Marc Da Silva’s ongoing series of interviews with important figures in the UK’s new homes industry continues as he poses the questions to Brian Comer, one of two brothers who founded Comer Homes over 30 years ago.
Please tell us about your company… We are a broadly based property development company with interests in residential, commercial and land. We work internationally; in the UK, in Ireland and in Germany. We focus on premium schemes and in the UK we are best known for landmark projects such as Princess Park Manor in Friern Barnet, where we have transformed a noted listed building and prominent local landmark into new homes and given it a whole new lease of life.
We like a challenge and to be excited by our developments, and that’s why we tend not to go for the bland and the boring. Some of our refurbishment and regeneration projects are complex and difficult to complete, but we enjoy the process and the delight on the faces of our buyers when they buy their own properties within our developments.
What is your firm building at the Royal Connaught Park scheme in Bushey, Hertfordshire? Royal Connaught Park is typical of our developments in that we prefer to develop schemes where we can really add value, both in financial terms and in respect of the benefit to the building and the local community. This former Royal Masonic School needed a new life that would secure its future. We have made it ‘loved’ again, with a whole new group of residents who have bought into its history, culture and style. When you talk to them as they are walking around, you can’t help but notice the pride that living there brings.
Could you please tell us about the former Royal Masonic School that will provide 357 luxury apartments and houses? When will the work be completed? It has a history and style all of its own. When you arrive your first view is the driveway up to the clocktower, which is a Victorian Gothic monument with a real ‘wow’ factor. We have created apartments and houses in almost all of the existing school buildings now and as you walk round there is a surprise round every corner. For example, we have retained the original quadrangles and cloisters, and some residents have patios leading out onto the cloisters. We also have a separate quadrangle with townhouses along one side which feels much like an Oxbridge College quad. It’s very distinctive.
We have a fully equipped gym with a large swimming pool below the old dining hall, which incidentally was used in the Harry Potter films, so residents have some great facilities on site.
We have just launched for sale what I would describe as our top four ‘trophy’ properties on site, with prices between £1m and £4m.
Looking forward Royal Connaught Park sits within 100 acres of parkland and we will be developing a number of new build homes on part of the sports fields section of the park. We will be announcing details of these in due course, but we have finalised the designs and I am really proud of them. They offer newly built homes with a style that evokes Victorian elegance and all the benefits of living in such a delightful place.
What other projects does your company have in the pipeline across the UK? Next on the horizon is an amazing listing building in Palmers Green, north London, which we have rescued from English Heritage’s Buildings at Risk Register. It is Grade II listed early-19th-century villa with a late-19th-century stable block. We are going to call it Truro Place and it is a complex restoration. As well as the house and the stables we will be developing some new build apartments on the site as well so that there will be two houses and 17 apartments in two new buildings.
At the other end of the spectrum we are working in Bracknell, Berkshire, to demolish a disused and much-derided office tower that is proving a real technical challenge. We will be replacing it with a 311 apartment building to be called Winchester House that will form an integral part of the new town centre regeneration project.
How much does a new home by Comer Homes typically cost to buy? Because of the variety of our homes, that’s an impossible question. There really isn’t a ‘typical’ number, except to say that it is premium. Our buyers pay premium prices and they get that back when they sell, as we are used to our developments commanding a premium in local markets. At Royal Connaught Park every single home is different, so we have had relatively small studio apartments starting at £355,000, and we are currently marketing the former headmaster’s house, Cadogan House, with six bedrooms and five bathrooms at £3.195m. This sort of price variation is typical for us.
What’s your property market prediction for the rest of 2015? Second-guessing what’s going to happen is a real challenge this year; and the General Election adds to the uncertainty, as various sorts of Mansion Tax nonsense waft in and out of the headlines. If we were to have a change of government, though to be honest I can’t see it happening, then no doubt we would be promised a new tranche of planning legislation, which would take months, yet create more market uncertainty in the meantime.
Politicians and their utterances are mostly a huge distraction from the fundamental of the market, which is that we have a huge housing shortage and an unwillingness to grant planning permissions to solve it.
Looking at the current housing market, we are already seeing evidence of a market slowdown in London, but that doesn’t seem to have affected us just outside. We are confident that the shortage of really good quality property for sale will allow us largely to maintain prices across our portfolio and we look forward to more new launches during the year. Our customers tend not to be short-term investors. They buy for the long term and understand that any short-term market movements will not affect the quality of their investment.
Which of your current new build developments do you think stands the best chance of winning a WhatHouse? Award? Well, we shall see, won’t we? At the moment we don’t have any pure new build developments at the right stage to enter, and with our regenerated developments we are currently looking at the categories to see where they fit in best. We don’t build necessarily to win awards though, we build for our customers and for the good of our buildings, and occasionally we find that that doesn’t quite fit the categories in the WhatHouse? Awards. Watch this space…