If I could turn back time…

…cue the mental picture of me prancing about a battleship with big hair (yeah, right) wearing a fishnet body stocking and very little else (calm yourself please ladies). Incidentally, after the furore over Cher’s big hit and the infamous video (and outfit), the American Navy released a teeth-sucking, holier than thou statement stating that if they had had forewarning of Ms Sarkisian’s outfit-or lack of-prior to the video being shot aboard USS Missouri, they would not have allowed the filming to take place. Personally, I bet the American Navy’s recruiting figures went through the roof after the video was released. Back to the more mundane issue of a survey released last week by Which? magazine that seems at first reading to indicate that the internet is not as all-powerful as we once thought when it comes to the property market and house searching.  Really?

Which? surveyed 2000 people who had just completed a property purchase. A truly representative sample? Bear in mind that Building Society Association figures show that on average 35,000 people a month complete a property purchase. The survey report states that property hunters are shirking the gifts of the technological era and more than half of those surveyed still favoured traditional methods of finding a property. Of the 55% who chose to ignore an online portal, the routes chosen to find their dream home included:

  • 10% said that they saw a board
  • 6% saw a house in the paper
  • 9% were told about a property by a third party
  • a whopping 11% were approached directly by an agent
  • 4% were attributed to ‘other methods’. Does this include fiddling with the brake pads on Aunt Mabel’s car?

Mmmm. I am sure that these figures have the likes of purplebricks reaching for the smelling salts. On the surface it would appear that we are returning to the days of old, when I did have hair. On closer scrutiny, the survey reports on the results from a combined number of old methods, which may total 5% of a modest survey, but when broken down individually, mean very little. Trust me, I am an estate agent, (an oxy-moronic phrase if ever there was one) and people do not drive around looking for boards on the off chance that they find one outside a house that they just have to buy. It has been years since the office received a call that started with, “Hi mate (well, it is Cwmbran), I’ve just seen one of your boards”. No today’s ‘phone call begins with, “Aright butt, just seen this house on the internet”.

So has the property buying world done a volte face and ditched the wonders of the t’interweb? I don’t believe so. Some agents however are going to have to start to amend their working practices and their use and abuse of the property portals. From 1 October, TPO and Trading Standards are to outlaw the practice of portal juggling; whereby an agent lists old and already sold properties at 2am in the morning and then withdraws them at 8am, having in the intervening period  produced some blurb about the number of properties that they have recently sold and how these figures put them as numero uno in the area for successful house sales. Naughty naughty. This outlawing of the said practice is to be inserted into the TPO Code of Practice document. Next time you ask for a valuation, ask the agent if they have a copy of the said Code of Practice in their briefcase. Now that would produce an interesting survey.

 

There’s a first for everything…

…well at least since King John of Magna Carta fame was strutting his stuff attempting to control those pesky barons (think Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party). As the ‘First Welsh Tax for 800 years’ headlines have been screaming at us over the past week, come April 2018, it will be all change. Er, right. The Welsh Assembly will gain royal assent for a replacement for the current SDLT (Stamp Duty Land Tax) for the far punchier, straight-out of-the traps ‘Land Transaction Tax and Anti-avoidance of Devolved Taxes Bill’. OK. Try that one after three Bacardis or a pot of Tetley for that matter. Just one slight crib with the title; in 30 years I have yet to be privy to any way of ‘avoiding’ stamp duty or the like, without incurring the wrath of the powers that be and/or a substantial fine and time at one of HM’s hostelries. Anyway, who am I to question the wisdom of our National Assembly? What I can ask, is why is this happening exactly? According to Mark Drakeford, the Welsh Government Finance Secretary, the tax will “broadly mirror” stamp duty, providing “consistency and stability” for business and a “smooth transaction” for those involved in the property market. Er, right. So what is it abut the current stamp duty that doesn’t allow all these things to happen, particularly as the incoming tax is planned to be very similar?

As no-one has yet explained why the change and why the need for the change, how about the cost? In true obfuscation and wishy-washy, we don’t actually have the answer to that one, the Assembly have said that they will publish the rates and bands for the proposed tax closer to the Spring of 2018 (i.e they are still arguing over what they will be) and the “economic conditions at the time” will be taken into account (cue lots of hand-wringing and anyone who is anti-socialist and has worked hard to be able to buy a large house will get screwed).

