Big dreams and basement flats: How Homes under the Hammer conquered daytime TV

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First off: everyone remotely connected to producing BBC One daytime TV stalwart Homes Under the Hammer calls it Hammer. So we’ll call it Hammer, too.

How to describe Hammer? People buy dilapidated properties at auction. They renovate them and either flip them for profit, rent them out or – very occasionally – live in them. Presenters Martin Roberts, Dion Dublin, and Martel Maxwell visit the properties post-renovation, to see how the developers, who are often amateurs, made out. There is a reveal; an avocado bathroom set from the 1970s is replaced by an economy suite from B&Q, the developers make off with a £20,000 profit and the circle of life continues. Woven throughout is some light history about the locations being visited, which is mostly euphemistic descriptions of former mining or manufacturing communities (“once-thriving”, etc), unless the property is in London, in which case presenters talk about the transport connections to the centre of town. There are also many puns and pleasingly literal music choices. (More on that later.)

But Hammer is so much more than a property renovation show. Hammer is an estate agent running his flat palm across a newly magnolia-painted wall before nodding and saying: “I’m impressed.” Hammer is the former professional footballer Dublin saying: “You’ve got your stairs … up to the bedrooms,” in every single episode, each time with a slightly different cadence. Hammer is an opening credits sequence that hasn’t been updated since 2003 and looks shonky as hell on an HD TV. Hammer is It’s Raining Men playing every time a solitary raindrop grazes the collar of Robert’s garishly patterned shirts. Hammer is a cultural institution adored by students, grandmothers, people skiving off work and nursing mums. If you don’t love Hammer, you haven’t got a heart.

This broad church of Hammer aficionados has made it an unlikely ratings juggernaut. The show has been running since 2003 and pulls in an average audience of 1.3 million viewers. It is regularly one of the top-performing factual programmes on BBC iPlayer. It has celebrity fans including Meryl Streep, Mark Wahlberg and – unbelievably – Paul McCartney, who spoke about his love for the show on the Adam Buxton podcast in December. More than 1,000 episodes and countless stairs up to the bedrooms later, how to explain its enduring appeal?

View image in fullscreenDion Dublin … does he get all the crustiest houses? Photograph: BBC/Lion Television

“Relatability is definitely part of it, alongside a simple format that’s easy to understand,” says Muslim Alim, commissioning editor for BBC Daytime. “There’s an underlying complexity in the production of it, but on the surface, it’s good lean-back content, helmed by people you can trust, and want to spend time with.” And of course, there’s the reveal. “That’s the moment everyone’s waiting for,” Alim says. “Can you imagine the show without the reveal?” Earlier episodes of the show didn’t always feature a full reveal, but there was blowback from viewers, so now producers always make sure to revisit the property when it is completed, even if this takes years.

Tracking thousands of renovation projects and aligning them with production schedules requires meticulous planning. At the Glasgow offices of Lion Television, which produces Hammer, there are two enormous whiteboards, detailing all the renovations in the pipeline. “We call it the Tap,” says Lisa Hazlehurst, the head of Lion TV, “because it’s so long, like the Bayeux tapestry.” Producers film at auctions and approach winning bidders to ask them if they’d like to participate. “We don’t have to do a hard sell,” says Hazlehurst, “because the show is so well known.” (During Covid, producers have been sourcing contributors from online auctions and filming with a skeleton crew.)

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This guy bought this house. It had such bad subsidence I could roll a Coke can from one end of the floor to the other– Martin Roberts

Earlier versions of Hammer were more sedate. Roberts’ shirts weren’t so garish; the show devoted more time to interviews from architects and estate agents. Even the buy-to-let landlords weren’t as cartoonishly horrible. (In one early episode, a pair of property developers proudly wave their Bury Landlord Accreditation certificate on camera, which is oddly endearing.) “The biggest change from series one to series two,” says Roberts, the show’s longest-running presenter, “was that we [the presenters] became the experts. We didn’t need to talk to an architect or anything. Because we do it. I’m a developer. It’s what I do.”

