A stairway to nowhere sells for $32,000 in London

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A stairway to nowhere sells for $32,000 in London
In an undated photo from Barnard Marcus Auctions, an enclosed stairwell attached to a building in suburban London that was sold at auction on Aug. 1, 2023. An entrepreneur saw what others didn’t and now owns the unused set of stairs, which are attached to the back of a suburban building. (Barnard Marcus Auctions via The New York Times)

by Claire Moses

LONDON.- Even by the standards of London’s white-hot real estate market, it was a property with seemingly limited appeal: an unused stairwell, attached to the back of a suburban building, next to a parking garage.

Nevertheless, the four-story metal stairwell, enclosed by translucent panels, sold at auction Tuesday morning for 25,000 pounds (about $32,000), 20% more than the starting bid.

Simon Squibb, the longtime entrepreneur who bought the stairwell, said he saw what the property listing called its “development potential.”

Squibb recently co-founded HelpBnk, a company that supports budding entrepreneurs, possibly with the help of his new stairwell.

The plan is to help other people start, or learn to start, companies from the stairwell by offering desks (presumably one on each landing) or to use it to display advertisements, said Jack Whettingsteel, 22, HelpBnk’s chief marketing officer. HelpBnk currently doesn’t have an office space.

The stairwell fell out of use after the office building that it had been a part of was converted into residences in 2016. It also wasn’t being used as a fire escape and can’t be moved elsewhere, according to James Paterson, the negotiator dealing with the property.

The stairwell is in Twickenham, a district in southwest London that is home to England’s national rugby stadium as well as to a venerable film studio. The developers who did the conversion were also the sellers Tuesday.

Paterson said that, while he had sold “many unique things over the years,” the stairwell was a first.

That same sentiment was expressed by the auctioneer in the hotel ballroom in central London where Tuesday’s auction was held.

“This is an interesting lot,” said the auctioneer, Christopher Glenn. In 35 years, “I don’t think I’ve ever sold a vacant stairwell,” he said.

A brief bidding war followed, with some online bidders trying to outbid Squibb, who was in the room, but to no avail. Once the hammer came down, Squibb exclaimed, “We’ve got it!”

Squibb said he would have continued bidding if there had been more competition, saying he was sure he wanted to buy the stairwell. But, he acknowledged, “it’s hard to know what it’s worth.”

He said he would apply for the needed permits to turn the property into the pop-up office, and he would maybe even add some beds. “With the right planning permission, we will sleep there,” he said. (And without it, he said there was always the option of walking up and down the stairs, adding “we’ll all get fit!”)

Squibb had heard about the stairwell only 48 hours before becoming its rightful owner and had not seen it in person. While Squibb said he was happy with his purchase, he said he didn’t want to rent it out or make any money on it. “Housing prices are out of control,” he said.

When asked about utilities like heating, plumbing and Wi-Fi, Squibb said he would find answers to all these questions. And in the worst-case scenario, there’s a Starbucks nearby, he said.

“I’m not sure it’s the best investment,” said Whettingsteel, HelpBnk’s marketing officer, “but we’ll make it into the best investment.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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