Before you spend months house hunting, and ultimately hundreds of thousands of pounds, spend a couple of minutes reading our latest interview with ‘The secret estate agent’. Working for a notable high street chain based in the south of England, she shares her insider tips on buying a house or flat, the mistakes people make, and how best to deal with the one person that can often come between you and your dream home – the estate agent.
Unni and Evans (U&E): “How many properties should a house hunter view?”
The Secret Estate Agent (TSEA): “Good question. Of course there’s no right or wrong answer, but the industry average will see people visit eight to ten homes before choosing. If you accept that you’ll probably be within that average number, try to be as selective as possible from the start about which properties you view.
I see so many buyers who view several places very soon after beginning their search, without giving enough thought to what they truly want. The downside to this is that ‘buyer fatigue’ can set in – people can end up settling for something simply because they’ve expended most of their energy on early viewings that were never really going to be right for them.
Let’s not forget, the agent can also become ‘fatigued’ with you if you’re seen as tyre-kicker, and in this buoyant market you can’t afford to let that happen."
U&E: “How can we be selective about what we view then?”
TSEA: “Well, you’ve heard the term ‘location, location, location’, and this should be the first filter you apply to your search. I’ll frequently receive feedback after a viewing that the place “just wasn’t in the right location”. I’ll always smile politely in response, but frankly Google maps and/or a drive by could have told them this, and they’ve started down the aforementioned slippery slope of buyer fatigue.
As well as location, study floor plans and carefully consider whether the space is going to work for you. Perhaps you have ambitions to extend? Remember that you can check on your local council’s website to see if planning permission has previously been applied for and granted.
Finally, think about how long you plan to stay in the property and what life might bring during that time. For example, I’ll often sell for a client who bought a house a few years ago without checking the local school’s Ofsted report, and is now moving on in search of a better education for their child. More fees and commission for us – not so great for you.”
U&E: “Other tips when we’re on the initial search?”
TSEA: “Going into the branch regularly to enquire about houses for sale can certainly help, as it keeps you in the forefront of the agent’s mind. I recently had a customer who came into branch and told me that she’d had her eye on a certain property for sale, but that it had recently sold. This place came back on the market, I called her immediately, and deal done. Believe it or not, we’re only human, and so be memorable for the right reasons and we’re more likely to give you a call when something suitable crops up."
U&E: “So sold doesn’t always mean sold?”
TSEA: “Absolutely not, and it’s vital to remember that nearly a third of prospective sales fall through. Not great to be on the receiving end of this, but remember that this statistic can also work to your advantage. You might lose out initially on a bid, only to find that it magically reappears ‘for sale’ a few weeks or months later.
One other tip though – if something reappears, act fast. I recently dealt with a couple who were diligent enough to spot a house come back on the market, and it was even going for 5% less than originally sold for, as the vendor didn’t want their chain to collapse. The interested couple phoned me first thing, but decided to view after a pre-arranged lunch. Another viewing and bid came in by late morning and they lost out on a bargain. Expensive lunch."
U&E: “Ok, so it’s the day of the viewing – how can we make the best start?”
TSEA: “In my experience, prospective buyers often don’t do enough research or get a feel for the area before making their offer. Here’s a key illustration of this - a vast majority of buyers will park on the driveway of the house, or in the nearest possible parking space outside the flat. Cocooning yourself in your car until the very last minute doesn’t give you any sort of feel for the surrounding area.
My advice is to park up a quarter of a mile or so away and walk from there. That five minute walk will give you time to assess all sorts of things about the neighbourhood, what other people have done with their similar properties etc. There’s also the added benefit that you’ll have those same five minutes after the viewing to distil your thoughts or chat with your partner, before getting back into the car. You’ll be amazed at what you can pick up about an area – good and bad – by leaving the car five minutes early.”
U&E: “What should we be asking the agent during the viewing?”
TSEA: “It’s surprising how many people don’t ask the questions that will really help them when it comes to making an offer. As agents, we’ll happily exchange pleasantries all day long, and repeat what’s on the sale sheet, but make sure you ask the questions that will help you during any forthcoming negotiations.
Ask about the vendor and their reasons for selling. For example, if you find out that a flat is rented, you can then ask whether the tenants have been given notice, and when they are due to move out. You may then be in a stronger negotiating position if, for example, you’ve already sold and you know that the vendor’s rental income will soon dry up.
Also ask how many people are viewing and how many offers they have previously had. The agent might not always tell you, or tell you the truth, but equally, often they will, and this puts you in a stronger position."
U&E: “Any other hints or tips?”
TSEA: “Try to talk to as many people as possible about the area, whether that be people you know, or people that you encounter while heading for the viewing. They’ll often share valuable insights that you might not get from the selling agent (the hint’s in the word ‘selling’).
Also, if you’re viewing on your own or even as a couple, feel confident about bringing along somebody else, if you think their opinion could help. That could be a friend, parent (they’ve probably got decades of experience at this) or perhaps a trusted builder. Don’t worry about what the agent might think – you’re potentially investing a lot of money, and so it’s your prerogative to give yourself the best possible due diligence.
Finally, drive by the property in the evening. A majority of viewings happen during the day, which doesn’t give you a true sense of what the neighbours are like or the parking situation (which can often be a real issue, especially in new build estates).”
U&E: “How many times should we view?”
TSEA: “I, of all people, appreciate how competitive it is out there for buyers, especially in London and the south, and I know this is easy for me to say, but do always try to have a second viewing before making an offer. Spend in haste, repent in leisure, as they say."
