It's really quite something to imagine Laura de Barra cutting a swathe through London's cutthroat and largely male property sector. Scarlet of lip and sweary of gob, Cork-born Laura, a portfolio developer for a property investment company, has absolutely no truck with what she calls the "dick-measuring" side of the business.
"I'm always asked if I'm the secretary when I'm making an offer on a property," the 34-year-old tells me. "My mum is a secretary, so I'm like, 'Yeah, I wish I was that organised'. But what they mean is, 'Where is the man?'
"But instead of being all, 'I am woman, hear me roar' about it, I'm more, 'I am woman, watch me. You are about to learn something here'."
Whatever about sexism, the property business is also rife with classism.
"I don't even bother getting involved in all that stuff there, all 'What private school did you go to?'" de Barra says. "I'm like, 'Girl, you're 23, in those shoes and you're asking me about my school?' Once you get to my age, none of that matters."
De Barra, who has lived in London since 2015, made an interesting career pivot a couple of years ago. A fashion designer for the high street, she was tiring of the breakneck pace of the business ("It was like, 'Kendall Jenner's left the house in a pink duster coat. We need one now'") and moved into what is known as 'tszujing', or staging/decorating properties. She now looks after a portfolio of rentals in the UK capital. And, thanks to her new book, she is being touted as the straight-talking 'queen of SHE-IY'.
Gaff Goddess professes to take the sting out of tackling household emergencies and general maintenance, and encourages readers to take control of their own living spaces (while saving themselves a few quid to boot).
For renters or homeowners alike, de Barra believes that everyone should feel happy and comfortable in their own living space.
This is not a book that instructs its readers to buy a nice Insta-friendly lamp or rug. There are deeply unglamorous hacks, like unblocking a U-bend, fixing a washing machine or grouting a bathroom, through to revamping spaces on small budgets. The manual itself is illustrated by de Barra, who finishes most of her chapters with a #safeandchic hashtag.
It all began on Instagram, as these things often do. Coming up against a sizeable cohort of tradespeople in her line of work, she was soon grappling with the good, the bad and the downright cowboy. It made good professional sense to brush up on the basics.
"Even now, they still f*** me over," she says. "That does not end [with experience]. When I first started this job, I was picking the décor packs for each place, and I'd get into a flat that would be in bits and I realised I'd have to get someone in. After a while, I started to realise, 'Oh, I can probably fix that myself'. Or some old guy would tell me he could come in two days, which would be the day I'm supposed to stage the property, not have my hand down a toilet."
De Barra is at pains to note that not all tradies are cut from the same cloth, but not knowing the basics lays a person open to a budget possibly inching upwards.
"I met a plumber recently who admitted to me that another plumber he knew would basically go up into the attic and bang his hammer for an hour, even if it was just a simple job that took minutes," reveals de Barra. "But it happens in every industry."
The many topics covered in the book, from ventilation and bleeding radiators to treating bathroom mould, are all the things de Barra has "been shafted over".
"I started going into DIY stores and I'd just ask more and more questions," she adds. "I always say that asking questions doesn't make you seem dumber - it makes you smarter. Then I was looking up YouTube tutorials, manuals, books… and I realised that there was absolutely no information out there."
De Barra realised that she was onto something when she managed to silicone her own bath for the first time, saving herself a significant sum. Later, she repainted her own kitchen.
"That was a really great moment," she smiles. "I'd paid someone else 800 quid to do that before, and I watched them every day thinking, 'Another coffee break, is it?'
"There were two ends of the DIY spectrum," she adds. "On one side it was very girlie, like 'Don't forget your pink hammer and don't wake your man up from his nap', but on the other end, it was like a real boys' club where people were very 'What are you doing here? We are the experts'. I don't want to be an expert, I just want to know what's going on in my space. I wanted to be able to fix things. I'm so capable in every other part of my life, so why am I stopped from being capable within my home?"
De Barra began amassing various hacks and how-to guides for her professional clients after she noticed that one tenant, a successful young financier, hadn't changed the bathroom light-bulb in six months and was too embarrassed to ask anyone to fix it.
