In January 2013, I was 24 years old, and Tomes Homes was just an idea, a dream to me.
At that point I was working full-time in Market Research in London. I'd always wanted to run my own business, and have something that I could truly be proud of, but I never had any of the genius ideas like you see on The Apprentice, or Dragons Den! When I decided to focus on property I didn't really know if it would really be a business or not... but I hoped it would!
The 18 months that followed were the most socially boring of my entire life! I contacted my friends and told them they wouldn't be seeing me anymore because I had to stop spending my money on nights out and start saving up to buy a property instead! I think they thought I was crazy. I cut all except ESSENTIAL expenditure and saved every penny I could. My car got written off so I saved the money and started riding a bike instead; I worked a second job and I even learnt how to 'joint a chicken' because it was the cheapest way to buy chicken in my weekly shop!
When I tried to get a buy-to-let mortgage agreed, I got laughed at in the face by banks and mortgage brokers alike, not to mention. the fact that Estate agents just didn't take me seriously. Being a young female with hardly any money trying to get into property was really hard. On more than one occasion I definitely questioned if I was crazy to be going down this path!
But after 18 months of saving, researching, not taking no for an answer I started to make some progress...
The photo of me in the red top was taken (by me!) on 25th July 2014. I'd scraped together the 15% deposit required to buy a property for £108,500 and had just completed on the very first 'Tomes Home'. A 1-bedroom flat in Erith on the South-East London/Kent borders. It wasn't pretty - as you can see from the photos below!
After paying for the deposit for the property (approx. £16,000, plus legal fees, plus stamp duty) I was pretty light on available funds! So armed with my credit card I marched off to B&Q and Topps Tiles to buy the materials for the refurb.
To be able to do the best refurbishment possible on my limited funds I did as much of the work myself as I possibly could! I pulled up the dirty, old carpets and took endless trips to the dump to get rid of the rubbish that had been left! I designed the kitchen, collected the many boxes of tiles and delivered them to the flat.
I was lucky to find George (who you can see in the photo below) who did an amazing job on all the skilled elements of the refurb and who I'm proud to say we still work with to this day! Together, George and I (with help from my boyfriend Dave), got the whole refurb completed in less than 4 weeks (whilst I was still juggling my job in Market Research, and Dave was working as a busy professional musician!).
When the property went on the market for rent we were INUNDATED with enquiries as the quality of the property was just way above the usual standard for the area. Within less than a week we had over 30 viewings booked in! And a couple of weeks later a lovely teaching assistant moved into the property as her first home of her own.
We were EXHAUSTED, but I was also SO EXCITED at what we had achieved. I thought if I could just keep my head down and keep saving over the years that followed that I could replicate this and start to create something really special.
After the success of the first property, Dave (who is now my husband!) who had formerly been a huge support of my venture but not a driving force, got completely on board. So together the two of us set on to build this together - the beginnings of a family business.
Our origins as a family business were firmly solidified when Dave's brothers, Mike & Rob became our first investors! They were followed by a select and wonderful group of other investors outside our family. Thanks to the faith these wonderful people showed in us, we were able to replicate this process another 10 times in the next 12 months! Whilst we were both working full-time jobs!!
It was the craziest, messiest, most exciting time of my life so far. From the ground up we were building something that we could truly be proud of.
Here's the 10 kitchens that we created in 2015!! No prizes for guessing our favourite tile that year!
In 2015 we started to build a team to support us - it was wonderful that two of my best friends were able to get involved at this phase of the Tomes Homes Journey. The sheer volume of work was completely overwhelming so it was wonderful to start having support. I stopped making trips to B&Q and the tip and I threw out my paint-stained, work-woman clothes - the days of working on site were behind me I decided!
As we had grown so fast we hadn't built any of the systems or processes that a business needed to be able to function! So in 2015 we really started to focus on ensuring we had the right 'behind the scenes' infrastructure to be able to run the properties professionally and smoothly. We've since discovered that this is a shift not many property companies seemed to do very well, and has become one of the things that really sets us apart.
Thanks to the business-strategy support we were receiving, 2016 was also the year that we realised how Values-driven we were, and that this was also not usual for businesses in the property industry! It helped us to understand why we were really struggling with some of the early relationships we'd formed - because we were not aligned on how we wanted to do business. This changed who we wanted to work with, and has formed the basis of the incredible people who we work with throughout the business today.
2016 saw us get VERY distracted. We started to think property development would be the best way to grow, and at one point were about to forge ahead on a development of of 17 flats. It would have been a hugely naive move to have made as we were not ready and did not understand all the complexities and risk involved. We were very lucky to have an amazing business mentor who got us to realise all this and reasess.
After getting back on track we expanded the area we were creating homes in to Thanet by the Kent coast... and were able to breathe some new life and love into some beautiful buildings, where we moved to buying blocks of flats, rather than individual flats. It was also the year that Dave and I got married! Now officially both life AND business partners.
We welcomed some new wonderful investment partners into the Tomes Homes family for the new projects, and being able to select our investors based on our Values was game-changing. For us it's important to be socially responsible and investment returns should only be achieved through a way that provides a beneficial service to the wider-communities we operate in. Having investors that also valued this was incredible.
