Have you always been interested in setting up homes and presentation, what ignited your interest in interior design?
Any work I have done in my entire life has had to do with the home. Even before I was first married I bought a house on a shoestring, aged 22. We were looking in a leafy university town in Michigan, US and an old house came on the market listed for $22,000 in a neighbourhood where prices were usually around $35-40,000. The house was a disaster; it had all the flaws that I now condemn on House Doctor – peeling wallpaper, leaking roof, bad carpet and so on, but I could see the potential. I had no experience of real estate or property at that time and I said well if they’re asking $22,000 let’s offer $22,250 to make sure we win the bidding. So for $250 I secured my first house.
Did you enjoy doing it up?
I loved it. I think that was where I learned the most about how to do things. I was making my own curtains, hanging my own wallpaper, doing my own painting and decorating, staining floors and refinishing furniture. It wasn’t too long after that that I moved to California and sold that house for about $65,000, which was a good profit at that time. Then I bought another house in California, kept it for a year and made $40,000. The funny thing is, when I went to put that house on the market it was referred to an estate agent and when she listed the house she said to me ‘You should go into real estate, I think you’d be really good at it’, but at the time I was busy working and moving so I didn’t think much about it.
Then while I was at my house a couple were drove by and stopped and looked at the sign, so I asked them if they wanted to come in and look around, and gave them my best sales spiel and on the spot they decided to buy it! When we went back to the agent to write up the offer, I saw the commission she was making – in California you make six per cent, not the normal two, then it goes to the broker and you get whatever your split is with you broker – so I was like ‘Wait a minute, that’s not bad for a few days work!’ After that I decided to study for the real estate exam and began a career selling real estate, which I did for about 13 years.
How did you transfer your skills from selling houses to staging them for sale?
After those years my interest was started to wane – we were working Saturdays, Sundays and evenings and I was a single mum at the time – and I had a friend who did the staging for me, it’s very common in the US. So I asked her to let me work with her as her assistant, just for free, and I realised I preferred it to selling real estate. So I sold my house, moved in with my partner, changed careers and decided to study interior design. I was lucky because people I knew in real estate and past clients of mine were ringing me saying, ‘I hear you’re doing design, will you come and stage this house’.
Then you brought those skills to the UK with House Doctor. Were you looking to get into the media?
Oh no! I was actually happy in my fully-fledged interior design business for which I did less staging and more full on design for about ten years. During that time I became friends with Jo Cassidy, who was quite well known at that time because she had written a lot of books on decorative art and decoration, and she came to San Francisco and stayed at my house at the time I was staging a home. She was a brilliant and curious woman, and said ‘Ooh what is this you Americans do? Preparing a home for sale? You spend money on it you’re fixing it up before you sell it?’ And I said, ‘Well yes, it’s very common in San Francisco’. She thought it was very interesting and when she got back to London she told her daughter about it who had just taken on a BBC programme called Home Front. I got a call from their producer who wanted to know all about it and that was it, my first foray into UK TV. So they flew me over to London and we started filming in Reading. It was just after the recession in the 90s and we took a home that had been on the market for over a year and I did what I do. It was almost like a mini House Doctor programme and the house sold within a week for the full asking price. I heard at that time that they had a huge response to that programme because people wanted to know what I was doing.
It was a year later after I’d done another spot on Home Front that I got a call asking me to do a pilot for the ‘House Doctor’ programme and couldn’t believe it when they called me a few weeks on and said ‘They’ve commissioned it!’ It was odd at first, but really I was just doing what I do and saying what I say, while a camera followed me around. The editing was something I had to get used to though, but I got wise to it quite quickly.
You must enjoy new challenges then?
Absolutely. My partner calls me a hobo, he says that any train that goes by I don’t have to know where it’s going but I will jump on it if I’ve never ridden it before. So the series went on for seven or eight years. Channel Five was a new channel and they were doing really well, it was their top rated programme. I started to get bored and told them, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore, I could do this standing upside down’, but they said ‘Oh you have to, people love it’ so I started doing other challenges as well, like my teaching.
How did you find that British people reacted to this new star of home staging?
Well I think initially they were pretty shocked because no one had ever come in and said, ‘Number one; you need to do something to your house before you sell it. Number two; it’s going to cost you some money. Number three; it’s not about what you like any more.’ I think people were a bit shocked at first but as the programme became more popular and as the concept expanded people understood. It got easier as time went by.
You’re well known for being very frank and forthright in trying to teach people how to change their homes for the better – it must have been quite tricky at times?
Yes, well I have to say I think that the image that made it to the screen was a bit more severe than I was in real life. They didn’t have any of the parts where I was chatting to the people and being all friendly, they didn’t have any of that. Because that would be boring wouldn’t it? The kind of response I got from the general public was always very supportive. I think viewers took my position because they could see what was actually going on, whereas the participants were only seeing what they wanted to see.
Did you see a change in attitudes as you moved through the series’?
Oh definitely. When I first started doing the House Doctor programme things were pretty dire. There wasn’t much awareness, but now every time you pick up a magazine or turn on the television or listen to the news there’s always something about property, about how to increase the value of your property. People’s awareness is so much higher now.
