Welcoming me into her large yet endearingly casual home in south London, Sarah Beeny is an excellent host – we settle down among cushions and cats draped on chair backs in a cosy sitting room to drink coffee and talk TV shows, trends and, rather unexpectedly, Donald Trump.
‘I was going to stay on the fence and not talk about him at all,’ she says conspiratorially, her face creasing into an incredulous expression. ‘I thought the Mexican wall thing was a joke!’
Is Sarah worried about the president of the United States? ‘I’m just hoping he really thinks a little bit about the consequences of his decisions. And I’m hoping once he’s done shouting about a few big, radical things, like building a wall – maybe he’ll shut up about it.’
The surge of nationalism that led to President Trump’s election echoed feelings in the UK around the EU referendum. The clock is now ticking on a two-year deadline for negotiating post-Brexit deals – after Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 last month – but Sarah, 45, dismisses fears that UK property values will plummet.
‘It will not make any difference. The government is much more ineffectual than we think it is and if people want to buy and sell stuff, then they will work out a way of making that happen – and not through the government.
‘House prices are driven by people who’ve got enough money to buy that house. Crashes in the market happen when people have to sell. So if no one has to sell, they just don’t sell.
‘People only really have to sell when the interest rates go up, for example, by 10% overnight. But the Bank of England isn’t going to do that, because it’s not stupid. So what is Brexit going to do to the market? Not a lot, really.’
Sarah knows what she is talking about, as she became a household name while advising would-be developers on Channel 4’s Property Ladder series back in 2001.
She’s rarely been offscreen since, presenting even while pregnant with her sons Billy, now 12, Charlie, 11, Rafferty, eight, and Laurie, seven.
She also runs the online estate agency Teplio.com, the restored East Yorkshire mansion and wedding venue Rise Hall, and her own range of handles – on top of family duties.
I ask Sarah if she thinks she will ever be able to slow down.
‘No, probably not. As the children get older, they take up a lot more of my time. There are big chunks of the day that I try to devote to them, which makes the rest of the day shorter.
‘I suppose if you are someone who’s quite manic, it just depends what you want to be manic about. I’m not very good at just sitting around.’
MUM’S THE WORD
She’s finding that parenting doesn’t get easier as her sons get older, either. With a self-deprecating laugh, she says: ‘Every morning I wake up and think: who am I going to disappoint today? And there’s always someone.’
‘Normally me!’ shouts her husband, the artist Graham Swift, 44, who is working in the room next door.
Sarah smiles ruefully: ‘My youngest one has been quite negative recently and you sort of think: “Oh God, am I screwing him up? Do I need to be more positive and encourage him more?”
‘With babies – so long as someone gives them a cuddle, feeds them, keeps them warm and changes their bum – they don’t really care who does it.
‘But as they get older, every single reaction that you have to them matters and they need so much one-on-one time, which is physically impossible to achieve.’
As part of trying to rejig her hectic timetable, Sarah is helming the popular antiques dealing TV show Sarah Beeny’s Four Rooms. She sees it as a natural move: ‘Dealing is what I do for a living – I buy and sell things: houses. It’s the same basic principle, so for me the show was a really obvious thing to do.’
‘I like the show, I like antiques, I like dealing and I wanted to try a studio show. It’s a really different discipline to the way I film normally.
‘We made 40 shows in a month, whereas I’m used to making 12 shows in about a year and a half. That was something I wanted to experience: what it’s like to make shows with lots of people in a studio, all completely controlled. It was amazing.’
That’s not all Sarah’s been working on. Channel 4 broadcast a one-hour special called UK’s Best Place To Live back in February, which found the top area for 20-somethings isn’t London or Birmingham, but South Ribble, in Lancashire. It topped the combined rankings for property prices, job opportunities, infrastructure and potential for family life.
Rather an unexpected winner, I say, but Sarah wasn’t surprised: ‘I know that patch is amazing for transport to lots of big cities, so lots of opportunities.
‘I’ve visited and filmed in lots of these places over the years and I’m absolutely aware that the outcome and prospects of an area are completely driven by its culture.
‘In South Ribble, I think the local councillors are hungry for change and people celebrate success, they think it’s exciting and think: “Wow, I’m going to try something, too”.
‘Whereas in lots of other parts of the country, if someone’s doing well, there’s a sense of: “We’ll bring them down, they’ve got too big for their boots”.
‘Actually, I think that’s part of what fuelled all of Brexit: the culture of jealousy, of feeling “it’s not fair, other people have got stuff and I haven’t, so I don’t want them to have it”. The truth is, if you blame other people you can’t change (the status quo). The only way is if YOU change it, not blame other people.’
On the theme of taking control of your own circumstances, Sarah’s also starring in a new series for Channel 4 called How To Be Mortgage Free, which starts on 20 April.
‘It’s about slightly alternative ways to build and live that are more affordable than the traditional way,’ she explains.
‘So it’s someone who’s building a house on the back of a bale trailer, and he’s pulling the trailer around his parents’ farm and living in it.
‘It’s really fun, because it features quirky, interesting ways of building. But the best bit is they’re affordable. Obviously, if you’re not paying rent or a mortgage, you can save more quickly – much like we used to in the olden days, when young people stayed with their parents and saved money.’
THE FAMILY WAY
Living with relatives is something of a favoured issue for Sarah, who thinks it’s a shame that children move far away from their parents – although she recognises there’s no quick solution.
