The dotcom boom might have left some people out of pocket when it went bust but internet entrepreneur Simon Nixon was one of the lucky ones. Three years ago, he successfully floated Moneysupermarket.com, a price-comparison website business that he set up in 1999 specialising in online mortgage, and later credit card and personal loan information.
He pocketed a small fortune – his net worth is now a reported £344m – that has left him able to indulge in one of his passions: buying property.
“Some people are collectors of cars, I’m a collector of houses,” says the 42-year-old, who was recently ranked the 201st richest person in Britain by The Sunday Times, and lives in a Georgian house in Chester, north-west England.
“I was on holiday six years ago when I spotted a picture of a stunning four-storey, five-bedroom end-of-terrace property here in my home town in a property supplement,” says the slim, athletic-looking tycoon, sitting opposite me in the spacious lounge. “It had a terraced garden leading down to the river set in about half an acre. “‘Wow,’ I thought. ‘That’s the most beautiful property I’ve ever seen in Chester.’ I viewed it straight away – and instantly fell in love with the property.”
It cost £1.5m, but he thinks it was good value, all things considered. “If you’re buying a distinctive property in a fantastic location you very rarely get a deal because there are always a few people chasing it,” he says. “In my experience, if you buy a property on the cheap, you’ll end up spending money.”
Everything about the house appealed to Nixon. “One of the reasons I liked it was that it reminded me of my favourite hotel – London’s Charlotte Street Hotel,” he says. “But I also loved the fact that I could walk into the centre of Chester in 10 minutes – or take a kayak into town, moor it on the riverbank, and go and have a drink in the pub.”
Buying the property wasn’t the most straightforward of transactions. “I experienced all sorts of hassle,” he says. “The previous owner changed her mind and then changed her mind again, so it took the best part of a year to do the deal. But it was worth the wait. They had spent about 18 months restoring the property, with the intention of moving in long term.
“Sadly, her partner died prematurely, and after that she couldn’t stand being in the house. So, paradoxically, I benefited by buying a house that hadn’t been done up by someone looking to make a quick buck. I was able to move in as it was.”
The property was built by a wealthy cotton broker. It was one of the first grand houses to be built on the river in Chester, according to Nixon.
“All the original Italian-style features have been saved where possible, giving the house a hybrid ‘contemporary-period’ feel,” he says. “It’s unusual because the city boasts very few properties of this size and distinction with such an enviable location.”
Since netting his cash windfall, Nixon, a Nottingham University graduate, has snapped up three further properties. “A lot of my wealth is tied up in internet stock which I can’t touch and is therefore intangible,” he says. “So my goal is to build up a portfolio of properties in amazing locations that I can visit but also rent out through one of my latest internet ventures, Simonescapes.com, and which will also prove a good long-term investment.”
He bought the first of his trio of “portfolio” homes, Borth Cottage in Abersoch, north Wales, “about 30 miles from Anglesey”, three years ago for £1.7m. “It’s a six-bedroom en suite modern property on the waterfront,” he says. “I spent 18 months renovating it inside and out, at a cost of around £1m, and have created a really distinctive property that is special yet sympathetic to the area.”
The second is Elkstones, outside Chipping Campden, a charming village in the Cotswolds. “I finally found my dream property there: a five-bedroom, 6,000 sq ft Cotswold-stone property with an indoor swimming pool,” he says. “It cost about £2m but I’ve spent a further £1m restoring it and buying up some of the land around so that it now stands in around five acres.”
The third of his “portfolio” properties is a “rather ugly” house on the north Cornish coast he bought two years ago. “It’s in Constantine Bay [near Padstow] where David Cameron holidayed a couple of years ago,” says Nixon, reaching for a glass of sparkling water. “It’s right on the beach – between the sea and Trevose Golf and Country Club – and has a stunning location. I bought it for the land rather than the property itself and only got it after taking part in a £4m bidding war I was determined to win.”
But the tycoon has already got outline planning permission to build a new £3m house about three times the size of the present property.
“All the properties I now own are special to me in their own way,” says Nixon. “My house here in Chester combines the best of town and country living, with its riverside views and proximity to the city centre. I’ve got the perfect country retreat in Elkstones with its stunning countryside and local gastro-pubs. My Welsh house – a 90-minute drive away – is my perfect beach property and a great place to escape to in the summer to do a bit of surfing.”
For all his love of travelling, he’s not above getting his hands dirty in his Chester garden. “I spend two or three hours a week in the garden – my dad helps me maintain it. I look after the fruit and vegetables because it’s most rewarding,” he says. “I’ve planted carrots, aubergines, tomatoes and strawberries.
“It’s invariably tastier than anything in a supermarket and probably healthier too. I also find gardening very therapeutic.”