I think the media has a lot to do with it, but I also think post the 1990s recession the property boom happened and when that started happening people began to see their homes not just as a place for them and their family to live in but also, if we do this and we sell it we can make X and then buy this. All of a sudden it became a game in how to maximise the investment. People were becoming very wealthy in property all of a sudden. I think simultaneously the awareness was raised but also the market and its expansion had a lot to do with it.
Do you have any advice for homeowners wanting to sell in the current volatile market, should they try and stay put for now?
It’s hard to say what the market is going to do. We’ve seen markets like this in California for years, where you will see five to seven years of extremely high inflation in property prices and increase in values then, just like the stock market, it takes a dive or levels off and you have to wait for it to recover. This is an extremely interesting time worldwide economically. It’s not just a small segment of a country itself because really you look at the economy all together and people aren’t really sure where it’s going. I would say if you are not forced to sell, then I wouldn’t sell today, unless you’ve got something to buy to replace it. It’s definitely worth seriously considering whether you can get what you want out of your current house with a little more money and attention.
But I think it doesn’t matter if it’s a bull or a bear market, if your home is properly prepared and staged then you’re going to be winning. If it’s a really fast market and everything is selling then yours will just sell for that much more and if nothing’s selling or things are selling very slowly, then you’ve got a leg up on the competition.
You teach a popular home-staging course in the UK now, is your lecturing another side that you really enjoy?
It is actually, yes. I started doing the courses five years ago. I met this young woman, and the long and the short of it is that we designed the courses together and started the first two-day introduction to home staging. Interestingly enough, not only has the awareness of the public changed, the people who come to the courses have changed as well. When we first started people were either like, ‘Ooh we want to come and see Ann Maurice ‘The House Doctor’’, or ‘I have a house maybe I should do it up’. Now nearly everyone who comes to the course wants to do this as a career. So then we added another day on to the two days and that became the introductory business course. We also added a week long hands on course that’s very small – around 18-20 people – and we go in and makeover a house. There’s lots of experience in colour, shelf dressing, photography, clutter clearing and feng shui. It’s all well and good to understand it in theory, but unless you actually get in there and do it with someone critiquing you, you never actually get the hands on experience.
On the three-day introductory basic courses there’s also the chance to sign up to our mentor programme which involves six months of mentoring with the senior workers, as well as three projects and regular reports. At the end of it, if the participant has passed everything, then they can join ‘The House Doctor Network’ which means that they are endorsed by my name. Then there are further requirements to become a senior consultant and a master consultant. I would be very hesitant to put my name behind somebody who had only sat through a three-day course. I want to know that they know how to do it, so if you’re not good enough, you don’t get the qualification.
You own houses around the world, did you redesign them yourself?
Oh gosh, they are my dream homes. I’ve been in San Francisco there for 15 years now and it’s very nice, it’s got a view of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz and is very traditional San Francisco city living. There’s a big warm space for an office with a terrace off that and one wall full of bookshelves, and it’s got a great entertainment space, a bar area and dining area and so on. It’s an open and beautiful space to spend time. I go up in the morning to check emails and watch the boats go by and the seagulls fly.
After that we brought Mexico, which was an early 700’s Spanish Colonial style. We brought the apartment next door, combined them and did a total refurbishment. It’s very different, Mexican, colonial and over the top. It’s kind of a fantasy home.
We’ve also just acquired another house in the desert in California, near Palm Springs, which is what they call a ‘50s house’. It’s quite small with a pool and a Jacuzzi and 21 palm trees and it’s all open and glass. And to make life more interesting we’re also building a house in the countryside in Mexico from scratch – it’s going to be very different, we’re almost finished now. It’s a little bit of hacienda and a little bit more contemporary.
That’s a lot of different styles!
That’s the problem, some people will stay in one house and continue to refine their personal style, but I have too many ideas and it’s harder to decorate when you’re personally involved.. I love old colonial as well as very traditional, sophisticated San Francisco. Then there’s the beautiful simple 1950s look and then the country style and I suppose if I had a house in the UK it would be completely different as well. I love the very stylish old homes in England, where the old is mixed with the new, antiques and artwork intermingled with new furniture in an elegant way.
Colour is always very important in your staging; do you have one that you gravitate to?
It obviously depends on where you are, and whether you are interior designing or staging, but I would say across the board that I’m a fan of various shades and tones of green. I’m very much a green person.
How do you relax?
I go shopping. Every time I’m in a new place I like to see what’s out there. I like to go to art galleries, museums and markets… I absolutely love markets. I’m a treasure hunter, I never go into the big department stores and pay full price.
Is there anything you can’t live without in all your homes?
I have to have flowers definitely. I have to have fragrance, oils and candles, my books and a good light to read in bed with. For me home has always been very important, I feel like that is my sanctuary, so the first thing I do after I’ve been away for a long time is to go out and buy flowers. I just do those little touches and it comes alive again.
What do you have next in store?
Well I’ve got my books, lecturing and more television programmes coming out, but I’ll just take it as it comes, but I’m pretty much like that anyway I don’t force the river. I’ve just gone with the flow and kept a positive attitude to keep open to what the universe has to offer.