Focus magazine article, Summer 2003

Finding the right property
By Margaret Buntrock

It's a standard joke among estate agents that buyers look for one type of property but actually purchase something completely different. A couple seeking a period property buy a modern "box", while a person wanting a rustic cottage ends up with an apartment. Agents think this is highly amusing, but it is really a sad indictment of the property market.

As anyone who has bought a property knows, house purchase is often a frustratingly difficult and messy business. The system is not designed to help the property buyer and many people fail to reach even the important first hurdle - finding the right property - because of obstacles in the way.

Firstly, of course, there is no single information source that provides details of all properties for sale. Instead, estate agents control their own separate lists and since the number of agents has mushroomed in recent years, any one location will be covered by a multitude of companies, making it very difficult to know about every property for sale. (For example Guildford currently boasts nineteen agents.)

Secondly, because the control of property information resides firmly with estate agents, the marketing of homes is permeated by a thick fog. Agents are so fiercely competitive, they like to give the impression they operate in their own private airspace, as if in denial that there are other agents or homes for sale in their area. The level and quality of information that agents provide is often laughably poor and many of them inhabit a world of half-truths which affects their own perception so that they are incapable of recognising when a property is in a noisy location or has inadequate family accommodation. If a property has already been rejected by fifty viewers, will they tell you? Of course not!

The Property Misdescriptions Act was supposed to eradicate misleading or inaccurate descriptions, but it does not legislate about what agents choose to leave out of their sales details - a house may be close to a pylon or railway line but this will not appear in the sales details. And this is true of agents at the top of the market, as well as the bottom.

The reality is that agents are in the business of selling homes, not providing information or a home-buying service and so they are not interested in transparency. Their position of power increases in inverse proportion to the depth of ignorance and naivety of the house-hunter. Prospective buyers need all the help they can get. Hence the growth in popularity of homesearch companies who aim to shine a torch through the fog of the property market and ensure that house hunters buy the right house.

Estate agents project themselves as working for the buyer, but of course they don't, their contract is with the vendor.

" We fight our client's corner," says Rupert Bradstock of Property Vision, a leading homesearch service that was set up twenty years ago. Rupert Bradstock pinpoints the oft ignored fact about estate agents - they are paid by the vendor and thus work for the vendor, not the buyer.

So it makes sense that buyers should have someone working on their behalf. Since buying a property is usually the most important and biggest purchase anyone undertakes, the decision to employ someone to provide expert advice and assistance makes sense. Most other big purchases in life are not usually made without first seeking impartial advice or further information and it's easy when choosing a car, private schooling or a financial investment to research and check out independent opinions via magazines, professional expertise or friends' experiences, but when it comes to finding and choosing an individual property that costs hundreds of thousands of pounds, buyers are on their own ( that is, apart from the selling agents).

A homesearch service undertakes the time-consuming donkey work of contacting agents, looking for properties, viewing homes and reporting back, weeding out properties that do not match the client's requirements or that have serious drawbacks. As a result clients need only look at properties that really match their individual criteria. These days, because there are so many estate agents, a serious property hunt is almost a full-time job and it is repetitively mind-numbing work (many buyers complain that having taken the time to register with agents they never hear back from them).

Moreover, when people first start looking for properties they are shown seriously-flawed homes that have been on the agents' books for a long time. Viewing such properties can be very dispiriting and many would-be buyers actually give up at this stage or then grab at the first half-decent home that comes along. Professsional home-finders not only already know about these rejects but can also give an informed overview to their clients, providing advice on local market conditions and price movements. The house-hunter is no longer operating in ignorant isolation.

Television companies have cottoned onto the concept of the homesearch agent and programmes such as Location,Location, Location and Escape to the Country have made media stars out of people like Kirstie Alsopp and Phil Spencer But how accurate are these programmes in representing the service provided by a homesearch agent? Certainly, they bear no resemblance to the service provided by my company, Surrey Homesearch, and of course each TV property hunt is dictated by the constraints of the programme format. Thus while most homesearches take place over a number of months, on Location, Location, Location they last less than two days! Moreover, the professional homefinders are usually strangers to the chosen location, which rather defeats the object - a good homesearch agent should be an expert on their chosen area, be aware of local problems and often know the sales history of individual properties. Not surprisingly, some of the selected properties shown in the TV programmes fall outside the client's brief or budget, or are in a bad location.

However, one key aspect of preperty buying that these shows do highlight is that buyers have individual criteria - a fact that estate agents tend to ignore. A good homesearch agent works to a very tight brief dictated by the client's own particular needs. And you cannot assume anything. One person wants to be near the shops, another wants to be in a remote location (though one person's isolated village can be another's creeping suburbanisation) one buyer needs a triple garage, another wants a house without a garden! A common misconception is that homesearch clients must be too lazy or too indifferent to look for themselves. But the opposite is true. Homesearch clients tend to be more choosy, not less; they won't settle for second-best and have often been property-hunting themselves without success, so decide to bring in the professionals.

What type of people use homesearch agents? All sorts, from overseas buyers to successful locals with busy lives, from people relocating for their jobs to couples with toddlers for whom viewing houses can be a nightmare. Homesearch may primarily be about properties, but it is also about people and especially families. Sue Hurford, who runs GBDK Ltd Relocation Solutions in Buckinghamshire and whose background is in personnel, finds this aspect of the business particularly satisfying. "When we are moving a family we have to understand their lifestyle and make sure the location suits every member. It's a very high level of personal service."

An additional advantage of employing homesearch agents is that they often have information about a property before it comes to market. At Property Vision, Rupert Bradstock maintains that 63% of their clients purchase properties before they are advertised. At Surrey Houses we recently found a property for an English family moving back from Japan. The house exactly matched their criteria, we video-ed it for the clients, the wife flew over to view it, and they had their offer accepted before the sales brochure was even printed. Now the vendors of that property can't find what they are seeking, so we are on our way...

Margaret Buntrock is a director of Surrey Houses, an independent information resource for property buyers in Surrey


Venice, Italy

Off on a tangent, we know, but if you are wanting to buy a property in the city of Venice, Italy, we can help. For further information email For a taster, read the following article from The Daily Telegraph - here


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