Sadly, I’m no buy-to-let baroness

The accidental landlord’s rental homes are her pension — and the pot’s too small for her to retire.
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Was I surprised to read that “buy-to-let baron and baroness” (as the Daily Mail calls them) Fergus and Judith Wilson, in their sixties, intend to flog their multimillion-pound property empire and retire? Of course not. I often fantasise about selling my rental properties and losing the hassle.
Then I remind myself life could be worse, I could be scrubbing loos for a living — which, come to think of it, I do quite a lot of anyway. Besides, I don’t have hundreds of houses like the Wilsons and, unlike them, I wouldn’t stand to make £90 million.
Despite all the hysteria about rising house prices, one of my rental properties, which is on a south London housing estate, isn’t worth more than I paid in 2008, so if I sold it now I’d make a loss. And the rental income is quite good. Another property has gone up nicely since I bought it in 2006, but this is supposed to be my pension and it hasn’t made nearly enough to keep me in my old age, not yet.
Anyway, when I quit being a drama queen and stop moaning about my tenants’ minor misdemeanours, I realise this isn’t such a bad way for me to make a small additional income. There are weeks when I’m rushing around like a lunatic trying to sort out blocked loos and leaking roofs, but hey, there are months when I do nothing.
However, fellow landlord and writer Julia Stephenson tells me that after 20 years, like the Wilsons, she’s also had enough and plans to sell her small buy-to-let portfolio — a flat in Canary Wharf, a studio in Chelsea and a place in Fulham. “Ten years ago I thought the money I was making was too good to be true, but I can’t be bothered with it any more,” she tells me. “I’d rather put my money into stocks and shares.”
Julia reckons she would have made more money if she had invested in the stock market instead of property in the first place, having earned 13 per cent on one shares portfolio last year. But that’s not to say she hasn’t earned a bob or two from buy-to-let.
Her Canary Wharf flat, bought for £240,000 in 2004 will make her a £90,000 profit, while the Chelsea studio has risen £175,000 in two years. The Fulham pad is up £60,000 on just a few months ago, when she bought it using some of the profit she made on another Chelsea property she purchsed in 1997 and sold this year for a cool £2 million. These are eye-watering sums, but Julia says the rental yields in London’s premier postcodes are rubbish.

If you buy in Chelsea or Fulham, you’re lucky if you make one or two per cent a year. After the mortgage, the service charges and the maintenance bills, I’m not making any money.”
As she uses a letting agent to manage her property, she’s also giving away close to 20 per cent of her rental income in commission, but after a stint self-managing one flat and letting rooms online, she has decided that it is not for her. “It’s been fantastic, but I specialise in pet-friendly lets and now one of the neighbours is complaining about my tenant’s dog. I don’t want to deal with other people’s emotions  any more,” she says.
Not that Julia’s ever had any truly awful tenants. One, who rented her home while she was abroad writing a novel, pinched all her handbags and another ran up an enormous electricity bill in her name. Not nice, but not terrible. “It’s just that I have had enough,” she says. She certainly sounds weary, but I suggest to Julia — author of Letting Go of the Glitz: The true story of one woman’s struggle to live the simple life in Chelsea — that her decision to sell is partly driven by a desire to cash in on central London’s house price boom.
“Well yes,” she admits, “but I’m 50, it’s time to start being generous. I want to open a dog sanctuary in the country.” It will be a money pit, she admits, but she has probably made enough to fill it.
So the lesson to be learned is that renting out is not a big bowl of cherries, but not many of us in London lose out at the end of the day so when you are fed up with human frailties, take the money and run.
  • Letting Go of the Glitz is published by Crown House at £8.99.
  • Victoria Whitlock lets three properties in south London. To contact Victoria with your ideas and views, tweet @vicwhitlock

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