How to climb the property ladder: here's how three estate agents did it

We ask three estate agents to tell us how they climbed the property ladder. It wasn’t always an easy ride.
If anyone ought to know how to scale the property ladder, it’s an estate agent, surely. It must be a badge of honour, having honed your skills in the property marketplace over many years, to acquire for yourself one of those desirable residences in a sought-after location.
 
Most estate agents begin their buying life much like the rest of us, without privilege or private income. However, they learn to property hunt, to stalk up-and-coming areas for a bargain, and — with a bit of good fortune, a willingness to take a risk and the knowledge of how to do a good refurb — many eventually reach the top of the property market.
 
Here’s how three of them did it.
 
Shaun Macnamara, 34
Shaun is an associate director at CBRE, and his wife, Hanni, works in product development for a fashion company.

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 Shaun and Hanni Macnamara. Image: Graham Hussey

Start: a one-bedroom ex-council flat in Bethnal Green.
Finish: a smart two-bedroom period house in Victoria Park Village in east London, plus a buy-to-let flat.
Time taken: seven years.
 
In 2006 Shaun and Hanni spent £140,000 on an ex-local authority flat in Bethnal Green. Ideally they would have lived in Shoreditch but since they were priced out they opted for a cheaper neighbouring area, hoping the Shoreditch effect would ripple out —which it has.
 
Renovating the flat cost about £10,000. The couple did much of the work themselves and stuck to a strict budget, careful not to overspend on things such as kitchen units and tiles. They had seen renovations and knew what mattered to a sale.
 
Thanks to their hard work and a rising market, by 2007 the flat was worth £225,000 which meant they were able to remortgage. This helped them raise a deposit for a one-bedroom period conversion with a garden for their dog, in a nearby road. So they moved and rented out their ex-council home.
 
Then the property market crashed, leaving the couple with two mortgages. “We were quite nervous about whether we had done the right thing but fortunately we never had any void periods on the flat, which we let at £200 a week so it covered our mortage. We were all right,” says Shaun.
 
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Shaun and Hanni Macnamara, first bought an ex-council flat in Bethnal Green, left, but now have a period family house close to Victoria Park, right, on which they spent £60,000 for refurbishment
 
The couple married in 2011 and the following year, with the market picking up again, they moved once more, spending £370,000 on their current home.
 
They have since spent £60,000 on refurbishing it. “We do think it has gone up in value — some friends of ours recently moved in across the road and they paid £525,000 for a similar house which needs work,” says Shaun.

His advice to others climbing the ladder is to buy somewhere they will enjoy living in, rather than treating house buying as simply an investment exercise.
 
“We know this area will never be Mayfair, it will always be rough around the edges, but that is why we like it,” he says.
 
“And there is still property, so we can move and improve.”
 
 
FOLLOW THE SIMPLE RULES:
  • If you are willing to renovate you will add value — but don’t chuck out original windows or period fireplaces.
  • Buy quality but do not overspend on crazily priced fixtures and fittings.
  • Take a DIY course and do as much as you can yourself.
  • Neutral décor appeals to most prospective buyers.
  • Choose your dream location and buy on its fringe — and hope the ripple effect will send up the price.
  • Look in areas with run-down period homes ripe for gentrification, where good transport links are planned or already in place.
  • A flat with its own entrance always appeals to buyers. Communal halls and passages can be dull and depressing and there may not be much you can do about them.
  • Basements, top floors without lifts and high service charges put people off, so avoid these when buying.


James Wyatt, 48
James is a partner at Virginia Water-based estate agents Barton Wyatt, and his wife Jane, 47, is a full-time mother to their three children aged 13, 11 and nine.

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Risk-takers: James and Jane Wyatt have “been through it” with property gambles to arrive at their current happy position, with a £6 million home and a rental property in Virginia Water, Surrey. Image by John Lawrence

Start: a two-bedroom “box” on a housing estate in Bracknell, Berkshire, bought when James started work in 1987. The property cost £62,000.
Finish: a £6 million house on the Wentworth Estate, plus a four-bedroom buy-to-let house, both in Virginia Water, Surrey.
Time taken: 27 years.
 
While James’s ascent might seem spectacular it has been earned by regular house moves and a willingness to self-build and take on debt.
 
He bought his first home at 21, only needing a five per cent deposit to get a mortgage, a process that was at the time “terribly easy”.
 