Until the actual tax rates are announced we will know very little about how this will impact on buyers. Is it possible that sellers will also feel the weight of taxation on their shoulder? There’s a thought. What is noteworthy, is that there is no clear mention of whether the new tax will ‘broadly mirror’ the current tax for owners of more than one property. All the Assembly have offered is that higher rates are “under consideration”. My second career as a Jesuit priest/lion tamer/porn star/Olympic gymnast is also “under consideration”…

Again, there was a paucity of straight forward, unequivocal answers to the question of where will the money earned from the new tax be spent? Ummmm. Answers on a postcard please. If they are looking for a project (always very favorable and earns brownie points in the ‘doing something for the community’category),  The Chesh Retirement Home for Fallen Women would be a worthy recipient. I will be starting interviews for potential residents next week. Dress code for the interview is optional…

“We also sell houses…”

 

Obviously. One would like to think that the clue is in the title, ‘Estate Agents’. Ah, but one should not be so easily fooled. What in the name of all things holy is Cwmbran’s answer to George Clooney on about you may well be thinking? No, I haven’t finally succumbed to the after effects of too much Bacardi or the beseeching phonecalls of Svetlana and Tatiana. As we speed through 2016 faster than a certain D Cameron has ditched his pledge to continuing serving the good residents of Witney, it is becoming ever clearer that estate agency involves selling many products and a house is only one of them.

Here at Cheshire & Co we have long had a dislike for shiny suits, pointy toed shoes, that annoying woman on breakfast tv, dodgy marking on Strictly Come Prancing and packaged services as part of the conveyancing jamboree. By this, I mean mortgage or legal services that are tied up in a cute little bow when using a particular agent to buy or sell a property. This allows an even cuter little kickback to go to the said agent. Here in the NP44 postcode, I can ring Rumpole and Deed Solicitors for a quote and it will be £250 cheaper than if one of my brethren offer the same solicitor. Why? Because they all love The Chesh? Nope (though, obviously they do love me), because my fellow agent will be receiving the additional £250 for the ‘recommendation’.

Cash back is yesterday’s man though (rather like you Gideon, no longer known at the address of No 11 Downing Street). Data capture now surpasses package kick backs, sporting the cutest bow that would make Minnie Mouse green with envy. Why? Data can be sold again and again and again to an ever increasing number of sources. To highlight this, Zoopla Property Group (ZPG) is seeking to integrate uSwitch, its price comparison service (no meercats involved), with MoveIT, its agents’ platform for ancillary revenue generation. The clue is indeed in the title; ‘ancillary’, meaning f2*k all to do with selling houses. A further example was given when ZPG was quoted as saying that its acquisition of the Property Software Group would allow them to create, “more integrated offers to agent members and site consumers”. I’m telling you Minnie, you need to sort out the headgear.

The PR team at Zoopla have been working overtime and issued this corker of a statement telling the general public why this meeting of minds will be a panacea to all the ills of the property world. “The collaboration between the two provides agents with a unique referral service offering price comparison to home-movers…helping consumers save money at the right time, whilst boosting agents’ bottom line”. I think that you may find that the last phrase is the key to it all, boosting the bottom line.

We are all looking to boost our bottom line, it is the driving factor of the market place, be it selling houses, cars, shiny suits or pointy toes shoes. But such flagrant flogging of peoples’ details does not sit well with me I’m afraid. Perhaps TPO should make it mandatory to disclose at the point of signing the contract with the agent, how their data will be used. A lifetime of cold callers trying to flog double glazing is akin to signing your life away.

History has shown-be it an agent in Cwmbran or Mayfair-that business is generated through referral, recommendation and repetition. An agent is unlikely to be recommended or used again if they have tucked someone up on solicitors’ fees and subjected them to a lifetime of cold calls as a result of data capture.

