Friday 22 September 2017

'Sell before you buy. Absolutely. I would have died of sleepless nights if we hadn't'

Helen Dillon
Helen Dillon

One of last year's big sales was the home of Helen Dillon, 77, pictured above, and her husband and antique dealer Val, 80, on Sandford Terrace in Dublin 6. It was a spot well-known to gardeners as Helen, an author and expert horticulturist, had cultivated a half-acre showpiece in her 45 years there.

The house went to market priced at €4.6m with selling agent Geralyn Byrne of Sherry FitzGerald in April last year. Within a month it had sold to an Irish buyer for €4.5m

"It all happened completely suddenly," says Helen now. "We didn't think about it. We'd always said never [about downsizing]. My husband always said he was going out in his wooden overcoat.

"I always thought what I'd do when I got old and decrepit or when I got older and more decrepit. I thought, well, I'll quietly look out the window and watch nature take it all back again. And that will be very slow and it'll be very beautiful and I'll be very relaxed about it.

"In actual fact, I wasn't at all going to be vastly relaxed about it because I'd be dying to get out and sort it out and do things, and rescue them and repot them and all that stuff that goes on. Then the people up the road got quite a good price for their house and I suddenly thought, well, why don't we sell and have a new place to play in because, for me, the garden is a playground.

"I never really thought of it as downsizing," says Helen. "In our particular case, it was really a moving-on operation to do with gardening, to do with the fact that the old garden had become very old. What people don't understand about old gardens is that they get more complicated. They are not in the blissful state of being empty, when you are buying plants and putting them in and saying, 'isn't it wonderful'."

The couple have bought a 1960s bungalow in Monkstown set in an old orchard and surrounded by high, granite walls. "It was quite hard to find anything. The trouble is it is very difficult to find a reasonable house with a reasonable-sized garden. There were quite a lot of nice houses that didn't have big gardens."

In fact, securing a new home was the nerve-wracking part of the process. "It was a bit rattling when we couldn't find something. We sold about May. We didn't really see this house until September I'd say, and we'd been looking a lot of the time… Everyone says it's a terrible stress and it is a terrible stress, and I didn't notice it was and I got very bad shingles."

They have set about doing a complete refurbishment. "What we're really doing is just about knocking down our house, making most of the rooms into one big room and having two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen and one enormous living room."

Helen adds: "For me, the aspect of the house is terribly important and I think that would apply even if I wasn't interested in gardening. Sun and light in the middle of winter in Ireland - the difference between north facing and south facing is huge."

But it's the garden that sold the house to them. "It's got a virtually empty garden. It's not as big, but it's virtually empty, which is wonderful."

It is also near the sea and in a different micro-climate. "That is the treat. That is the bit I didn't believe in. You wouldn't believe how well my plants are looking and stuff like quite early geraniums and alstroemerias are virtually in flower and it's only March. It's very exciting. Very few people get the fun of starting again at my age.

"Which plants I was going to take was an enormous question," says Helen. "Really the first thing you want to take is stuff that's not going to be easy to get again. In a lot of cases you don't need to take the whole plant, you need to get the cuttings rooted before you move. I'm trying to just take the plants I'm absolutely mad about.

"Is there anything I will miss? I think I'm speaking truthfully. I don't think so because I'm moving on to a different thing. There's no comparison. And lots of things I'm bringing with me. Things that really matter a lot like the birds and the dogs. I have a big outdoor aviary which can move from place to place very easily."

What would she advise those contemplating downsizing? "Sell before you buy. Absolutely. I would have died of sleepless nights if we hadn't done that."

"I hope that we're right, but I think it's a very happy move. It was just the right time."

Sunday Independent

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