The rise of buying agents
It can be dog eat dog for a first-time buyer in today’s cut-throat property market. So how do you get an advantage? Hire a helping hand, says Laura Silverman
It was tripping into a puddle that did it. I was queuing in a downpour of biblical proportions for an open day in Brighton. It was last February, and I had been looking to buy a flat for months. I had called estate agents the instant I received email alerts to find that properties were already under offer; I had arrived at viewings where agents had forgotten the keys. The search was not going well. About 40 people had turned up to see this flat, and as I pushed my way up the stairs, I began to suspect that we were all gripped by a feverish hysteria. Never mind the damp walls or the wires poking from the ceiling; in 10 minutes, three people had offered over the asking price. One, aged 26, was a cash buyer. How would I would ever find a flat? When, a few days later, a family friend suggested I use a buying agent, I was easily persuaded. They would help me find my dream home (good luck to them) and see the process through. I assumed their clients would be investors looking to build portfolios or expats returning from abroad. Here I was, a first-time buyer with a modest budget looking for a one-bedroom flat, but I needed all the help I could get. I am not the only one. “A lot of people think buying agents are for the rich and lazy,” says Jo Eccles of Sourcing Property, which covers central London. “We’ve never been elitist.” Their clients have budgets from £500,000 to £2million; up to 20 per cent of them are first-time buyers. Stacks Property Search has offices throughout the country. “Ten years ago we represented very few first-time buyers,” says James Greenwood, the managing director. “Now they represent a significant proportion of our business. It is extraordinary that people will go into the market with hundreds of thousands of pounds and have a stab at it themselves.” When you put it like that, it seems cavalier to go it alone. I went to a search service because of my frustrations with estate agents in a competitive market. My experience is not uncommon. Scott Lancaster, a 35-year-old IT worker, was looking to buy his first property in 2013. “I didn’t feel estate agents were listening,” he says. “I didn’t know the right language to use; I didn’t know how things operated; and I didn’t know the people.” He went to Greengrass Property, a London search service, who found him a one-bedroom flat in Balham within seven weeks. He moved in last year and “couldn’t be happier”. I found BrightonMove, my buying agents, through Google, and trusted them on instinct. They knew the area and understood the kind of property I wanted. I would love to say that they found me my a home within weeks, but my hunt goes on. Still, I am closer than before. I think. After agreeing a brief, search agents contact everyone they know with potential leads. “We have our own database and software,” says Eccles. “We know all the agents, and they often tell us as soon as they value anything. About 60 per cent of the properties we show our clients won’t yet be on the market.” Before using a search service, I had been shown many properties that bore little relation to my brief. Buying agents listen. “We don’t want to show somebody something if we don’t think it fits their criteria,” says Laura Johnstone of Greengrass Property. “We don’t want to waste their time.” Eccles argues that it doesn’t make sense for buyers to work directly with “the competition”. “Estate agents don’t work for you; they work for the seller,” she says. “You build a relationship with them – you’re in their car, they’re showing you properties, you’re giving them feedback – and you’re disclosing everything to the other side. It makes no sense at all.” Eccles goes to about 300 viewings a year so she will often know what properties are like inside. Search agents will try to see properties before showing them to clients. “We sift out the rubbish and make sure we kick down the door of the best ones,” says Greenwood. During my pre-search service days, I felt estate agents thought I was merely contacting them for fun. Greenwood’s clients have had similar woes. “We had this lovely couple in Somerset,” he says. “They were very laid back and went everywhere in their flip flops. The estate agents didn’t take them seriously. We looked at their finances and knew they were deadly serious; they were just unconventional. Once we were representing them, they had a much stronger chance.” Going to viewings with someone who knows the market gave me confidence and enabled me to talk through the pros and cons. I paid for emotional as much as practical support. Greenwood has seen the value of a second opinion among his first-time buyers. “We had a young couple with three small children who wanted to move to the country. They had found a property themselves and had asked me to view it. I took one look at it and said, ‘The house is sensational, but the garden is on a 45-degree slope. Where are your boys going to play football?’ They looked at each other and went, ‘You’re absolutely right.’” I spent most Saturdays last year funding Southern rail on the London to Brighton train. My search agent would meet me at the station and drive me to a handful of properties. I was outbid on one flat and then a vendor who had accepted my offer decided he no longer wanted to sell. I finally found another property in June. Without a search agent, my offer would have been a guess; now I had reassurance that it was right. The figure, it turns out, is not the only factor. “A lot of buyers think it’s all about money,” says Eccles. “It’s not; it’s about the way you present to a seller. Do you connect with them? Are you using a decent solicitor? What’s the offer letter like?” Once my offer was accepted, I knew there was a way to go. BrightonMove recommended a surveyor and were there to smooth over any difficulties. Theoretically. The survey revealed extensive damp and although my search agent thought most old properties would face similar problems, I thought it was sensible to withdraw. I lost my solicitor’s, mortgage and survey fees. But I’m trying to remain rational (and even positive): the damp was not their fault and months of searching with experienced buyers has taught me a huge amount. “There’s a definite shift in the market,” says Eccles. “More and more people are using buying agents because they recognise that on their own they’re at a major disadvantage. When you’re buying property, you can feel like you’re fighting to spend your money. To have a buying agent standing in between you as a barrier between all the rubbish that goes on behind the scenes is so much nicer.” My verdict? Search agents are good; a magician would be better.
Brighton beautiful: a buying agent can help cut down the stress of finding a property – though they can’t guarantee success, as Laura Silverman (below) discovered