Homes: House hunting, fee and easy

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The Independent Online
For 18 months Jeremy Williams, a freelance advertising account planner and his wife Anne Hyde, a freelance photographer, became increasingly frustrated house-hunters. "We were inundated with mail, wasted most weekends on wild goose chases, and our relationship became fractious," Mr Williams says. Finally they decided to pay someone else to find them a new home and they hired the services of County Homesearch.

The couple knew they were looking for a rarity - a rural property at around pounds 100,000, within one-and-a-half hours of London - and indeed, it took another eight months to find the place they wanted. Bids were invited on the property, and a Homesearch agent, Douglas Fensome, advised them on what to offer. Last May, they became the owners of a two-bedroom lodge on a country estate in Buckinghamshire.

"Time was money for us," says Mr Williams. "It was a wonderful feeling to be able to let go of the reins, and we ended up with pretty much a perfect match to our brief."

Anyone who has ever braved the rigours of the property market will know how exhausting and demoralising the search for a house can be. There are so many criteria to satisfy, and so few hours in the day to make the necessary phone calls and trudge round homes on show - most of which are not going to fit the bill anyway.

With so little currently in the market-place, paying somebody else do the searching, while knowing that you will be getting the best possible deal, is an attractive proposition. Property search companies, which sell themselves on taking the stress out of house-hunting, claim to have expert knowledge of the market-place, and are confident of being able to get a better price for a property than the client would acting alone.

Typically, when clients approach a search company, an agent will come and see them face-to-face to get a feel for exactly what they are looking for, and within what price range. Once it has been established that the company can work productively for the client, a contract is drawn up and an initial fee levied. The idea is to ensure that the client is serious, but the amount paid is sometimes deductible from the final fee.

Estate agents are keen to deal with search companies because they know the buyer being represented is serious, and that good relationship means that firms often get wind of properties before they go on the market. The firm then takes the client to the very best places it has seen, giving advice and pointing out pitfalls, and, when the client has made a decision, the condition of the property is assessed. The final fee charged to the client for the service is usually between 1 and 2.5 per cent of the purchase price.

One of the most established search organisations is Property Vision, which has been finding homes in the country for the time-starved buyer since 1983, and in London since 1989. Says director Charles Ellingworth: "Fifteen years ago, we did research which showed that people wanted advice that they just weren't getting from estate agents. Estate agents are acting in the interests of the seller, not the buyer, and we found that purchasers were prepared to pay someone to act on their behalf."

Property Vision will seek out properties starting at pounds 400,000 in the country, and at pounds 250,000 in London, with London property now constituting around two-thirds of its business. With a registration fee of pounds 1,500 in London (pounds 2,500 in the country), and a final fee of 2.5 per cent of the property's purchase price, Ellingworth admits Property Vision is more expensive than other buying agencies, but the initial charge is returnable against the final amount.

Stacks Relocation, which was set up in 1984 and now has 14 regional offices, charges a pounds 300 retaining fee, returnable against a final fee of 1.5 per cent of the purchase price. Paul Greenwood, managing director, claims to save clients money "not necessarily from the asking price of a property, but from what would happen if they were left to their own devices".

County Homesearch, established seven years ago by Jonathan Haward, now has 23 offices country-wide, with offices in Singapore and Hong Kong serving expatriates returning to the UK. It will search for properties worth from pounds 75,000 up to several million pounds, charging a registration fee of pounds 350 to "sort the wheat from the chaff". The final fee is equivalent to either 1.5 per cent of the purchase price, or 15 per cent of the saving made on the asking price - whichever is the greater.

Some estate agents will also act for buyers, among them Savills in London. Johnny Turnbull, of its Knightsbridge office, says: "A client who's been looking unsuccessfully for, say, six months, might come to me and say `We get on with you - will you help us keep looking?' I might then see a suitable place about to go on to the market, and if the client likes it I will try and get it at the best possible price for him." That, of course, constitutes something of a role reversal for the estate agent, whose job it is usually to make as lucrative a sale as possible, but agents do not usually ask for any money initially, and the final fee charged is only 1 per cent of the purchase price.

Meanwhile Jeremy Williams is in no doubt that using a search company gave good value for money. "What we saved on mileage," he says "we've been able to spend on making the house look exactly as we want it."

Property Vision: 0171 823 8388. Stacks Relocation: 01666 860523. County Homesearch: 01872 223349. Association of Relocation Agents: 01273 624455.

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