Ben Hillman has had an amazingly interesting life and is now the latest presenter on A Place in the Sun for Channel 4. As well as running his own interior design business, he has recently completed a self-build project in Brighton. He talks to Lynda Clark about how it all began and gives his expert advice to first time buyers
Ben is a hands-on sort of guy. His enthusiasm and passion for everything he does is infectious and he embraces life at full speed, which is very refreshing. He grew up in the 80s and his father had a small building and property maintenance business in Brighton. He says, “We worked out of a terraced house and the office was in the basement, with a separate entrance. The guys turned up there to find out what their various jobs for the day were and I remember always having a chat with them. So, I think that, without me knowing it, there was a seed planted in my mind that I would eventually go into property. Times were different then and it was during the time when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. My parents bought and renovated a terraced house, which had originally been a shop in the North Laines. My mum used to take me there after school and I remember when there was no roof on the building and standing in the basement and seeing the sky, which was very exciting. When I was older, I used to go out with my dad when he was working to earn a bit of extra money and I loved it. I would go up 15 storeys in a cradle and would think nothing of it, as I was always very hands-on.”
At school, Ben always enjoyed the creative subjects like art and design & technology and he knew that was the direction he was going to take. He did his A-levels at Cardinal Newman sixth form, then went on to do a foundation year at Brighton College of Technology and originally thought he would go into product design. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, except that I wanted to keep life interesting and not get stuck in a nine-to-five job. Looking back, I should really have gone into interior architecture as there was a course at college, but that is with the knowledge of hindsight. During my time at college, I really got into lighting design and designed and launched F-LUX lighting – one of the world’s first portable LED lights – and I also made a prototype furniture design for Conran, but it turned out it was too complicated to make; it was one of those lessons in life”.
Eventually, Ben wanted to move to London and got an internship on Wallpaper magazine. “I applied to be a receptionist there, but suddenly I got a job as their Special Projects Manager. I didn’t know anything and was way out of my depth really, but they just told me that as long as I had a passport, it was go, go, go! I started by going to Milan in Italy as Wallpaper were exhibiting a special house at the Salone del Mobile by an Austrian architect and I had to oversee the project. It was very amusing when the fashion designer, Giorgio Armani came to see the house and mistook me for the architect. It was a fun time and I met all the movers and shakers in the fashion and interiors business, which was quite an eye-opener.”
Ben left Wallpaper and moved on to The White Company, where he co-ordinated photoshoots and assisted in the styling of both their web and brochure photography. He enjoyed the creative side of the work, but it was very office-based and he became restless. He also decided he should buy a home of his own, so he found a tiny two bedroom apartment in Shepherd’s Bush. “It was in the Grampians Art Deco building, which was incredible and had an old-fashioned cage lift, a porter and an amazing entrance. The apartment was on the seventh floor, with great views and, although very small, I had an idea for creating a bed-come-wardrobe-come-desk unit in the second bedroom. Then I found out that the service charge was £3000 a year, so I had to say no, but I missed out on a great investment. Luckily, my parents were freeholders of some flats in Brighton and a young couple who lived there had to renew their lease, so decided to sell up. I bought the place for £157,000 and lived there and rented out my spare room for a couple of years. I met my now wife and she eventually moved in and then, after about six years, we got married and wanted to start a family, so we needed a bigger place. We liked the area, but, as is often the case, it’s financially hard to go up the ladder and double your mortgage.”
The flat that Ben and his wife lived in was a 1970s purpose-built block and had a flat roof. Instead of moving, he decided that it would be possible to build an extension and build upwards, using up the roof area. He bought the extra space and created the perfect design, but the neighbours were not very happy with the proposed changes. His planning application was turned down, but he appealed and then, on the day he was due at the planning office to fight his case, nobody turned up to argue, so he got planning. “It’s an amazing space of about 150sqm and has three big double bedrooms and two huge glass skylights, which let in masses of light. It’s very versatile and can be adapted to grow with us. Last year we had our daughter, Hope Blossom, and it is now a true family home. In fact, it is the home of my dreams and has wonderful sea views. However, there is no lift and it’s on the second floor, so as I often work away we might have to look to move soon.”
Aside from his busy interior design business, Ben has been on numerous television shows. His TV career started in 2010 when he entered an interior design competition on ITV’s This Morning programme, called The Next Big Thing. His mum saw it being advertised and called him up and encouraged him to send in his showreel. “I thought, ‘in for a penny…’ there were 450 entries, but I got down to the shortlist of 40 and then to the final four and eventually won! I then had six slots on This Morning presenting and explaining how to adapt and upcycle furniture to create unique and individual living spaces. I was over the moon to have won and I really loved doing it. I realised that I had found something I really enjoyed, so I put together another showreel and bombarded every production company I could think of with it. It eventually worked and I filmed three series of The Renovation Game for Channel 4 as well as You Deserve This House, 60 Minute Makeover with Peter Andre and Auction Party with Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. I worked with some great people and even designed a nursery for Peter Andre, which was very special.”
He is now one of the new presenters on A Place in the Sun for Channel 4 and is thrilled with his new role. “I really love the show and I enjoy travelling too. I have been to Spain, Florida, Portugal and Croatia and I also went to The Azores, which was spectacular, with scenery straight out of Lord of the Rings.”
Ben has some very useful advice for first time buyers. “Don’t be put off by hard work and don’t be frightened to get your hands dirty. If you see an opportunity, then go for it. Deposits are always a stumbling block, but save as much as you can. Also, don’t just rely on property websites, or estate agents, as I think that doing your own research is invaluable. Walk around the area you want to live in and don’t be afraid to knock on doors and see if anyone is thinking of selling. Finally, number crunch, look at your finances and get everything in order. You need to forward think and look to what the future might hold – if interest rates go up, will you be able to afford the mortgage payments? Take all the bills you will have to pay into consideration and make sure you can afford to pay them. It’s just a case of being responsible with your money and your finances.”
Ben’s great passion and love of property is infectious and, as we finish our conversation, I truly believe it’s a case of ‘watch this space’ as I am sure we will be seeing Ben on our television screens for sometime to come.
Ben Hillman presents A Place in the Sun – Winter Sun, which is on weekday afternoons on Channel 4 and on Monday nights at 9pm on More 4.