‘Without question, I think our society has declined since it became the norm that you wouldn’t live with your parents and, dare I say it, that parents thought “I don’t want my children living with me”.
‘Older people often aren’t prepared to move nearer children, and they’ve got a lot of expectations and demands for how they want to live.
‘I’m not criticising – I’m saying it works both ways. The difficulty is the separation that happens when children leave home.
‘After 20 years of living completely independently, everyone’s worked out their own systems for coping, and it’s tricky to say: “Well, let’s scrap all the systems and move back together”.
‘People haven’t had to tolerate each other, so they’ve grown apart – and that’s hard to bring back together.
‘Culturally, it would be brilliant if there was more multi-generational living – but it has to start with not moving away in the first place!’
So, if people won’t live with their parents and they can’t afford to buy a house, should they accept they will be renting forever?
‘There’s no crime in renting and if your mortgage is an interest-only one, you’re effectively renting your house from the bank. You’re just maintaining it yourself and hoping there’ll be a capital gain. As it’s not a repayment mortgage, you’ll still owe all the money in 25 years’ time.’
Renters have gained the attention of communities minister Sajid Javid, whose White Paper on the ‘broken housing market’ proposes banning letting agents from charging fees to tenants, while pushing landlords to agree to longer-term contracts so people have more security.
Sarah is all for this, but thinks the proposal needs to come with tax incentives: ‘Personally, I’m much more of a carrot than a stick person. Legislating against things is much more expensive to control, you’ve got to have teams of people checking.
‘So you could encourage longer-term lets for professional landlords and give incentives to make this happen by cutting tax on their capital repayments.
‘I don’t think it’s sensible to force landlords to have longer tenancies.’
Critics of the White Paper have called it a ‘damp squib’ that fails to tackle the UK’s housing issues. Sarah is generally critical of government policy in this area, and doesn’t share MPs’ views that the UK needs to build 250,000 new homes each year.
'“Housing crisis” is an interesting term,’ she says, ‘but I’d argue that there isn’t one. There are plenty of houses you can afford to buy, but you can’t get a job there or you can’t get there.
‘It’s a very short-term fix to say we’ve got areas that people want to live in, because that’s where the opportunities are and where all the transport comes to, so we’ll just stuff more houses into that area and hope that one day it’ll all be OK.
‘It would be better to ask what’s going to happen in 50 years. For me, the only logical thing to do is to improve transport so that you take people and job opportunities to the existing houses. So, put in the schools, hospitals and transport links and then you’ll find that, all of a sudden, people will want to buy and live in the houses that currently no one is interested in.
‘Housing plans shouldn’t be coloured and shaped by people who make money from building houses.
‘The theory that you flood the market with houses and prices will come down is just ridiculous. We don’t have the space to do that, as everyone wants to live in London and other big cities, as that’s where the best jobs are.
‘It’s like sitting in a boat and putting your finger over the leak. But what you really need to do is get the boat out of the water, fix the whole hull properly and then put it back in. That is what I would like to see housing policy do.’
Sarah does, however, welcome Mr Javid’s proposal to encourage extending properties upwards in towns and cities, which is ‘a really sensible thing to do’.
‘For me, it’s a waste of space to have lofts empty when we have arguably a shortage in housing. If everyone in the country could raise their roof ridge by even 50cm, say, then you’d find enormous amounts of space freed up.
‘This would also fuel the building industry because then people would be using builders for loft conversions and jobs are created across the country, not just in one place where someone’s building a load of flats.’
Sarah’s area of expertise is maximising value in existing properties, and it’s no surprise that she is ahead of the trends when it comes to home improvements.
The big interior looks for 2017, she says, will be darker purple, textured textiles and clean finishes.
‘Purple is a really difficult colour to use in interiors because it doesn’t translate into paint particularly well – but there’s still a lot of it around.
‘Velvets are back in, purple is back in, and I think we’ll be seeing natural colours and finishes – a simpler, more straightforward look. We’ve moved away from the “make do and mend” route.’
Despite the purple problem, Sarah is a huge believer in the power of paint.
‘You can completely revolutionise the way a room looks by painting it. That’s the cheapest and best way to do it, but you’ve got to really think about what colours work with what.’
I suggest that you would be tied to matching your soft furnishings. ‘No – you pick out a different colour.’
She looks around the sitting room, which is painted a warm taupe, with muted purple, blue and green tartan curtains and lots of cushions.
‘For example, in here you could do it bright white, if you wanted a much fresher, sort of zingy look, which would be IKEA-style. Or you could go down a much more traditional route by choosing a blended dark blue, with all the woodwork picked out in cream.’
Renting a property shouldn’t stop you personalising your space, either: ‘Invest in fewer, good-quality items for your future – try to avoid cheap tat, because you’ll have to take it all with you. Spend a bit more on something that’s really nice and worth keeping – such as a lamp or a picture. If you get beautiful furniture, you can make any room, however boring, look fabulous.’
It’s almost time to say goodbye, but as I drain my coffee cup I ask if Sarah has any other DIY tips.
‘Never underestimate outside space. Even if it’s literally just a windowsill, stuff it with greenery. Bring the garden inside and take the inside outside – blur the edges. I’m talking garden furniture, but also covered areas and lighting, so you can use your outside space a little bit more throughout the year.’
And with that advice, I’m off to buy some purple velvet throws...