“We also sell washing machines…”

My weekend was spent in Londinium to celebrate my birthday (no presents thank you people, merely donations to The Rest home for Ladies of the Night…) As Samuel Johnson wrote, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford”. Indeed there is Samuel, just ask Keith Vaz, I mean J-I-M. For what else is a washing machine salesman to do in his spare time when not selling washing machines (or chairing the Home Affairs Committee for that matter), than to request the company of two Eastern European gentlemen of the night? I won’t be asking for donations to that rest home I can assure you. Just a query on the whole teeth-grinding, stomach-churning, wince-inducing saga; how can one claim to be the victim of a ‘sting’ when you were the one who initiated the whole thing by making the first ‘phone call? Just wondering.

Having popped into No 10 to give Theresa a few pointers for the G20 summit, I decided to walk down the Old Brompton Road/corner of Earls Court Road and look at the office of my fellow estate agency professionals. Goodness me, to paraphrase Dorothy, “We aren’t in Kansas anymore Toto”. From Chelsea to Knightsbridge I counted 15 agents-the daddies of the corporate property agency world and well-heeled, one-man independents. Not one had any sticker in their window advertising Rightmove, OnTheMarket or Zoopla, or for that matter any poster or flyer promoting local business, the circus or whatever charity they supported. Each one had double yellow lines outside and no indication of any available parking or passing trade. They all had had very smart tea and coffee machines and a suitably enticingly-comfortable looking sofa. None of them-and I reiterate, none-had a piece of paper on display anywhere.

Having girded my loins I ventured through one of the portals and spoke with the (very aesthetically-pleasing) staff. Good looking aside, boy were Miranda, Felicity and Philippa professional. Obviously an audience with The Chesh was not an everyday occurrence for them, but having overcome their initial shock they were very informative.

No Rightmove, OnTheMarket or Zoopla? No need, I was told, nobody ever asks, it is taken as a given that we will be online. Why wouldn’t we be?

Double yellow lines outside and no passing trade? We don’t want any passing trade, we are too busy via the internet.

Then why the coffee machine? Because if someone does come in, they have obviously made the effort to do so, so it is our job to make them feel welcome. Please note, that I wasn’t offered a cup-possibly because in the first nano-second, they recognised that I was never going to be able to afford anything that they might have for sale.

But not a piece of paper anywhere? “Darling” purred Philippa (the next Mrs Chesh), “…it is 2016, we don’t do paper”. When I questioned this, she offered to let me into a little secret and beckoned me to follow (I was hyperventilating by this point). She took me to the back office and there was pile upon pile of files and paperwork. There followed the almost Bond-esque line, “When you are on a yacht, who wants to see the engine room?”

When we talked about business she concurred that their biggest problem was getting instructions. When I at last thought that we had at least reached a common ground on people not wanting to pay fees, I was spectacularly shot down when I was told that, “We don’t get the business if we do not charge enough”. Dear Lord, back across the bridge I will go to a different universe.

What did come over very strongly was that the whole business was based on service; top-notch, out-of-this-world service and the resulting referrals. Much of their business came from selling property for the same family over and over-being the only agent that the said family would use. No cheap fees, no cheap service. Admittedly, this is in a social demographic where anything less than expensive people don’t want to be associated with. Speaking of which, their average fee was 2% and their average sale price was £1.5 million, with 10% individual commission on each sale. Taking their average selling price, each exchange was worth £3000 to the individual sales person. I asked the future Mrs Chesh how August had been, Quiet actually she said, just 4 sales. That would have meant £12000 to her at least; no wonder she’s good.

The biggest difference was highlighted when I asked what completion day was like-vans, people trying to squash a three piece suite into the back of a mini-bearing in mind that this was the capital with no parking anywhere and yellow, if not red lines everywhere. The look that I got! “Most of the sales that we do around here, people don’t move in”. Right, I thought, buy-to-let? Nope, they just stand empty. People aren’t interested in yield, they just want capital growth. So in 2 years time, Philippa will sell it for them for £2 million, with a cool half a million profit. It sure beats 7.5% yield on rental income.

After 15 minutes, they had had enough of me (see my earlier comment about affordability). I bid them farewell and offered if they every ever wanted to try and sell a first-time buyer property in Varteg…