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

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Cover Story -

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

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