TV: Simon O'Brien on 'terrifying' property auctions, girl power and The Great House Giveaway

·6-min read
The Great House Giveaway with Simon O'Brien and Tayo Oguntonade
The Great House Giveaway with Simon O'Brien and Tayo Oguntonade

As The Great House Giveaway returns for a third series, Danielle de Wolfe picks up tips from presenters Simon O'Brien and Tayo Oguntonade.

Actor turned property developer Simon O'Brien knows a thing or two about character.

Whether contained within the pages of a script or a title deed, the Liverpudlian presenter's credentials make him the ideal host for Bafta award-winning renovation series The Great House Giveaway.

More than simply an avocation, property development - also known as property "flipping" due to tight turnaround times in a bid to maximise profit - is a process O'Brien describes as "an addiction".

"There are easier ways to make money," smiles the 58-year-old Garston-born presenter with a shake of his head. Yet, it's a money-making avenue increasing numbers of prospective buyers are turning to, in a bid to secure a deposit for their dream home.

"What people don't understand is that it's so tough," says O'Brien. "I've been doing it for, what, 10 or 15 years now, maybe longer, and I still end up halfway through renovating a derelict property, sitting there with my head in my hands."

Having begun his career playing Damon Grant in the now-defunct northern soap Brookside, O'Brien's subsequent sidestep into property development and presenting sees him join co-hosts Tayo Oguntonade and Carys Davies in the third series of the returning Channel 4 renovation show.

The Great House Giveaway pairs up first-time buyers with differing skill sets and then follows each duo as they battle to renovate an auction property - a process which sees contestants shed blood, sweat and tears as they stick to tight renovation budgets. The award-winning show documents their journey as cracks appear in both the properties and working relationships.

"You have to work backwards," says O'Brien of renovation budgeting, explaining that the "emotional" nature of a house purchase can often prove a stumbling block when it comes to property auctions.

"Why do we get emotionally attached to inanimate bricks and mortar?" asks the presenter. "People just fall in love with the property and that is always going to be your downfall, especially if you're going to walk into an auction house," he adds.

With the finished properties then going back on the market, any profit made is split between the pair. With the cash acting as a potential deposit, the ambitious show's aim is to help contestants finally get a foot on the property ladder.

It's a concept O'Brien's co-presenter, influencer and property expert Oguntonade, describes as "crazy". A talent who initially came to the fore as part of Channel 4's Black To Front initiative - a month-long project aimed at improving black representation on screen - his social media following stands as testament to his analytical approach to investing.

Noting that a major part of the show's appeal lies in its "relatability", the money-savvy presenter - who bought his first property at the age of 22 - explains that "everyday working-class people" are the ones benefiting from the programme. With properties in need of renovation increasingly piquing the interest of prospective buyers, the past decade has seen a surge in demand for "doer upper" lots at auction, acting as a short-term investment.

"I think that the current property market, because of affordability, is actually forcing some first-time buyers to consider a fix-me-upper, because it's going to be cheaper," says Oguntonade.

"Back in the day, people compromised to have two bedrooms instead of three bedrooms, or they might move miles away from their family home. Nowadays, people compromise by buying a house that doesn't have a working kitchen, because that's all they can do to get on the property ladder."

It's a comment that sees O'Brien nod along in agreement. And with the pandemic causing many to prioritise renovations over holidays, clothes and other luxuries - primarily due to increased downtime and disposable income - the trend for transforming living space has continued post-lockdown.

But with home ownership - and the freedom to renovate - remaining all but a pipedream for many hopeful first-time buyers, does revamping an auction property remain a viable alternative?

As with many public events, the lockdown period saw physical auctions move online in a bid to sustain business and reduce the spread of Covid. It's a move O'Brien says has taken the "intimidation" out of "terrifying" auction rooms, meaning buyers are less likely to be outsmarted by "wolves and sharks" who regularly frequent property auctions.

"Now, of course, you can sit in your kitchen with a latte," he laughs with a sly smile. "I think it's very, very unlikely that property auctions will ever go back to the auction house. The auctioneers themselves have said they got the technology right. But they've also found that a lot more ordinary people who aren't landlords or property developers will now bid on properties."

That being said, both presenters are the first to admit that property renovation isn't for everyone. Describing The Great House Giveaway as a litmus test for prospective developers, O'Brien says both audiences and participants will get "a very good idea" of whether or not a life of dust and overalls is for them.

Oguntonade concurs, noting that when it comes to two strangers working together, "keeping communication lines open" is of the utmost importance.

One thing O'Brien is keen to note, though, is the value of "girl power". Reflecting on the contestant dynamics that made easy work of the often six-month-long projects, he agrees with his co-star when he says communication is the common thread linking the successful pairings.

"I have unquestionably noticed the partnerships that usually do very well - and most often do the best - are all women," says O'Brien. "Women are just much better communicators, even when it's going badly."

Recounting moments during filming where disagreements occurred, O'Brien says that, in spite of their differences, the female pairings nearly always came out stronger. It's a dynamic which, the presenter says, allows him to "breathe a sigh of relief".

"Even if they're not actually being pleasant, they still continue to communicate. Whereas once you get a male ego involved in that high-pressure situation and it goes wrong, they just clam up - and getting them to open up again is very hard indeed.

"Our show demonstrates that it's tough," he adds, noting that those who take the plunge when it comes to restoration are ultimately "romantics".

"If you put two strangers into that mix, well, where anything can happen."

The Great House Giveaway returns to Channel 4 tonight, 9pm.

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