It was during this time that we took on our first ever conversion project. A conversion of a former shop with unofficial residential space above, into four flats. It was the hardest project we have ever done. We'll call it our university degree in construction!! At every stage there were huge challenges, and everyone who could have possibly let us down (or screwed us over) did!
There were problems with planning permission, the builder, building control, the development finance company, the utility supply companies, the structural engineer... the list goes on! It got so bad that Dave and I found ourselves back on site labouring and site-managing, and driving hours over the weekend to pick up materials from the other side of Kent. The photo of me in the blue jumper shows one of the low moments that I was trying to make the best of at the time (grimacing through the pain!).
It really brought to life just how grateful we were not to have moved ahead with the 17-flat conversion in 2016, and that this level of risk was not something that suited us.
But we got through it thanks to our combined tenacity and the wonderful builder George who came down from London to bring the project to fantastic conclusion!
Overall, in 2017 we refurbished/created 14 flats. The challenges in making this a reality were huge, and at times we felt like the whole world was against us. There were very few positive things during that year! But I have to highlight 3 of them...
1. My wonderful Dad, Chris started to get involved in the business! My 20-something-year-old-self was still not being taken seriously by the estate agents... but my brilliant Dad looked EXACTLY like you would expect a business owner to look! He started to manage the process of finding future projects, and that worked brilliantly to ease the burden on Dave and I, who were very stretched during this time. It also perfectly suited our values driven, family business vision.
2. Another one of my best friends, Lucinda, joined the team! I do not know how we would have gotten through this time without her. Her ability to forge through tasks to support the projects was incredible. Lucinda (or Lucy!) is the glue that holds Tomes Homes together, I'm so happy we were able to work together (and still do!)
3. The-machine-of-a-builder, George, and his team. When it felt like the industry was against us, he wasn't! He went above and beyond to look after us. He is a hugely important part of the Tomes Homes family, and I'm so grateful for wonderful, kind-hearted and tenacious people like this incredible man.
You can see myself, my Dad, Dave & Lucinda in the photo around the table, and George & his team with the bright blue background (we painted over that!).
Despite the support and tenacity of these wonderful people, the accumulated stress of 2017, (the year nearly everyone screwed us) really took its toll. In 2018, I experienced a number of health issues as a result, and we lost our drive for growing the business. We felt that being in the property industry was like swimming in shark infested waters! And that was not the life we wanted.
We decided to focus on consolidating the business after we had completed our next round of projects (another 15 flats). Even consolidating was hard as we were struggling with energy, health and inspiration.
It wasn't until 2019 that we truly started to recover. The inspiration and drive hadn't gone... it just needed a break so that we could recover the tenacity required to grow a business in such a challenging industry. Part of this reinvigoration was the decision to start self-managing the properties. Until this time we had worked with an external agent who had been great for us, but it was time for us to take full-ownership of this side of the business.
That turned out to be one of the best decisions we ever made. We were able to have a much closer connection with our tenants. Actually, I hate the word 'tenants'! I think it should be customers. Our tenants are our customers, they are the ones that we are there to serve and add-value to their lives. Thanks to this closer-connection we were able to articulate a much bigger vision for the future of Tomes Homes, which is...
We could see a huge gap in the private rented sector - the focus on SERVICE for the tenants. The problem we could see is that for letting agents, their customer is the landlord, so it doesn't put the the tenant at the heart of the service. And whilst there are some great self-managing landlords, generally the sector isn't very business-focused / systems-driven. So it means it isn't a scalable-model that will continue to be great as the business grows.
So we set our course to delivering something different to the norm of the Private Rented Sector. To be a service-driven landlord, supported by slick & efficient systems (like any other great business has!) to be able to grow in a way that can make a meaningful impact to the sector as a whole.
Part of this Vision also includes up-skilling the wider property investment industry by working with other property business owners to ensure they are building great businesses that can provide an excellent service to the wider-community too. We simply can't improve the whole industry all by ourselves! So this means sharing our skills and knowledge through online training programmes, workshops and consultancy.
In order to start building towards this Vision, in 2019/20 we welcomed five new team members!
1. Financial wizard Bernard to keep on top of the finance part of the business to ensure we are healthy, stable and scalable (literally a full-time job in a business like ours!)
2. Rowena - bringing incredible organisation skills to ensure we can look after the other property business owners we work with, and ensure they are getting the support they need
3. Leanna, with her marvellous Marketing skills to spread the good Tomes Homes word
4. Process genius, Lizzie, to streamline our internal systems so that they can support the great team and the overall experience our customers (our tenants) have with us.
5. Cherie, as another Finance-skilled member of the team, to support Bernard with the sheer volume of Finance work required to run the business effectively!
These five brilliant people joined myself, Dave, Lucinda & Chris in the Tomes Homes quest to build great property businesses! For Dave and I it has been wonderful to have the support, collaboration and combined-genius of this team. It means Dave is really able to focus on his strengths which is Analysis & DETAIL, ensuring the business continues to grow sustainably.
From the beginnings in 2013/14 of me doing everything, I am now firmly in charge of just the business strategy. Leading the growth of the business, making sure we are a super-strong team, and raising the profile of the business so that we can ensure we are on the right path to achieving our Vision.
To achieve our Vision of Making Renting Better than owning, we are continuing to take on more projects in Kent, with both existing and new investment partners. We know there are many challenges ahead of us to make the Vision a reality, but with the right team, systems, service focus and values we know we will get there.