There are a number of conspiracy theories about Hammer online, and one of them is that only the successful renovation projects are shown. “Absolutely not,” says Roberts. “We will show them when they go wrong.” He fills me in on some of Hammer’s biggest disasters: “This guy bought this house, and it had such bad subsidence that I could roll a Coca-Cola can from one end of the floor to the other – it just rolled down. I said to the guy: ‘Can’t you see the floor?’ And he said: ‘Yeah, but it’s on a hill.’” Another couple bought a cottage without visiting it first. After the purchase, they realised there was no right of way to the property. “It was landlocked,” says Roberts, wheezing with laughter. “You had to get there by helicopter.”

Another online theory: Dublin is given the crustiest houses to visit. “I totally reject that conspiracy theory,” says Alim genially. (A screen grab circulating online of Dublin crouching by a broken toilet in what looks like a bombed-out semi doesn’t do much for Alim’s denials.) “I’ve been in a lot of terrible houses,” says Dublin. “Hundreds of them.” Hazlehurst jokes that she could work as a health and safety officer – although there’s a limit to what anyone can do. “Martin fell through some floorboards once,” she says. “We were lucky enough to catch it on camera.”

Over the years, Hammer has leaned into its cult following. The music choices are camper; the puns more clanging. Roberts’s shirts alone are deserving of a parliamentary inquiry into the licence fee. “There’s a couple I got from Tesco,” Roberts confides. “Don’t tell anybody.” Presenters do hammy pieces to camera that break the fourth wall, speaking to the camera operator directly or referencing running gags. “I make it up as I go along,” says Roberts of his presenting style. “It’s generally one-take.” The scenes featuring estate agents are the naffest bit of Hammer, and as such, my favourite. (They are also beloved by the comedian Mo Gilligan, who routinely satirises the estate-agent walk-up on his YouTube watch-along videos.) Is it BBC policy to always film the estate agents at a 45-degree angle? “There’s no rule on it,” says Alim. “But it gives it a bit of character.”

Lucy opened a door that led down to a cellar, and she said: ‘Hello,’ and Lionel Richie answered: ‘Hello.’

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Dublin knows what audiences want – him saying “stairs up to the bedroom” with a nudge and a wink – and so just like in his footballing career, when he was Coventry City’s most reliable goalscorer, he delivers. “I try to say it with slight intonation changes,” he says, “in the delivery or the volume.” The phrase haunts him everywhere he goes. “Every day on social media without a doubt I get it,” Dublin says. “If I say I’m doing Match of the Day, people will tweet: ‘What about those stairs up to the bedroom?’ I get it in supermarkets and WhatsApp groups. It’s my signature.”

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True Hammer-heads know each presenter’s unique quirks. Roberts likes to play an imaginary piano when interviewing contributors (a montage of this has, inevitably, gone viral.) Dublin loves kitchen-diners and really, really hates walls. “I don’t have anything against walls,” he says, unconvincingly. “You know what it is? I like open spaces. So the family can see each other when they’re doing different things.” He says that there aren’t many walls – or doors – in his house. “I think I have five rooms downstairs and two sets of doors,” he says. “Everything rolls into the next room. I haven’t even thought about that. Maybe I don’t like doors, either.”

And so, to the music, which is always literal: Don’t Let the Rain Come Down for leaking roofs, Going Underground for basement renovations, that sort of thing. Hazlehurst says that there is no dedicated music supervisor on the show – the editors who cut it find the songs. “My favourite was from a few years ago,” she says. “Lucy opened a door that led down to a cellar, and she said: ‘Hello,’ and Lionel Richie answered: ‘Hello.’ That was a delight.”

View image in fullscreenMartin Roberts (and his imaginary piano). Photograph: BBC/Lion Television

Not everything about Hammer is so lovable. The show can be tedious, such as the in-episode recaps. “It’s so you can dip in and out,” says Alim. And of course, the jangling, methane-emitting boiler in the room: the buy-to-let landlords. Episode after episode features these barons of MDF committing crimes against renters. There’s Cyril, the smiling landlord who turns the living room in a two-bedroom south London flat into a third bedroom. “Don’t they need a shared living space?” asks Roberts. “Oh no,” Cyril says. “They just need a place to put their head down for the night. People here, they’re out and about.” (As if this wasn’t mercenary enough, Cyril later fenced off a tiny corner of the garden for the use of his tenants and rented out the rest of the space to his neighbours.)

