Pretty pennies can be made from ugly buildings

By developer Ritchie Clapson CEng MIStructE, propertyCEO

There are two basic rules to remember when it comes to understanding how to win good property deals: avoid as much competition as possible by looking where other developers aren’t; know how to make more profit from a property than the other people looking at it. And there are three key components to every successful property development strategy: profit; risk; knowing where to look.

Ritchie Clapson


Assuming you are looking for a 20% return on each project’s selling price, if you want to make £100k, you will need a project where the units sell for £500k. Similarly, if you’re going to make a million, your project will need to have a sales value (a.k.a. gross development value or GDV) of £5m. Most people we train would be looking to create a profit of between £100k and £500k from each project, which places them firmly in the small-scale development category.


You want to be able to avoid as much risk as possible for a whole host of reasons, not least your ability to sleep soundly at night. Similarly, you will want to make sure you are able to get your projects completed quickly.

How do you achieve this?

My first recommendation is to stick to small-scale developments. A bigger project may mean more profits and will involve less than ten times the work on your part, but it can easily involve ten times the stress and ten times the risk.

My second recommendation would be to avoid having to apply for full planning permission. You will be relieved to know this does not mean building a block of flats and hoping that no one at the council notices. Instead, it means using permitted development rights (PDRs) to change the use of an existing building without the need to apply for full planning permission.

PDRs are rights granted by the government that allow us, among other things, to convert commercial buildings to residential use without the need for full planning permission. In England, since 1st August 2021, it has been possible to convert a much wider range of properties into residential without the need to apply for full planning permission. To give you some idea, you can now convert shops, cafes, restaurants, banks, financial and professional services buildings, gyms, light industrial buildings, offices, doctors’ surgeries, medical or health services buildings, creches, day nurseries, and indoor sports centres.

Where to look

Office conversions are becoming popular, after all, it’s usually relatively easy to see how an office building could be converted to flats because the windows are in the right place and there’s usually a provision for parking. Retail conversions will also turn a few heads, given the proliferation of empty units and the perennial desirability of urban living (at least for those who weren’t climbing the walls during lockdown). Again, it’s relatively easy to see how retail uppers could be converted into apartments, as many already have been all over the country.

But if offices and shops will be where most people look, they’ll fall foul of rule number one. Look past the opportunity most people are drooling over towards the least attractive one that almost everyone overlooks: ugly can be beautiful when it comes to property development. By the same token, we need to make sure there are enough of these ugly opportunities available, otherwise, the strategy could be over before it’s begun. So, what is the ugliest building type on the list where there is still a plentiful supply? The sweet spot for my money is light industrial.

Here’s why.

Light Industrial

Light industrial buildings are buildings that house industrial processes and are located in a residential area. This proximity to other homes is an obvious benefit since we don’t want to convert properties that are in the middle of nowhere or on an industrial estate. Nearly every town in the country has hundreds of these buildings. Most have grown organically, sometimes without planning permission, over the last century or so. Walk down any number of streets near the town centre, and you’ll see plenty of them, often hiding in plain sight. Many are little more than four walls and a roof, the idea being to create a large open-plan space that can house whatever business is being run there. Printing works, MOT centres, workshops, car repairers, widget manufacturers – there’s a long list of businesses that will occupy light industrial units. And it’s fair to say that the vast majority of these buildings are not what you’d call ‘lookers’ – they’re quite the opposite.

As a result, when most people look at a light industrial building, they don’t immediately think about the great opportunity to convert it into apartments. Instead, they wonder who would possibly want to live in such an ugly old building and decide that it would need to be knocked down to start again. This immediately removes most of the competition since the cost of demolishing and then rebuilding from scratch will be far more than simply converting what’s already there. This is excellent news, as it satisfies rule number one: ditch the competition.

Most light industrial buildings will be built on a thick concrete slab. This slab will typically extend across the entire floor plate and should be more than sufficient to support a residential building. This means that wherever you want to build a wall, you already have a nice firm base in place. In many cases, the base may even be deep enough to support a multi-storey residential building: two storeys is always going to be more profitable than one.

And most light industrial buildings are open plan, unlike office buildings which tend to have supporting pillars and stairwells dotted around. This makes for far fewer constraints in terms of the layout of your flats. It is relatively straightforward to upgrade the walls, floor, and roof to residential specification, plus your contractor will love you since they can do most of the work inside, under cover (rain isn’t much fun to work in and can even stop play). Light industrial buildings also tend to have significant headroom. This could not only allow you to add a second storey or to create vaulted ceilings, but you also have room to raise the floor to accommodate insulation and pipework underneath. And since you’re not disturbing the existing concrete base, any potential contamination issues lying underneath it will remain equally undisturbed.

An addition benefit of choosing to convert light industrial buildings lies in most people’s inability to see past an ugly façade. Surely you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, they’ll think. I’m reminded of this argument each time I see the eye-watering cost of flats converted from the old wharf buildings on the Thames or the loft apartments in New York. A few generations ago, living in one of these buildings would have been unheard of, yet now they’re eminently desirable, with prices to match. Rather than try to mask their heritage, the developers have made a feature of it. I won’t pretend that the old printing works on Commercial Street has the same kerb-appeal as a wharf conversion overlooking Tower Bridge. But the same principle applies, and a good architect be able to sort the external appearance, and they will also be able to incorporate heritage design cues and features that add both interest and value. And when the competition is a bevy of uninspiring, lookalike flats, your more characterful, individual units will certainly gain an edge.

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