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How To Achieve Top Dollar: Lessons From The Block

The Block season five saw five ex-leaky homes transformed into a cool, urban community of houses looking to fetch top dollar at auction this month. Joanna Jefferies discovers how you can apply key lessons to your next renovation.

By: Joanna Jefferies

1 August 2016

As Another Auction Day Looms, the Block season five contestants wait with baited breath. Have they maximised their layout? Will their styling be well received by buyers? Who will achieve the highest price above reserve and the $100,000 in prize money?

This season’s theme of ‘girls against boys’ saw four teams of friends transform five leaky homes in the East Auckland suburb of St Johns/Meadowbank. For the first time, we saw tradies as contestants, with Tauranga builders Dylz & Dyls appearing to have the advantage. But Wellington corporates Sam and Emmett, Dunedin ladies Courtney and Emma and forensic research scientist and stylist duo Niki and Tiff appeared to make up for the short fall with excellent design, staging and project management skills.

Block host and ex-Black Cap Mark Richardson says each year there are key similarities between the teams that take home the win.

“Everyone who’s done well on the Block, their ability to project manage has been on an equal footing with their ability to style,” Richardson says. “It comes down to managing cash, not going over budget, which means you can keep your reserve price at the auction as low as possible.”

Buying A Lifestyle

Co-host and Your Home and Garden magazine editor Shelley Ferguson agrees and says there are two different scenarios in which contestants have achieved the highest profit at auction.

“The first is somebody delivering a house that is really, really creative and very high-end in design,” Ferguson says. She cites season three’s Alex and Corban as proponents of the bespoke styling solutions that achieved this look.

“There is a pocket of buyers with money who are prepared to buy into that look and that lifestyle.”

The second approach, she says, is a more neutral one and appeals to a broader range of buyers.

“The other home that tends to do well, is a more versatile and neutral, open-plan look.” Season two winners Alice and Caleb espoused this look, she says. “They had a muted palette, with timber details and I think that appeals to Kiwis. They can imagine moving straight in.”

Hot Market

Bayley’s Victoria Bidwell, a judge in season one who returns regularly to advise contestants on creating homes that appeal to the market, says the success of neutral homes with quality fixtures, renovated to a high-standard, can be applied across the ‘hot’ central Auckland market. She says high-end renovators are making great gains in the current Auckland market, spending big dollars to bring out-of-date dwellings up to a modern standard that appeals to cashed up buyers.

"[High-end do-ups] have got to be in a great location and have proximity to good schools. The whole house needs to be done to a really high standard... landscaping, the whole thing."

Design It Right

Judge Fiona McLeod says the design principles are always the same when trying to achieve a high-end look on a budget – with scale and layout the top priorities.

“It’s very much about the layout and the flow – you don’t want to walk into the back of a sofa, for example.” “You want buyers to feel good in the space. By creating a harmonious colour palette and good flow in terms of layout, you get that nice feeling – you feel good in the space, but you don’t necessarily know why.

Another essential part of renovating is drawing a layout plan before buying key pieces, says McLeod. Ticking off the three ‘S’s when reconfiguring or designing a layout is vital.

“Storage, scale and space-planning are key.”

She says so many problems – such as Sam and Emmett’s door hitting the oversized vanity in their master en suite – can be spared, simply by running through layout options before committing to a design.

She also warns that it is a different game renovating for yourself, as opposed to renovating to create profit; neutrals are the best way to reach a broad market of buyers.

But neutral doesn’t have to mean boring. “Using materials and textures can create a point of difference, rather than using a bold colour,” she says.

Fellow judge and architect Paul Izzard agrees and points out that it’s vitally important the social aspect of how an occupant – or family of occupants – might use a space, and this needs to be integrated into the design from the get-go.

“Good space planning from the start is essential and those sociable elements need to be recognised – the whole social aspect is really important.”

Style It Up

Interior spaces look a lot smaller without furniture in them, McLeod says, and for this reason she believes home-staging is a winner for vendors.

“Furniture helps buyers imagine the scale of their own furniture in the space,” she says. “But when it comes to the more detailed styling, it serves a different purpose. It makes the space more beautiful and inviting for a buyer… It encourages them to get more emotional about their purchase.”

Richardson says this season’s houses are going to be “incredibly high-performing” in terms of sustainability and eco-features. “Everything to do with them is going to be top-notch. It will be interesting to see if that grabs buyers’ imaginations.”

Victoria Bidwell believes the ‘hot’ Auckland market should prove profitable for the contestants, and that the fully-renovated houses will be popular with time-poor working parents and overseas buyers who may feel nervous about taking on any kind of renovation. Modern families prefer 'done-up' houses, she says.