Within a year, however, he was fed up with commuting and decided to buy a flat in Virginia Water with his brother. He sold the Bracknell property for £77,000, and put the money into an £80,000 two-bedroom flat.
 
The property was run-down and the brothers invested around £6,000 in upgrading it, confident of turning a great profit. Then the market crashed and when they sold the property in 1991 they only raised £88,000 leaving James “bust”. He went to live with his parents to retrench.

In 1994, he got engaged to Jane and bought a penthouse flat in a converted Victorian brewery in Staines, breaking rules by buying the best property in the worst area rather than vice versa. “I really thought I had made it,” he says. The flat cost £125,000.
 
By 1997 he had itchy feet once more. His grandmother died and left him a small sum of money but enough to encourage him to remortgage again and buy a three-bedroom house on a gated estate in Virginia Water for £250,000.
 
“The market was really motoring by then,” says James, who sold the flat two years later, in 1999, for £395,000. This allowed the couple to buy a townhouse, also in Virginia Water, for £495,000.
 
“It was double the size of the other place but because interest rates were coming down so much at the time the mortgage didn’t actually cost me any more — it was a fantastic move,” James says.
 
The favourable mortgage conditions meant that in 2000 he “kept on borrowing” to purchase a four-bedroom buy-to-let property in Virginia Water.
 
A year later, James took another chance and bought a plot of land on the upmarket Wentworth Estate for £750,000. He funded this by selling the townhouse for £780,000 while the market was “really flying”, and he and Jane moved into a rented property while they applied for planning permission to build a 5,000sq ft detached house on the site. It involved both disruption and a gamble but even though he’d had his fingers burnt once, James felt he could now cover the risk.
 
By then they had a young family and were able to move into their new home, built at a cost of around £750,000, in 2002. Most people would have been content to stop there but in 2005 the family was on the move again, this time to a “rotten” Sixties house on the estate. They sold their self-built house for £2.2 million and moved into the new property while they drew up plans to knock it down and rebuild.
 
The build was carried out during 2008 and 2009 — they lived in their buy-to-let house for the duration — and the result is a huge, 9,000sq ft family home with seven bedrooms and an annexe, valued at an estimated  £6 million.
 
James is keen to point out that although they enjoyed favourable market conditions, he and Jane have “been through it” with their risk taking, always being on the move and living in rental homes while work was done. “I run a small estate agents and you are never going to make a fortune doing that,” he says.
 
“A great way to make money is to buy property, or build your own, but it is never guaranteed. After the Virginia Water flat I bought with my brother I was completely bust but I kept on going.”

Spencer Lawrence, 39
Spencer is a director of London-based Paramount Lettings, and his wife Francesca, 40, is a full-time mother to Sadie, nine, Otto, seven, and Freddie, four.
 
Start: a two-bedroom Acton flat bought for £166,000.
Finish: a four-bedroom family house in Ealing, worth £1.5 million, plus a one-bedroom rental flat in Kilburn worth £300,000.
Time taken: 16 years.

When Francesca met Spencer, she had a two-bedroom flat in Acton which she’d bought for £166,000, while he had a £106,000 one-bedroom flat in Kilburn. They moved into Francesca’s larger flat, taking in a friend as a lodger to help pay the mortgage, and rented out the Kilburn property.
 
The couple saved hard and in 2003 heard about a three-bedroom flat in West Hampstead, where Spencer works. It was a probate property and in a terrible state. But, crucially, it was cheap for the area at £280,000. They snapped it up, although the purchase was a stretch since they sold the Acton property for £220,000.
 
West Hampstead is a hugely desirable area and the couple had a big advantage, in that Spencer’s father is a builder and rebuilt the flat at cost price of £40,000 over the next six months.
 
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Spencer and Francesca Lawrence started their property journey in good-value Kilburn, left, and now have a four-bedroom home in upmarket Ealing, right (Image: Alamy)

However, once Sadie was 13 months old, and with Otto on the way, they were fed up with wrestling baby buggy and a toddler up and down stairs, while lack of family space was a nightmare, and another worry was on the horizon — the quality of the local schools.
 
They made a fine profit on their flat, which they sold for £510,000 and started looking in Ealing where schools were good. They bought a four-bedroom semi for £680,000 and spent £300,000 extending into the loft and the garden. “We now have the home we want, and when we downsize there should be a bit over for a pension.
 
“We did the right thing getting on the property ladder as soon as possible. Like so many people our needs changed and we were pushed on from being a young couple to becoming parents wanting space for a family. And we got there.” 
 

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