Cheryl Gurner, creative director at Bathrooms International, has worked within interior design and the bathroom industry for the last 30 years. She has amassed a huge database of high-profile clients and projects both in the UK and abroad, offering what she describes as an "unrivalled personal service"
The consumer should be at the forefront of the property developer's mind
Posted 2nd Jan 2013
I just can’t help myself – and I know I’m not alone – but my desire to look at houses overrides all others, particularly when I'm on holiday.
In the US they conduct Open Houses, mostly over the weekend. You can cruise around the area you are in and huge red boards on the roadside announce the Open House with an arrow pointing you in the right direction. Dutifully you follow, like a treasure hunt, until the sign leads you to a property.
You can freely walk in and look around. The realtor – estate agent to us – is there armed with computer, sandwiches, coffee and property details. It’s inspirational… well sort of – the way some people live leaves much to be desired – and it illustrates just how important interior designers are. Home staging is also a dire necessity in order to de-personalises them and make them attractive to purchasers. Sellers need a lesson in understanding that after a period of time they don’t see their much-loved home through the eyes of someone entering it for the first time.
I rush to look at the bathrooms which, in the US, inspire only by sheer size. They are all fitted with products from one particular well-known sanitary and brassware company. There's nothing wrong with that, but the room layouts are pretty standard and the content very ‘samey’.
In the expensive houses master en suites tend to offer extremely large Jacuzzi baths, which like American kitchens, are never used, and a separate WC room complete with bidets that are fitted with the ugliest vacuum breakers. Huge shower areas are fitted with one simple wall-mounted showerhead, which works properly – one of America’s best assets to be honest. There are always two ‘his and hers’ basins, often on separate sides of the room, complete with vanity units, cupboards, drawers, shaver sockets and dryer points, with lighting everywhere. The basic ceramic tiling is inevitably white, cream or beige. Efficient, oh yes. Inspirational – no.
The standard American ‘family home’ is one level and, more often than not, 50 to 60 years old so they are ‘tear downs’. Bathrooms have the minutest of baths which double as a shower tray, with the sides of the baths so low you forget they exist. But the beauty of the open house is that you can look around freely – as, indeed, you can on a viewing made through a realtor.
It's not so easy here in the UK. Unless there is a show house open in a new development, looking at properties is a process requiring registration, followed by a rather dour estate agent having to either meet you or make an appointment to view via their client. Of course nothing you receive in the way of details remotely resembles the brief either in accommodation or the required location. However, you are encouraged to view to get an idea of what is ‘out there’.
I always ask if there are gas works or pylons or telephone masts near. I am always told no. On arrival the looming offending works/pylon/masts are clearly visible and right at the end of the described ‘garden’ which, in reality, is a paved yard. Methinks these agents should have gone to SpecSavers. Why do they do that? Who even goes in at that point?
Then there is the house that needs ‘a little attention’. I saw one recently as my daughter is looking to move and asked me to shortlist for her. Suffice it to say that the property – a probate – had been lived in by the deceased for 57 years, when last it was decorated. Damp, exposed lintels, plaster hanging off the cracked walls, subsidence (but only to the out-house!) a bathroom with 5ft bath running wall-to-wall and a pedestal basin mounted on a 2ft-high step jammed between the bath and the hot tank cupboard (described as ‘airing’). Separate WC for people not over 4ft tall.
South-facing turned out to be East. Garden over-run, absolutely no parking facilities and all for £470,000. Top price for a property in that particular road, in immaculate condition is £500,000. Given that £150,000 would not bring the home up to any standard I wonder which planet this breed of professional comes from.
It is simple to de-personalise and de-clutter. Add a coat of neutral coloured paint and, most important of all, attention to the bathroom. Clean up the WC, fit a soft-closing lid. Clean off the limescale from the taps, shower doors and some tiles. Make the room look as if it is part of the interiors not just the room to wash in. The added value that bathrooms bring is enormous, evident when you view new properties where most rooms now have a viable en suite.
