'Slum' London apartment bought for £1,000 is now worth £3.7 million

This London flat’s rags to riches tale all began with a chance meeting, on a boat.

Back in 1974, the British economy was in the doldrums, and a young man invited on what would be a life-changing Thames boat trip was decidedly down on his luck.

Colin (who does not want to reveal his full name) had lost his job and was facing such uncertain financial times that he had been forced to sell the little basement flat he had bought only a few years earlier.

But two of the fellow partiers on the boat trip were faring even worse.

They were living in a large four-bedroom apartment in one of London’s most salubrious addresses – Great Cumberland Place. But they had just a year left on a nine-year lease and were terrified that the landlord, The Portman Estate, would demand that they spend money upgrading a property that had become distinctly substandard since World War Two.

There was no central heating, paint was peeling, and a little, ancient gas heater provided the only hot water for the single tiny bathroom. They shared the flat with ten Australians – and everybody wanted out.

Colin was then offered the chance to take over the lease, for a (since prohibited) ‘key money’ payment to the couple of £1,000. This gave him the right to negotiate with Portman, who knew nothing of the payment. Portman approved him and in 1975 granted him a further nine-year lease.

‘The property was in a terrible state and £1,000 was not the pittance it seems now,’ Colin recalls. ‘I had to borrow the money from my mother.’

He could not have known it, but it was a highly worthwhile investment in a Grade II-listed building. Today the spacious 1,790sq ft flat is a four-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bathroom delight and – after extensive refurbishment by Colin – is on the market for £3.695 million.

Colin lived in the property from 1974 until a few years ago – he has been recently renting it out since he and his wife and son moved to the south coast. In some ways, Colin admits that he is reluctant to say goodbye to the property – and says that if it doesn’t sell he will continue to let it, for around £1,450 a week.

‘I do have an emotional attachment to it,’ he says. ‘I lived there for so much of my life. But my life is on the south coast now and at 76, I probably need to sell it.’

But the rags to riches story of £1,000 to £3.7 million doesn’t tell the full story.

‘It makes a great tale, but it is rather misleading,’ Colin says.

‘When the houses were built, Great Cumberland Place was a very prestigious address. Alexander Murray, who became the 8th Earl of Dunmore, lived there with his wife for four years from 1901, while in far more recent times Madonna and Guy Ritchie had two houses down the road.

‘But it really suffered in the war and the flat, when I first lived there with five of my friends, was a truly primitive place,’ Colin says.

‘It was freezing cold with no heating except a gas Aga water heater and an electric bar heater.

‘I remember watching The Two Ronnies’ TV show on an old TV, with the help of a coat hanger aerial, where Ronnie Corbett did a monologue that described a man who’d become a success and moved from Lewisham to Great Cumberland Place. We fell about laughing because our flat was really a slum. More like a squat.’

In 1984, however, Colin joined with the four other apartment owners in the building to buy a 74-year-lease. And here he did strike it lucky. Because he was a sitting tenant it cost him £40,000 rather than the £80,000 it was valued at at the time.

The lease was extended to a 125-year lease, (at a cost of £35,000) and 35 years later a share of the freehold was granted. But over the years the legal negotiations with The Portman Estate, which today owns no apartments in the buildings, cost Colin around £150,000.

In the 46 years since Colin has owned the apartment he has also made vast improvements – including a large kitchen-dining room extension at the rear with a skylight – at a spend of around £350,000.

Today, Colin is refurbishing it again with a team of builders repairing the parapet, balcony and front elevation.

Indoors, the large and airy apartment, on the ground and lower-ground floors has engineered oak floorboards in hallways and lobby areas, with plush carpet in the large living room at the front of the house and the bedrooms. The bathrooms are modern and dressed in marble.

One thing that hasn’t changed over the years, of course, is the fabulous location – which ironically has become one of the quietest streets in central London.

Close to Marble Arch, Hyde Park and Bryanston Square Gardens, when the street of Georgian terraces was built in the early 1800s it was a major thoroughfare for horses and carriages. Today it sits in tranquil isolation from the hurly burly of nearby Oxford St.

For Colin, a retired sales and marketing manager, the property could not be further from his humble youth growing up in Eastleigh where his father Ernie worked as a milkman alongside the later-to-be-famous comedian Benny Hill.

And yes, you guessed it, Ernie was the role model for that song.

This property is on the market for £3.695 million or from £1,450 per week to rent, via lordestates.com.

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