"Can you believe it?" she says. "These people have amazing jobs in the city, but have been peeing and showering in the dark for six months. The guy told me that if it had been his house, he's have paid someone 80 quid to fix that."
Soon, she was creating illustrated manuals as house-warming presents for friends who had recently moved home. She shared the results on her (then private) Instagram page, and her how-to videos began amassing a following of their own through word of mouth.
"I was like, 'Why do people not know this?' We are completely capable, but we were obviously doing something else and keeping ourselves busy when we were supposed to learn this," says de Barra. "We also rent, so it's not ours, and we don't have the love, or want to spend money for the space."
It wasn't long before publishers began to take note. Clearly, someone somewhere has seen not just a gap in the market of renters and millennials needing to brush up on DIY, but a burgeoning trend of Instagrammers moving into the domestic realm, with much success.
Mention the phenomenally successful influencer/author Mrs Hinch, who dispenses cleaning hacks to her three million followers, and de Barra baulks at the comparison. Don't be expecting any Gaff Goddess influencer tours any time soon, in a word.
"Look, I have one boss, and I don't want a second boss [in Instagram]," de Barra affirms. "The thing that makes Mrs Hinch flourish is that she's unique. Jumping on that trend is pointless. Besides, I'm absolutely shite at Instagram. There are so many people that are so good at it, and they should do it. I don't even know if I obey the rules of it properly. I have a nice job, and I love it. I don't need another one."
Of the breezy, personable tone of the book, de Barra notes: "I didn't want to make things too technical, like it's a secret club you have to be in. I remember making up a video on how to clean the dishwasher, and I was so chuffed with myself, and I'd saved 90 quid.
"If you go to a makeup counter, it's like there's an older sister telling you not to wear something this way and not to do things that way. Where is that for DIY?"
Which prompts the question: do women need SHE-IY? What is wrong with plain old-fashioned DIY? De Barra notes that despite its glossy veneer, Gaff Goddess is not a manual aimed at women, or even just at millennials. She is open to all comers; all comers, that is, who don't know a stopcock from a washer.
"This is not a book that's just for women," she affirms. "A lot of my friends that are male love it. It's glam, it's fun, they don't see it as a girls' book. I think the language in it is quite neutral. I always said it's like if Cher and Bette Midler wrote a DIY manual while having cocktails. It's more for people who have good taste and have a fun sense of humour."
Referring to the book cover's snakeskin hammer and lippy, de Barra adds: "That's more to add camp value. This is not 'Bring your tits and vagina down here and let's do this, no boys allowed'. It's not 'Get your lipstick on, girls'. It's more like, 'Come on, let's do this'. What I'm saying is, 'This stuff isn't that hard. I'm doing it wearing lipstick, sure. Don't be afraid'."
Gaff Goddess, de Barra points out, is not designed to usurp the professionals: "At the end of the day, knowing when to get someone into the house is powerful," she explains. "I never look at a project that I need help with and think that I've failed. It's more that I know now when I need to call someone. I know this sounds really cheesy, but imagine if people started feeling that they felt better in their home, and didn't feel so f***ed over if they rented somewhere."
From the vantage point of London, how does the Irish rental/property market look to her now?
"London is quite competitive in a different way," de Barra observes. "It's designed for people to share, and Dublin isn't built like that as much. If you pay 800 quid for a room, you get an 800 quid room. I paid 400 quid and had mushrooms in my wardrobe, but I didn't care because I got pissed with the rest of that money. Here [in Dublin], you will pay 800 quid for a 400 quid room. There's a real mentality of 'digs' here, like you're living in someone else's space and you're not meant to do anything with it," she adds. "In London, people are really aware of the laws and their rights. Here, it's like, you're lucky to be renting at all."
De Barra briefly moved from her native Cork to Dublin, and from there she headed to Edinburgh, where she completed her fashion degree in 2013. She grew up in an all-female household in Cork, and notes that she learned much about her work ethic, and outlook, from her mum.
