Soledad Martinez was born in Vienna to Chilean / Spanish parents. She moved to Chile with her mother and brother at the age of ten where she lived for the next twenty five years travelling back and forward to visit her dad in Vienna. Soleda studied architecture and married a Chilean businessman. She has two children Sofia (17) and Juan (15).
Soledad always had a fascination for Europe. That is why, when with her husband they had decided to move abroad for a couple of years to do some post graduate degrees, Europe was the only option in her mind. They wanted their children to learn English (they where 10 and 8 by then), so that narrowed it down to the UK and Ireland. They had to decide between living comfortably in a smaller city or very tightly in London. They chose the second alternative.
With their budget in mind, they travelled to London for a few months before moving, only to discover that the prices were ridiculously high. Hampstead was the area that someone had recommended to them as leafy, intellectual, laid back and incredibly beautiful, but was actually a very low profile and secluded patch for millionaires. They rented a very small flat in Parliament Hill where their adventure started, first as post graduate students and then as property developers.
Soledad shares with us that they were welcomed to the area in the most warm way she could ever imagine. “I thought we were going to have to be lonely for a while but very soon, we starting meeting people and making friends. The children settled in school and we started a new life”.
We rented a very small flat in Parliament Hill where our adventure started, first as post graduate students and then as property developers.
How did you buy your first flat and how do you remember this experience?
We were at the end of our first year when the 2008 recession hit the UK and the rest of Europe. Chile was in the middle of an economic boom, so selling our assets in Chile and buying in London looked like a good option.
We started looking for a place to buy to stop paying rent. I was looking for a place close to where we lived, as we loved the area and the children where very happy at school. But I was finding it very difficult. Everything sold so quickly, each time I found something, it was too late. I had never experienced anything like this before. The property market was suffering from a huge recession, and around the areas where I was looking, the stock was almost zero. No one was selling waiting for the prices to recover.
What motivated you to invest in properties?
We were invited to a new year’s cheese and wine party at our next door neighbour, where I was introduced to many of our neighbours. I thought that could be a good opportunity to find out if they knew about anything that would come on to the market. During my conversations I asked them to let me know in the event of something becoming available.
The place had been neglected for years, the garden was a jungle, but it had the most amazing views to Hampstead Heath. It had huge potential.
A few weeks later I was informed of an elderly lady that had lived across the road who had died. A neighbour learned from her visiting children that the house was to be sold and gave the name of the estate agent in Hampstead. The house would go on sale the following Monday and I called first thing and was there visiting the property before midday. The place had been neglected for years, the garden was a jungle, but it had the most amazing views to Hampstead Heath. It had huge potential.
I made an offer on the spot and left. The following day the estate agent called me and told me that there were another four people interested and that the owners had decided to go for the option of last and final offer on top of the asking price, which would be received by 10am the following Monday.
I struggled to find the adequate price. In my experience, I had never offered more than the asking price and the idea of not having a limit was too vague and uncertain. I finally went for a figure that looked very random but for me it was a lucky charm, I had included my year of birth into the figure.
The following day the estate agent called me and told me that out of the five offers, I was the second highest but the owners had chosen to sell it to me because they knew I was local and very serious about taking the deal forward. They had heard this from my neighbour. The rest were all property developers. I was about to become one too.
Wow, that is amazing! How did you start this venture of becoming a property developer?
The process of buying was very straightforward with a lot less bureaucracy than what I was used to in my country. There was a new concept that I had never come across before and this was freehold. The flat had a lease and if I wanted to make important changes to the flat I needed the freeholders consent. The importance of the neighbour’s comments and all the planning permission process was also new to me and a very difficult hurdle.
At some points it can be very frustrating because although I was doing things correctly and following the legal procedures to develop my flat, there was always something that would delay the whole project that didn’t have to do with the actual building works. Throughout all this and sometimes a painful process, I learned a lot about how the property development business works. Only later did I understand that things happen for a reason. I needed this experience to be able to be successful later.
It was shocking to realise that the money from a beautiful four bedroom house in one of the best neighbourhoods in Santiago would only buy you a studio flat in West Hampstead
Coming from another country and investing in properties is not easy – how did you succeed?
This was the point when my husband and I decided to join skills and make this into a business. We had a house in Chile that we decided to sell in order to buy a second property as the one we already had would be our family home. It was shocking to realise that the money from a beautiful four bedroom house in one of the best neighbourhoods in Santiago would only buy you a studio flat in West Hampstead. Yet we felt more confident now.
Before we had finished our first project, the one that would be our home, we decided to buy our first flat purely as a business. We did quite well but we wanted to grow and the only way to do this was by getting a loan. Unfortunately we were in a very difficult position because in this country we didn’t have a financial history and our experience and assets abroad were not an acceptable guarantee.
We visited a few brokers and we always ended up with the same problem. Until one day we had a meeting with the broker that made things possible. He looked at our previous experience in the UK, which was not much, only a tiny studio flat and our flat that was still a building site. He didn’t promise anything, but we came out of that meeting with a very good feeling. We were not wrong, as a few days later our first loan was approved and we bought a big flat that we developed into two bedroom maisonettes that sold very quickly.
We have just exchanged contracts for our seventh flat and we are very positive about the future. We have also managed to buy our first flat in Spain that we developed and finished only a few months ago. We are doing this with much bigger flats now, and we even have investors that like what we do and have invested with us. Investors came to us and not the other way around. That is very flattering and although it is a huge responsibility, it is an unequivocal sign that we are on the right path.
At what stage are you now and how can you describe it?
Our life in London is fantastic. We work on what we like and each project is a fresh start. We own every property we develop so we don’t have clients, which gives us the freedom to design and develop the places as we want. There’s no development the same as the other. We have a small office at home and no employees. For every project we appoint the people we need. By now we have a very loyal and reliable team of solicitors, surveyors, engineers and builders. We have decided to stick to areas around Hampstead, West Hampstead and Maida Vale and have built very good relationships with the biggest estate agents covering those areas.
How can you describe the life you live in London, in comparison with the life in Chile?
London is a fascinating city, endless really. We have met amazing people from all over the world. Our social life is very diverse and each time more intense. We are not even close to the lonely and isolated foreigners that we thought we could be when we first came here. It has worked out to be exactly the opposite. And I love it, because I am a very social person. Chile is where my parents, brother and many of my best friends live and I go back every year and have a wonderful time. But the dynamic that London has nowadays I think, can’t be found anywhere else in the world. In respect to my interests, the things I like and enjoy at this stage of my life, London is the capital of the world.
How do you see your future – what is your aim in life?
In the future I would like to split my time between London and Chile. As the hemispheres are different I could manage to live all year around in summer, which sounds lovely.