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'We helped sell a house that was empty for a year in just four days'


Boris Minne having lunch in Love Fish at Deans in Belfast City Centre with Caroline Mawhinney (left) and Jennifer Barr (centre).

Boris Minne having lunch in Love Fish at Deans in Belfast City Centre with Caroline Mawhinney (left) and Jennifer Barr (centre).

Boris Minne having lunch in Love Fish at Deans in Belfast City Centre with Caroline Mawhinney (left) and Jennifer Barr (centre).

There are two puzzling truths about the property sector. Despite all the burnt fingers, dashed hopes, failed dreams and a million unpaid invoices, property and its fluctuating prices remain the favourite dinner party topics in Northern Ireland.

You'd think after the slapping we took we'd know better. But no: news of the slightest movement in the price of a flat, townhouse or Malone Road chateau spreads like spilt wet concrete and property fever is open us.

The second truth is that we hate anybody in the sector: lawyers, estate agents, developers and builders. The only property profession to have escaped any ire, criticism or accusation is the interior designer (and possibly the removals people). Two women who established White Room Interiors in 2007, the very minute the property boom took its last breath, are proof that ingenuity, perception and impeccably good taste will always go hand in hand with successful property transactions.

Caroline Mawhinney and Jennifer Barr have an instinct and capacity for all three.

Caroline is the project management expert with an eye for spatial reasoning, and Jennifer - no slouch at either of these disciplines - brings the keen eye of a fashion designer and an ability to create a mood that will last much longer than passing trends.

Intriguingly, they represent an activity in the property industry that is simultaneously an accurate economic indicator and a sector driver.

"Our first job was for a developer in south Belfast who had built five houses which stood empty for a year," says Caroline. "He hired us to create an interior in one of them. We started on the Thursday and the house sold on the Sunday for £1.2m on the condition that all the interiors remained." White Room Interiors do all sorts of contract work as well as private residential projects - they have even done a styling project on a ship. Over the last five years, they have noticed a change in tastes but also in their habits.

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"Because people can't move houses as easily as when the market was more buoyant," says Jennifer. "They are investing in alterations and extensions, new furniture and interiors. We will be asked for all sorts of styles. One job in Dublin is to fit out a beautiful 200-year-old Georgian terrace, while another is for a modern city apartment."

But what about style? How can anyone possibly know better than the client himself or herself what he or she will want?

"If they've called us in it's because they don't know what to do," says Caroline. "We step in, provide sketches and CGI renderings and let them make informed choices."

Some homes are multi-million pound properties to which they have been given the keys and a cheque and told to get on with it. Others are small flats where the interior design challenge is about maximising space. Many assignments will have ended up costing the owner less than what they might have paid for had they gone it alone. So hiring an interior designer is not necessarily an expensive exercise.

This approach has led them to establish a new operation called Bricks & Mortar (slogan: We Style, You Sell).

Jennifer, a former fashion designer and buyer, says there are many inexpensive ways of presenting a home that will vastly improve its chances of selling.

Whatever the property weather, people like Caroline and Jennifer are in a recession-proof business. And judging some of the homes, offices and restaurants I've been in, we need more like them.

In next week's Working Lunch, Margaret Canning dines with Colin Walsh, chairman of the CBI in Northern Ireland

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