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Craig Heatley's schoolboy foray in the property market: Exclusive book extract

Craig Heatley, aged six, with mother Vera and sister Deborah. Photo/Heatley family

Three years after his father died, Craig Heatley made his first foray into property, laying down $200 on a $10,000 lot. He was still in school.

As Craig Heatley’s 15th birthday approached, his widowed mother, Vera, taught him to drive. On the day of his birthday, he sat and got his driver’s licence. Vera owned an Austin 1800 which she allowed him to drive whenever he liked. It was no Jaguar, but for Heatley, a new freedom opened up.

Vera’s parents lived in Levin and occasionally on weekends Heatley would drive his mother to visit his grandparents, taking himself off for a drive while the older people talked. One Saturday, he dropped off his mother and drove through to Foxton. He ambled along the main street, killing time. Pausing to look in the window of a real estate agency, Rod Weir & Co, he saw an advertisement for a block of land with “subdivision potential” near the local racecourse. It cost $10,000. Heatley at the time would have had about $800 if he had sold his shares and added the proceeds to his Post Office savings. He opened the door and walked in.

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Just as Ron Jarden had taken Heatley’s call a few years earlier, so the agent took him seriously now, even though Heatley openly admitted that he was at school and had little money. But he had time and was interested in the property so the agent drove him to look at the land, which was covered in weeds and scrub. Heatley was impressed by the size of it and could see, when the agent pointed it out, how it could be turned into a residential subdivision. He could also see how he could make money from it. This, at last, was the potential for real earnings.

Driving home, he excitedly told his mother about the land and its potential. She was incredulous that he would consider anything so absurd but probably comforted herself knowing that nothing could come of it because her son could not possibly afford it. But Heatley could not let the idea go. At school and in the evenings, he considered what he would need to do to create a subdivision. He contacted a surveyor and the next time Heatley went to Levin, they met. Once again, Heatley’s easy manner, his frankness in admitting this was all new to him and his ability to see past the numerous obstacles in his way gained him a sympathetic hearing. Did the real estate agent and the surveyor, perhaps learning that his father had died, feel sorry for him? Or did they simply think that if this foolish kid was prepared to risk his deposit, they might as well take it off him? Heatley does not know, but after several long discussions with the surveyor about section sizes, prices, utilities and planning rules, he felt sufficiently confident to make an offer.

Heatley confessed he had nothing like the $10,000 asking price. The agent said he would accept $1000 as a deposit. Heatley went to a bank to ask for a loan and was turned down. He went back to the agent and said he could offer $200 now and the balance of the $10,000 would have to wait until some of the sections could be sold. There must have been no sign of a better offer. The agent accepted the terms and with that, Heatley became the schoolboy-owner of several scrub-covered acres of undeveloped land in Foxton, with a $9800 debt that he had no way of paying unless his foray into property development, about which he had so recently known nothing, was successful.

Dining with Mum in Hawaii in the mid-1980s. Photo/Heatley family

What he had on his side was that the surveyor and agent wanted it to work too. The surveyor said his fees would be $1500. Heatley told him he would pay $2000 but not until some sections were sold. [His sister] Debbie thinks their mother, who was always ready to stand behind her son, helped out with the odd bill. But putting in a road, sewerage, water and stormwater were jobs for professionals. He had to raise some money.

On Saturday, July 6, 1974, a few weeks after Heatley’s s 17th birthday and halfway through his final year of school, “11 Outstanding Residential Sections” went under the hammer at a public auction in the Foxton Town Hall supper room. The terms were a one-third deposit down, with the balance payable on title. At the auction, seven sections sold, giving Heatley sufficient cash to pay for the land, road and utilities. In the school holidays and on some nights after school, he used his savings to pay school friends to help clear the site. William Whewell was one of them.

“Craig was miles ahead in business,” Whewell recalls. “His Foxton deal was a masterstroke and at the time I wondered who was advising him, but other than to describe the pre-sale conditions of the sections – some of the money was to be paid as a deposit and the balance was to be paid once the services and roads were in – he never talked about business. He just got on and did it.”

One sticking point in developing the site was getting the concrete stormwater pipes. The manufacturer, Humes, had a near monopoly on the pipes and was not interested in supplying for such a small job. Heatley was frustrated that even with the money to pay, he could not get what he needed. It annoyed him that he had to personally beg a supplier for something he was paying for. Eventually, the pipes were supplied and the job was finished. Within two years, all but one or two of the 11 sections were sold and his $200 investment had become $17,000 profit.

Looking back, he can scarcely believe that as a schoolboy he even considered creating a subdivision, let alone that he achieved it. But at the time he did not think he was doing anything unusual because the people he was dealing with treated him seriously and were professionals. “But how could I have thought that was normal, or even that I could succeed? It’s crazy! Perhaps I was arrogant. I just don’t know. But it worked.”

This article was first published in the August 4, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.