In fact Heaton is a formidable property queen — as founder and chief executive at London Central Portfolio (LCP), she sources prime residential property in central London on behalf of international blue-chip clients.
Her area of expertise is helping people invest in the private rented sector. She has made her fortune acquiring one- and two-bedroom properties for clients in the areas around Hyde Park (Knightsbridge, Kensington and Chelsea, Marylebone, South Kensington), with a typical price tag of £2 million.
We are in her newly renovated five-storey Nash villa, just off the Outer Circle overlooking Regent’s Park. I’m expecting a slightly bland, international decorating style.
But, actually, Heaton has a touchingly eccentric interior. The house is a riot of colour and every object has a very personal association.
There’s an entrance hall, modelled on Leighton House, with a fishpond and sculpture by Paul Vanstone. She hosts recitals in the house and has her parents’ piano and that harp. “My husband’s children are choral scholars, so they’re extremely musical,” she informs me.
She bought the house, which dates from 1824, because of its magnificent staircase and original cornicing, but there were few other original features. “It was a blank canvas, so it’s very much a collaboration between myself and my husband. He has a fantastic eye for design,” she says.
Renovations took three years because it’s a listed house, part of the Crown Estate. And the couple needed to create a bespoke interior to suit a grown-up family. Eight years ago Heaton got together with her second husband, a doctor. “We knew each other a very long time ago, but we came back together in new, single lives. It’s a very nice story,” she says.
In the meantime they had both married and divorced — her husband has two teenage children, while Naomi has two married stepsons. So the new house needs to make every member of the extended family feel welcome.
In the gold, first-floor sitting room, a long curved sofa with Turkish fringing means everyone can sit together. Playful touches include a James I chest and a hippo from Liberty.
The basement kitchen, the hub of the house, has a huge range. Displayed around the room are their collection of Imperial Ironstone plates and original tiles. Flat-fronted cupboards recall an old-fashioned chemist’s shop. Next door is the dining room with a long table and chairs bought at auction, upholstered in bright yellow. Working with an architect, they’ve removed a wall and added a skylight.
“We wanted to create something that had a classical Georgian feel, but with a slightly eclectic twist,” she tells me. “We’re not in Georgian times, so you want to bring in other elements. It’s an inspiration, rather than a slavish copy.”
The L-shaped mews house attached to the back of the villa has a separate entrance, so younger members of the family have independence.
Here they’ve created a snug/games room and bedrooms for her husband’s teenage son and daughter.
Heaton and her husband occupy the top of the house. The master bedroom combines a carved four-poster and a naval gun cabinet with modern touches, such as “invisible” wardrobe space and a secret en suite.
Passionate collectors, the house is a showcase for their art, including works by Martin Bradley, Ceri Richards, Michael Ayrton, Peter Howson and John Piper. The eau-de-nil landing displays original watercolours and ceramic pieces.
You can look down the staircase, which they had sandblasted, all the way to the basement. “Everywhere you look there’s a vista you can enjoy,” says Heaton. They’ve been acquiring big 17th and 18th century oils for the proportions of the house. “They go for nothing compared with contemporary art,” she marvels. “It’s the same with brown furniture, which I’m sure will come back in fashion.”
Waiting for a special piece is the opposite of instant gratification, though she admits they had some heated arguments. “I’d stomp off and we had to reconvene,” she confesses. “But it’s a lovely thing to create a home.”
A STRUGGLE AT THE START
Heaton is very focused. After studying human sciences at Oxford, she worked in advertising, becoming the youngest female director of Saatchi & Saatchi, and a main board director of Young & Rubicam, advising blue-chip clients such as Heinz and Cadbury.
“I bought my first property in Camden Town in my early twenties,” she says. “I couldn’t understand why anyone would rent rather than buy. It was a real struggle then, just as it is now. You were able to get big multiples of your salary, then I borrowed from my parents and my boyfriends’ parents.
“It was more important for me to have a modest lifestyle and live somewhere, than go out having lots of dinners or buying clothes.”
It gave her the taste for property and she started “sniffing out bargains”, which she renovated and sold as a hobby. She admits that she “had that entrepreneurial streak in my blood. I trawled the classified ads in newspapers looking for the deal”. She learned to buy well, but also to renovate stylishly — to a budget — to give added value.
Finally, she set up her own property company. LCP will find, purchase, renovate, let and manage the property for clients. “We have no third parties so we can control the cost,” Heaton says.
Today she runs a team of 50 employees. She specialises in one- and two-beds, because the rental market is largely made up of corporate tenants — mostly “the children of very wealthy clients studying here” or professional couples, located to London through their jobs. “What they want is something very similar to the boutique hotels that they’ve been staying in,” says Heaton of her clients.
Only the ultra-wealthy can bag £1 million-plus flats, of course. When I moan about foreign non-coms taking over London housing stock, she offers a robust defence: 50 per cent of the central London market is bought for buy-to-let investment. This fills a socioeconomic role, stimulating economic growth and providing jobs for a huge array of professions.
“We did an analysis on the private rented sector and each year brings in at least £1.5 billion into the economy,” she declares.
She insists we’re only talking about six square miles (prime central London is confined to the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea and the City of Westminster).
“It’s a tiny market. There are only 5,000 transactions in a year, only 100 per week,” she says. “Half are buying to rent out. So 50 per cent is occupied, there are no lights out there. And the bubble is not going to burst. Worldwide people see London as this safe haven asset class.”
These properties are not designed or developed for Londoners, she says firmly. Not only are they unaffordable, but they are too small to be appealing. “The average price is £1.7 million so it has nothing to do with the domestic housing market — and it never did.”
She will never overbid on a property, and knows exactly what rent it should yield. Location and style tends to be more important than the number of rooms, she says. The key is to go for a contemporary, neutral styling with practical, hard-wearing materials.
“In the private rented sector you have to create something that endures,” she insists. “Our business model is the antithesis of Candy & Candy, where it’s a triumph of style over substance.”
Her own house is rather different, of course, with its bold palette, stained glass and antique curios. The business model she developed for individual investors has led LCP to launch its dedicated residential property funds buying properties to rent. This allows you to get into the market with an investment starting from £25,000.”
The first two funds, launched in 2007 and 2010, have shown a return on investment of more than 50 per cent since acquisition. “By investing savings in the fund, it provides a way for young professional Londoners to keep pace with the rapidly inflating London market as they save up for their deposit,” she explains. LCP has since then pioneered the launch of the only two Sharia-compliant residential funds in the UK, meaning that the prime London market is open to all investors.
LCP has just announced a new offer of shares in its fourth vehicle, London Central Apartments II (LCA II), a listed investment company. LCA II takes advantage of the surge in interest to invest in central London residential, capitalising on its excellent growth performance, both short and long term. Open for SIPPs, ISAs and accepting a minimum subscription of £25,000 from eligible investors, for more details visit www.londoncentralportfolio.com.
Photographs: David Butler