TV has a way of focussing on a profession and rendering it sexy. It’s done it with gardeners, chefs, doctors, nurses, architects, and repair men – there are people who swoon over the guys in BBC’s The Repair Shop.
he latest for the spotlight is the estate agent. Who isn’t loving the realtors on Netflix in Selling Sunset and Million Dollar Beach House?
If an Irish reality show about estate agents were to be made, it would have include Liz O’Kane – she is bubbly, brisk, forthright and frank; she tells it like it is, whether she’s talking about her own life, her eclectically decorated home or the property market in general.
She’s a one-woman band and she’s carved out a role for herself that is slightly different to most professionals in the property business.
“I am Ireland’s original house hunter,” she declares, going on to explain. “I am a buyers’ agent. I source, negotiate and purchase property for a wide variety of people, mainly people who don’t want to go through the bidding process – they find it such an emotional journey.”
Liz says the clients are varied – some first-time buyers, some investors and, since lockdown, she has a new type of client who has identified the property they want but they don’t want to go through the bidding process, they simply want her to talk to the agent and get the property over the line.
“My job is all about relationships and I know every estate agent in town. Once they know Liz O’Kane is on the phone, they take the call,” she says.
More than 80pc of Liz’s clients are Irish professionals abroad who want a foothold in the Irish property market. Their goal is to come home when their kids reach secondary school age. “I came back to Ireland for the kids. I was one of those people who went overseas in the last recession. Recessions follow me around. This is my third. There was the one in the 1990s, then the 2000s and now this. Nothing phases me any more.”
Packing up and going to live abroad in the 2000s – in Liz’s case, Abu Dhabi – wasn’t something Liz, who is originally from a farm outside Drogheda, found hard to do. She had lived in Spain in her early 30s and travel featured large in her early career.
“I was not studious. All I wanted was to pass my Leaving and go off and make money. So I did a secretarial course, which I barely attended, and then I applied to British Airways and got a job as » » cabin crew. It was the best training and work experience – everyone should wait tables and do customer service at some point in their lives to learn how tricky people can be.”
Liz also got into property personally quite early on. “I was a homeowner at 20. When I joined BA, I got a 100pc mortgage and bought an apartment close to Heathrow. I bought it for £32,000 and sold it 18 months later for £58,000. I copped on then, a lightbulb went off: I could make money here,” she laughs, adding: “I bought and sold a few, not all successfully.”
The experience stood to her later in life but she continued at British Airways for 10 years in total. “For the last three years I wasn’t really enjoying it,” Liz says. “When you’re not smiling at the customers any more, it’s time to go.”
She came back to Dublin but when she went job hunting, the lack of a professional qualification hit her – every single job required third-level education. She did a diploma in PR and studied entrepreneurship and creative writing, which she found gave her a lot of confidence.
She got a job in telesales with The Irish Times and then did work for a variety of telecom companies, presenting and giving training courses to those who needed them.
“At this stage I had two properties – one I rented out, one I lived in . I had just had a baby, and I felt I needed a break, so I decided to sell one property and go off and live in Spain with my son, Rossa. I said, ‘I’m out of here’ and off I went to Almeria,” she says. ” I was going there to relax – but this is so typical of Liz O’Kane – within three weeks, I’d started my first property business, an English-speaking estate agency with an English girl and a local builder/property developer.”
After 15 months, Liz sold her interest in the business and came back to Ireland and, some time later, started get-sorted, a property business. “Even though I hadn’t any formal training, I always had a strong interest. I read all the property supplements, watched all the property programmes, helped friends in terms of choosing property, but what really pushed me was watching Location, Location, Location.
“That programme is now going 20 years. I remember thinking, ‘See that Kirstie Allsopp one, I can do that’. My agency, get-sorted, was the first buyers’ agency in Ireland. I got one client, out of that I got another and I tiptoed along.”
Liz was also working at weekends for estate agencies showing houses and she got a great idea. “I was very bold, I used to slip in my own material with the agency’s brochure. Invariably, the phone would ring afterwards.”
That ploy brought more business for get-sorted and showing houses also helped transform Liz into Ireland’s own version of her hero Kirstie Allsopp.
“One very wet January Saturday, I was standing at the door, greeting the viewers, when a film crew turned up. The producer, Hilary O’Donovan, and I chatted for five, 10 minutes, and the next thing she asked me to do a piece to camera.
“‘Just describe the house,’ she said. So I took off on a rant and described the house. And I got a phone call on the Monday morning to go in to see her.”
That led to a job as a co-presenter for the next seven years on two series – House Hunters and House Hunters In The Sun. Liz’s co-presenters included Dermot Bannon before he started Room To Improve. The by-product of this exposure was get-sorted did very well for several years but then, in 2009, it all stopped. “It was great for 10 years, then crash-bang-wallop. I had to wind down.”
Liz’s husband – during the years, she found time to marry Rossa’s father and have another child, Ellie – is an architect, another profession that was a casualty of the recession, and the couple ended up going to Abu Dhabi for work in 2011.
Three years later, the kids needed to go to secondary school here and so they came back to Dublin. Liz started working for estate agents again and then, late last year, she went out on her own again. She also made some TV programmes – Buyers Bootcamp for Virgin Media.
Liz and her husband (from whom she is now separated) had a lovely home in Dublin 6 which they tried to sell before they left for Abu Dhabi – they couldn’t shift it then and so it was still here when they returned. This was a bit of great good fortune as it’s a stunning, modern mews in one of the leafiest areas of Dublin 6, with a super-sized living area.
“I would say it’s the biggest living room in a residential home in Dublin,” Liz says, adding that the space is 1,000 square feet, the size of a really spacious two-bedroom apartment.
The living area is on the upper floor, while the bedrooms are on the ground floor. They overlook the spacious garden Liz overhauled during lockdown – one of her innovations was fake grass. “Instead of mowing, you hoover it,” she says with a laugh, adding that she created little suntraps like the one under the steps leading from the living area on the upper floor to the garden.
Natural light fills the living area as there are large windows on both ends, and the north-south orientation provides sun all day. A recent renovation includes a new skylight which further enhances the light, as do the white walls everywhere.
But white doesn’t mean it’s bland. There are pops of colour everywhere, in furnishings like the red dining chairs, the sofas and rugs from her travels during her BA days, and the many artworks Liz has collected over the years.
“I love buying art. I started in my 20s. I bought two Markeys [Markey Robinson] at the time – I had no idea who he was,” she recalls. “My favourite haunt is the Open Window Gallery in Rathmines – great artworks there.”
One piece on the wall stands out possibly because it’s not colourful – a piece of bog oak. “I bought it for an ex-boyfriend’s 30th birthday. He said he loved this particular artist’s bog oak. He dumped me the next day, so I took it back.”
That’s Liz – frank and forthright. And fun. l
Photography by Tony Gavin