Developers aren’t generally known for their altruism but Charlotte Grobien could be the exception. In 20 years she has made £1.7 million out of London’s housing market by building, flipping and renting properties — and she has given it all to charities that help children and teenagers.
Prince William presented her with an MBE, which sits on a shelf in her Chiswick home of 21 years. She says people think “there is some other angle behind my work, but there isn’t. I am doing it because I had the idea, and because I can.”
The road to social entrepreneurship began after a long business career during which she set up a successful conference organising company, Forum Communications. Based in a conference centre in Kensington, she met and married the centre’s owner, Henning Grobien.
After selling out in the recession of the late Eighties, Charlotte embarked on charity work as a business adviser for Young Enterprise, a teen mentoring project, and taught business skills to Wandsworth Prison inmates.
In 2006, the Grobiens decided they were no longer happy living in the “tattiest house in the street”, and began renovating. Charlotte enjoyed it so much she wanted to do it again and that is how the idea of Give it Away was born.
Her first project was to build two houses near Putney Common. The site cost £795,000 and the build another £700,000 — she funded the scheme by borrowing against her own home but was able to sell the houses before the market collapsed in 2008, for £1.15 million each. The proceeds went to charities, including Small Steps in Putney which helps families with severely disabled children, and React, which works with the families of terminally ill children.
Charlotte changed her approach during the recession, snapping up two show flats in Roehampton, negotiating hard to get furniture and parking spaces thrown in, then letting them while she rode out the economic crisis. She later sold them at a profit.
She has built, bought or renovated 12 houses so far and Give it Away has donated £1.7 million to charities. She carried on working when Henning died five years ago, and has built up a loyal following of supporters.
Her lawyer and chartered surveyor both work for her free of charge, and she has no problem turning up on the doorsteps of suppliers to ask for discounts and deals, armed with photos of children helped by her charities.
To date she has not lost money on a house. Her current project is an ex-council house in Arnott Close, Chiswick. It was “filthy and hideous” when she bought it last August but after a total refurb, with a loft extension to add a third double bedroom, it’s on the market for £975,000 with Winkworth.
She chose the house for its location, five minutes’ walk from Chiswick High Road and within the catchment area of excellent Belmont Primary School.
She designs a house to be 80 per cent neutral with a few little flourishes to make it stand out. In Arnott Close these include a funky shower lined in black Perspex, glitzy white quartz kitchen work surfaces, a wine fridge and feature walls.
She selects all materials from bricks to door handles. As well as asking for discounts Charlotte picks suppliers’ brains: “I ask them, what are people buying? What is fashionable?”
Another house or two and she hopes Give it Away will have donated £2 million to charity. And a little thing like the uncertainty of the property market isn’t about to get in her way.