Q&A Hot Tips From The Contestants

Amy Hamilton Chadwick speaks to the season five Block contestants and discovers four sets of friends who’ve transformed from DIY and design rookies to renovation experts.

Emma And Courtney

What was the biggest DIY lesson you learned during your time on The Block?

Emma: Probably time management. It’s not a physical skill, but you need time management, you need confidence and you need to back yourself. Court and I have got better and better at painting – we've got a routine and we know how to get it done.

Did you start with a design scheme before you arrived on the Block or figure it out as you went along?

Emma: We went in with a plan of what we wanted: quite neutral to appeal to all types of buyers. But we also had to wing it each week. It depended on what we felt the room needed.

What were some of the challenges of working to a tight budget?

Courtney: Because we didn’t win a lot we had to suffer in some areas. We always put money into the structure of the house, so we couldn’t spend thousands on accessories. You have to be a bit of a bargain hunter. We won the [magazine cover styling] challenge when we had a lot of options and we could grab whatever we wanted, which proves that it’s quite a lot easier on a big budget.

How do you decide what to buy when faced with a shop full of homewares?

Courtney: I’ve already got a list, so I grab what’s on my list. If you go in blind, there’s too much time wasted.

What was your best moment on The Block?

Emma: Our best moment was when Court and I won the plank challenge. And obviously completing the house – you think, 'Holy s…t, we did that.’ It doesn’t feel like we did do it!

And the worst moment?

Courtney: Probably week four. We just started to hit a wall; emotion starts to take over and you make bad decisions. What we're doing is the impossible.

Niki And Tiff

Your team has been highly successful at creating an expensive look without spending too much – how have you managed that?

Tiff: It’s been portrayed that I have expensive taste, but I think I have good taste! Part of my job is sourcing products and I go to wholesalers directly and get prices. So I have more expensive items and better quality products at a trade price. I’m also really good at mixing expensive with op shop; I think about structure and texture. The skills I have are quite important because I can style properly. I can turn a $5 scarf into a table runner.

What’s the most useful practical skill you've picked up?

Niki: All the skills! We've had to pick up painting really quickly – you need to do a quality job from the start, you can't blame anyone else for a poor paint job. For me it's been about trying to anticipate the next move, seeing where the builders were at and what I could do to help them get to the next step faster.

Where do you get your style ideas?

Tiff: I’m an interior design book junkie, and I look online at wholesalers, at Instagram, at things from photoshoots that take my fancy. Then I look at [the supplier's] whole website. For my job I go to a lot of op shops; it's not necessarily going to malls because then you'll find the same things as everyone else.

What's been your favourite challenge?

Niki: I really loved the breakout challenge; that was fun, and also dinner wars – hanging out with our friends and relaxing with all the contestants. The challenge where we got to make a room for foster kids was really, really special. On the video we got to watch their reactions and that was really grounding for us.

Sam and Emmett

What has been your main concern with the design?

Emmett: You need to pick a style and have cohesion so everything you do fits well and the house flows. There are constraints; you're trying to win rooms but also trying to make your house cohesive. We did our research in advance and knew our direction, but until you see the spaces it's not definite.

What new skills have you learned on the Block?

Sam: I knew absolutely nothing when I came onto the show, so everything I've done I've picked up – gibbing, painting, insulation. If you gave us a bedroom now we'd be able to do it all that.

What's one piece of advice you'd give to someone doing their own renovations?

Emmett: Negotiating skills – everything's moveable. It helps to have brand behind you, but if you find something you love, don't sacrifice on quality in order to achieve the result you're after. We're rapt with our house, it’s the sexiest house with the most chilledout vibe. It reflects us well and what we'd like in a home: high end, corporate, sexy, chilled out.

Are you planning to take your new skills and put them to use in the property market?

Sam: We were looking for homes for six months before we started on the show [but found nothing] which was totally the reason we applied. We're keen to look at some houses afterwards. The Wellington market is about to go off. We’ve been looking in Petone, which has been undervalued for so long. I also think Newlands is really, really undervalued – you get a lot for your money and you're not far away at all.

Dyls and Dylz

What’s been the toughest part of the experience?

Dyls: It’s been a pressure cooker. You've got to stop and smell the roses, enjoy what you’re doing, and realise that you’re lucky to be where you are and have the opportunity.

Shopping for your interior can be stressful – what tips have you learned?

Dylz: Not to buy the first thing you see in the store. We had to be really picky about how we dressed it up. There’s a lot of expensive stuff out there. Me and Dyl, we have a plan on Monday, because without one you won’t finish on time. Then sometimes we wing it quite a lot; that’s how we do things. It all comes together in the end.


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