Then there’s Kiran and Harpreet, who have amassed 200 rental properties in just four years. They converted a three-bedroom family home in Hounslow, west London, into a five-bedroom HMO (house in multiple occupation) with no communal living room, for which they charged £900 a month in rent for each room. And finally the aspiring tycoon Jiwal. “A successful business doesn’t just make money,” Jiwal tells an unblinking Dublin. “It helps society.” Dublin asks Jiwal what he plans to do with the house he just bought. “Flip it,” Jiwal says.

Roberts mounts a robust defence of the landlords featured. “Private landlords get a bit of a bad rap,” he says, “when the majority of them are pretty decent people.” He points out that many of the people depicted on Hammer are making formerly uninhabitable houses habitable again, and it’s fair that they should be compensated for their labour. But fixing up once-derelict homes and putting them on the market for a fair price is one thing. Aggressively extracting every penny of profit from a buy-to-let portfolio is another entirely. “In most of these cases, you’re taking a family home and cramming as many people in there as you can, to maximise the profit you can get out of it,” says Dan Wilson Craw of Generation Rent, the campaign group for private renters. “That’s a big problem.”

View image in fullscreenPresenter Martel Maxwell. Photograph: BBC/Lion Television

Craw speaks of the mental health consequences of being stuck in pokey flats without communal living areas; the consequences for young families when houses are taken out of supply and carved up into HMOs. “Property prices have risen as a result of the demand for investment properties, and that drives further investment,” he says. “Buy-to-let developed a reputation in the 1990s and 2000s as being a good place to put your money. But of course the source of all this money is renters who may have been in a position to buy a home, were it not for all these landlords driving up the prices.” The average UK house price was £250,000 in 2020; in 2000, it was £85,000.

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But is Hammer a symptom of, or a contributor to, the country’s housing crisis? The show’s executives and stars contradict each other. “The number of people who have gone on to become property investors as a result of Hammer, mums and dads, children getting on the ladder, all sorts of people who’ve been inspired to actually do it: I’m really proud of that,” says Roberts. But Alim insists that Hammer doesn’t create a pull factor. “Our job is to reflect what really goes on,” he says.

What is certain is that the show’s enduring appeal is deeply connected to Britain’s fetishistic obsession with home ownership. “Ultimately why Hammer is so successful is that it taps into our national [psyche], and our never-ending love affair with bricks and mortar … we have this fantastic obsession with property,” says Hazlehurst. Only the UK could give birth to not only Homes Under the Hammer, but Escape to the Country, Location, Location, Location, Project Restoration, Property Ladder, and of course, Hammer’s highfalutin older sibling, Grand Designs.

Roberts dismisses any comparisons to Grand Designs. “These aren’t people building a house out of recycled rat droppings on the side of a cliff,” he jokes. “These are normal people taking on normal projects. It’s mostly people buying two-up two-down terraces for £60,000 and spending £10,000 doing them up, and selling them for £90,000,” he says. Hazlehurst loves it when people buy homes to live in themselves. “They’re my favourites,” she says. “When it becomes someone’s forever home.” And the show is full of information for people considering buying at auction for the first time – all Hammer fans know the show’s golden rules: visit the property beforehand, check a plot of land has planning permission, avoid buying listed houses and always read the legal pack. “We often have people telling us they read the legal pack because of Hammer,” says Alim.

Hammer is much more than a factual show about property development. In 2018, Hazlehurst featured on a Royal Television Society panel, discussing the show; many in the audience were under 30. How to explain why so many young people – many of whom have no prospect of ever climbing on to the property ladder – love the show? Because at its heart, Hammer isn’t really a property show at all. It’s in the business of selling fantasies: the impossible hope that any of us could purchase a basement flat in a former industrial town for a few thousand pounds, and, with a lick of paint and a new bathroom suite, flip it for another property, and another one after that. And on and on and on, retiring at 60 to a life of luxury, rich from the profits of our empires of grey flocked wallpaper and laminate flooring.

“I imagine in 20 years’ time the VR version of Hammer will be amazing,” Alim jokes. Because whatever else happens, Britain will always be a country of grafters and strivers: dreamers hoping to make it big on a rundown semi with little more than our wits, a team of builders and a buyer’s pack hugged tightly to our chests.