"It wasn't that my dad wasn't around, but my parents separated and then divorced, and my mum wouldn't have been calling my dad if something went wrong in the house," de Barra recalls. "I started working when I was 13, and I've always been one to do things on my own. No one was going to fix my mum's problems for her and that's how we were raised. It's like Paul Costello says, Irish women are at their best when they are under pressure, and that's so true."
This brilliantly bolshie spirit is writ large all over Gaff Goddess, and in the book's acknowledgements, de Barra writes: "A special, smaller thank you is reserved for those who put me in positions where I was forced to understand the true power of self-belief, hard work, SHE-IY and a red lipstick." On which, she elaborates: "I genuinely meant that for everyone who put me into a bad situation, from a handyman who screwed me over to an ex-boyfriend. I hope you see my book and I hope everyone you date for the rest of your life has a copy of my book. And then they dump you afterwards.
"I'm like Super Mario - I've been collecting all these coins and added to them, and each time I've learned something," she adds. "So it's more like a thank you to those people, for opening up an opportunity where I got to prove something to myself."
'Gaff Goddess; Simple Tips and Tricks to Help You Run Your Home' by Laura de Barra is out on February 6 via Transworld Ireland (€15.99, hardback). Laura's Instagram is instagram/com/lauradebarra
Photography by Steve Humphreys
Viewing any property — as a renter or a buyer — can be super daunting. There are a lot of emotions involved so it can be hard to remember to be practical and look at the bigger picture. Because of this, we can totally forget to check the things that will affect our daily life in the property even though these are usually the easiest things to check. We’ve all been there, moved in on day one to realise we have zero phone coverage and there’s an ancient immersion that requires us to get up an hour earlier every day. To help avoid this, I use the below SWISH method. It’s a simple and straightforward list to keep in mind during your viewings and I find it also helps me to get to know the property much better in a limited time. So next time you’re at a viewing, don’t forget to SWISH!
This is something you will use every day so it’s really important to suss out. When you’re at your viewing, run every shower (and taps!) in the property. If water pressure is a deal-breaker for you, you’ll spot it now.
Don’t forget to make sure the water is running on a medium heat. When it’s just cold water flowing, the pressure will always be stronger so it’s good to get a realistic idea of what your morning shower will be like and if you’re okay with the pressure.
Running showers and taps will also let you know if there are any issues such as leaks or damage that either need to be sorted before moving in, or popped on your to-do list.
Assessing the shower or bath will also highlight if the shower is wall-mounted, which many people will not want to live without.
Open every white good and throw an eye (and a nose) over its condition. These will usually be the fridge, freezer, washing machine, oven, hob and so on. You’re going to be living with these items so don’t avoid getting to know them now.
The things you’re looking for are power, mould, water settling in places it shouldn’t, smell, cleanliness and overall appearance. It’s best to be aware of the condition of each so you can factor it into your offer.
Depending on whether you’re renting or buying, you’ll need to check if the property will be professionally cleaned, or find out if white goods are included in the sale or if you need to start saving for new ones.
Instant Hot Water
This is something people usually forget to check, as naturally we are looking at all the glorious parts of a potential new home. If you’re not an early riser and the thought of having to wait for hot water in the morning is your idea of a nightmare, always check if you have instant hot water! While you’re at it, check out the general condition of your boiler and if the water gets as hot as you like.
If you work from home or like to make a lot of calls/browse the internet, don’t forget this point! While you check out each room, don’t forget to check your phone’s signal, especially if you’ll be signing a contract you cannot get out of.
Most network providers will provide a Wi-Fi booster should you experience a low signal indoors, so if you are currently suffering with this problem, check these out. If you are taking a broadband service with you, check beforehand if they can service the address and if in an apartment block, if they will have permission to carry out the necessary drilling of cables. Finally, always check out what the broadband speed will be.
There are a few areas to assess here. Does it have central heating, or electric heaters/ storage heaters and do you have strong preferences for one over the other? This will make a difference to how you live and what you pay per month.
You’ll also need to note things like single glazing, draughts and any other issues that could mean your home may be hard to heat. If the current tenant is there, don’t be too shy to ask about their current utility bill spend, it will give you an idea of how easy it is to heat. All of this will be super helpful should you need to decide between two properties.