Which brings me onto new developments… Why are the walls so thin that you can talk to your neighbour without leaving your home? Why are the bedrooms so small that there is nowhere for a wardrobe? Why does the kitchen look so lovely but is open plan to the living area with no window, no ventilation and nowhere to put anything? Why is there nowhere to sit and eat? Why do they call the only store cupboard Bedroom 2? Why do they call the bathroom a bathroom? With no bath, just a plastic shower cubicle with the latest plastic innovation on offer from the local 'shed’ at special prices. Chrome taps where, after a few weeks on the market, the plating is rubbing off. A toilet complete with plastic, non-fitting seat. A mirror with the aforementioned ‘shed's’ finest white 20 x 20cm ceramic tiles all for £3.99 a metre, and fitted with exposed grout edging to form a shelf which turns out to be the only storage. Why do they call a wrought iron barrier set less than 20cm away from a window that opens outwards a ‘balcony’? Why is there nowhere to park; no storage; no outside space? Why did someone with no brain or design capability create this? Why do they think it’s worth almost half a million pounds, for goodness sake?
Oh, and how I do hate being ‘shown’ around. I can clearly work out that the cupboard under the stairs is… wait for it… an under-stair cupboard. Then they tell me what I can put in there – at that point little do they know what I’d like to put in there! Oh, and what a surprise, the kitchen is… a kitchen, and the bedroom with the double bed sitting in there is, in fact, a DOUBLE bedroom. Need I go on?
At the other end of the scale are the multimillion-pound developments where I, for one, am often involved. It is at this level that, in my opinion, great disrespect is shown to the potential buyer. While a developer will always aim to elevate their profit, I have an important message to illustrate.
At all levels we consumers are not stupid. Product and labels are well known and even the high-street customer knows brands and recognises quality. But none more so than the high end consumer - and where my beef lies is with developers who still think they are being clever by using cheap product when asking upwards of £2m for a developed home.
Recently, during the judging of a design award category for Developments, the panel was presented with a beautiful visual of a rather large en-suite master bathroom in a spec property, which was to be marketed at £3.5m. The young designer was enthusiastic and presented his scheme on the proud basis that his design had been completed under £10,000 to include product, tiles and installation. He waxed lyrical about the mix of brands used for the brassware, where the chrome finishes matching each other had not been considered, and that he had managed the supply and installation of an inexpensive single-skinned and flimsy Jacuzzi bath. There was a self-constructed shower area with non-thermostatically controlled fixed shower minus a hand-shower and the cheap porcelain basins set on a suspended shelf with no vanity, no storage. No shaver points. A cheap single heated towel rail and an equally cheap WC, which was close-coupled. What an absolute insult at this level not to provide a concealed cistern. He went on and on about the ceramic tiles used – which he had bought as a ‘job lot’.
I, and my fellow judges, sat stone faced, in utter disbelief. Why? Because the demographic for that home in the particular area in which it was built, are affluent, much travelled and generally owners of more than one home, often in other countries. They know branded product, who manufactures it and what is of quality and style.
Instead of insulting the potential client, why not extend the right budget for bathrooms and kitchens to include the right products, supply stone, not ceramic, correctly design the rooms with panache and illustrate to the purchaser that if what they can see is of known quality, then the construction, which they can’t, would be presumed to be.
The up-cost would factor in an elevated asking price – profit unharmed, in fact probably higher, because for that demographic £3.5m or £3.75m makes no difference.
The entrant didn’t win – and I have no doubt he still wonders why.
I visited another such spec house in North London not long ago, priced at just below £5m and situated in one of the best roads. The master bathroom had been fitted with gold taps from a very basic high-street brand completely unfit for purpose in both design and quality. The gold was already peeling off. The shower head had begun to corrode. The tile grouting was dirty. Every fitted cupboard had no backing.
I have visited many homes in this demographic. I can name only a handful of developers who respect this market and in all cases their homes sell for close to, if not entirely at, their asking prices. I respect these developers very much. I cannot name them – I wish I could – but they will know who they are.
Pride again in that they often use my company, its expertise and its quality products, which are recognised and respected globally. I take my hat off to their buildings, their design process, and of course the quality products and materials they use.
More so I have utter regard for the respect they extend to their purchasers.
The rest have much to learn… and that house in North London is still on the market!