U&E: “Is it true that agents often treat potential buyers in very different ways?”
TSEA: “Yes, it is. I’m lucky to work in a very active market in the south of England, which on the whole is great for agents. However, I sympathise with those searching for that dream home, as finding a house or flat that you like is only half the challenge these days, and it really helps if you’re deemed by the agent to be an attractive buyer.
As agents, we’ll often categorise buyers into three types and it’s worth knowing which one you are, so that you get a better understanding of where you stand. The terminologies might vary between agencies and regions, but the principles usually remain the same:
You’d be forgiven for assuming that a ‘VIP buyer’ is someone who’s already sold their home or is a cash buyer, but that’s not the case. In the eyes of agents, a VIP is actually someone who isn’t sold, but either has, or plans to have, their property on the market with you. Why? Double commission, of course.
Here's an example of how we get VIPs onto our books. Imagine we’ve set up an ‘open house’ viewing. It’s a trend that started in the US, but has become increasingly popular over here in the UK in recent years, as it taps into various selling techniques such as scarcity, plus it creates a competitive buzz on the day, which usually helps stimulate bidding. Frankly, they’re also much easier on us logistically, rather than arranging lots of separate viewings. Anyway, let’s say we’re already fully booked on the open day. Then, someone phones up and says they’re really keen to attend. Chances are they’re selling, so we’ll offer them a quid pro quo – if they let us market their property, we’ll let them view this place before the open day, giving them a head start. I’m sure you’re already ahead of me on this one – irrespective of whether they end up buying that house or not, the agent has got their home on the books.
These are buyers who have already sold or haven’t got anything to sell (they could be first timers, currently in a rental, cash buyers etc), but are of course ready to buy. To reiterate, they’re not considered VIPs because they’re not also selling a property via us – ergo no prospect of a double-whammy on the commission.
These are the folks that are on the market with another agent, but haven’t sold. They’re of very little interest to the selling agent and you’re going to have to sell yourself and sometimes work hard to even persuade the agent into agreeing to a viewing.
Unfortunately, many people, especially somewhat naive first time buyers or people who haven’t been active in the market for years, don’t understand this point and wonder why agencies aren’t being receptive to them. In this current climate you either need to be a ‘VIP’, on the verge of being sold or have actually sold before estate agents are interested in you. I appreciate that this might sound hard, but it’s just the commercial reality, and by knowing where you stand, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and effort."
U&E: “So, best to make yourself a VIP?”
TSEA: “Essentially, do what’s best for you, but being a VIP certainly doesn’t hurt, let’s put it that way. Another tip would be that if you’ve already decided the area you’re going to buy in, then think about selling your current home through the agent that specialises in selling within that area. They’re likely to have the most places you’re interested in, and you’ll become a VIP with them.
One way or another, in such an active market you need to make yourself appealing to the agent. Otherwise, why would they be interested in you when they’ve got a dozen other people interested already?"
U&E: “OK, we’re ready to make an offer.”
TSEA: “This is where the fun really begins. The most useful advice I can give is to always, always keep in mind what the property is worth to you, irrespective of whether that is below or above the asking price. Easier said than done, I know, but try to be logical rather than emotive when you make offers. I’ve seen a lot of people spend a lot of excessive amounts of money by becoming too fixated on a property."
U&E: “Any tips on how to bid and negotiate?”
TSEA: “Assuming you’ve asked all the right questions when you were viewing, you’ll know how long it’s been on the market for, which gives you a steer on how bold you can be with your bid. Certainly if the property has been on the market for more than a couple of weeks, I personally would never recommend going in at the asking price.
Properties tend to sell relatively quickly and so if it lingers on the market for a couple of months, or it’s already had an open day and hasn’t sold, chances are there’s something not quite right. More often than not that’s simply down to the price, relative to the condition or location of the place.
Finally, remember that you can always go up with an offer, but you can’t go down. Sounds obvious, but if I had a pound for every person that offered too much too soon, I’d be retired."
U&E: “Where do we stand once an offer has been made and/or accepted?”
TSEA: “As I mentioned earlier, exchange and completion isn't a foregone conclusion - the sad fact is that a third of deals fall through. Quite simply, ready yourself for that distinct possibility and don’t go and choose the new furniture or plan the interior design until you have the keys."
U&E: “Agents often recommend additional services for the prospective purchaser – what would be your guidance on this?”
TSEA: “I’m not here to paint agents in a bad light – the industry is in a much better place than it was ten or twenty years ago – but it’s always useful for buyers to understand more about the commercial dynamics of an estate agency, as you then have a better idea of how to play the game. The agent’s opportunity to make money doesn’t end when they’ve sold the property – there’s commissions to be earned and targets set on financial advisor fees and mortgages – and so there are a few things to be wary of:
U&E: “Thanks for your insights today TSEA. If you were to give one piece of closing advice on buying a house or flat, what would that be?”
TSEA: “The right property for you is the one that’s the right price, in the right location and where the sale successfully completes. If things fall short at any one of those hurdles – and believe me, they often will – then it just wasn’t to be. Accept it and move on, as it’s a tough market out there and the most resilient buyers win the day."
Please note that the views expressed in this article aren’t necessarily the views shared by Unni and Evans.
Unni and Evans is an independently owned e-tailer, offering modern, high quality furniture distinctly different from that which you'll typically find on the high street. We have a wide range of unique products, from traditional solid oak to contemporary shabby chic and industrial style furniture.
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