans to move again.
That was until Lucy took a call from a TV colleague who was filming at a property auction and told her a property close to her own home was in the sale. Unable to resist the temptation, she discovered the house had not actually sold, so she called Stewart, they saw the agent and were told they had to make a bid to keep it off the market.
Suddenly, without having sold their own home or found the finance to buy another one, and without even viewing the property, they owned a 1922-built Arts & Crafts house with a great big overgrown garden.
"It was a bit crazy," Lucy admits. "My mantra on Homes Under the Hammer is that you cannot buy a house without seeing it, and I had only peered through its letter box. But we both have a passion for property. On our first date we went to see a flat. I would say, in my defence, that I did know the area and the value of property there."
"As walls came down the grand original dimensions of the rooms became apparent, fireplaces were revealed, and unused spaces in the eaves opened up."
Many nervous moments followed. The couple had to put down a 10 per cent deposit to secure the house and then had to raise the balance in 28 days, which they did by remortgaging their home. The house was filled with tenants, who had already been given notice by the previous owner. To the couple's relief they moved on without difficulties.
The pair then had to negotiate with Elmbridge council for planning consent to convert the property back to a single home. Says Stewart: "We made a good case that it had been a rubbish conversion and it would be much better if it was reinstated."
Their plan was to create a six-bedroom house, extending the property's original 3,700sq ft living space to more than 5,000 square feet by adding a two-storey extension. Fortunately for them, planning consent was granted and work on the house began the same year. They had renovated houses before but the scale of what they had taken on took them by surprise, particularly as they were both busy working and had two young children.
Stewart project-managed the build using two teams of builders, one to work on the main house and one to build the extension. This, in hindsight, was a mistake as the two teams found it hard to work in harmony.
"Sometimes we would come home and hear them kicking off on the front lawn, and the neighbours would complain about the shouting," says Lucy.
And the budget kept growing. Replacing the windows alone cost £50,000, and work cost the couple a total of £500,000 and plenty of sleepless nights. But removing internal partitions and finding the beauty beneath was a joy. As walls came down the grand original dimensions of the rooms became apparent, fireplaces were revealed, and unused spaces in the eaves opened up.
The most thrilling moment was when the boarded-in central staircase was stripped back to its original and extremely grand state, bringing lots of natural light into the centre of the house. A vast mirror — which Lucy bought direct from a glass manufacturer, simply by asking for the largest piece of glass they could provide — cost about £3,000 but makes the generously proportioned space look twice its actual size.
The antique stained glass in the front door had been preserved but the couple resisted revealing too many beams. Says Stewart: "We wanted to keep the best architectural aspects, but also keep it modern."
The new extension created space for a show-stopping kitchen with double-aspect bi-fold windows that can be opened in summer.
"We wanted something fun and bold," says Lucy. With this in mind they chose scarlet, high-gloss units from Italian firm Biefbi (biefbi.com) with a curved central kitchen island. The work surfaces are a white composite similar to Corian (himacs.eu). The spec is high — there is an indoor barbecue by Siemens, for example — and they also invested in a Sonos hi-fi system (sonos.com) and smart Lutron lighting (lutron.com).
The children have a playroom off the kitchen, and there is a downstairs office and a dramatic dining room with a huge oval Julian Chichester dining table with a metal base (julianchichester.co.uk).
The house doesn't follow one theme. The dining room is dramatic, but the living room is a soothing grey, with sofas from John Sankey (johnsankey.co.uk). Upstairs are the children's bedrooms and guest rooms, as well as the couple's own bedroom suite.
Lucy has created a dressing room for herself, combining inexpensive white, high-gloss wardrobes from Ikea with a bespoke dressing area which has a huge mirror studded with light bulbs.
She and Stewart also know how to bag other bargains. Their Fendi Casa bedroom set retails at about £20,000 but they were able to negotiate to buy it, plus two cute tub chairs for £1,500, as the pieces had been on display at Design Centre Chelsea Harbour (dcch.co.uk).
The family moved into their new home after about a year. Recent valuations put the property at about £3 million, despite more than five years of recession, proving that buying the right wreck can still pay dividends.
"We knew what property in this area was worth, so we knew what the house could be worth and therefore what we had to spend," Lucy explains, making it a better-planned purchase that it first appeared. But while it is their home now, it is not their forever house.
"I definitely think we have got a couple more houses in us," says Lucy. "One day I am sure we will build a house from scratch."
Photographs by David Butler