A house is more than a home

Your home may well be the biggest investment you ever make. That's why some people are prepared to pay for the services of a buying agent. But be careful - there are cowboys about...
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The Independent Online

Do you bathe or shower? Spend a lot of time in the kitchen or eat out? These aren't questions which necessarily come to mind when you consider moving, but be prepared to divulge all when you hire the services of a property search agent.

Do you bathe or shower? Spend a lot of time in the kitchen or eat out? These aren't questions which necessarily come to mind when you consider moving, but be prepared to divulge all when you hire the services of a property search agent.

Sarah van der Noot, of London Property Search, admits she "gets to know clients very well indeed", ideally after visiting them for the first time in their home. "I can then get an idea of what they're looking for, and I have to find out some very personal details." Relocation agencies, hired by companies to find homes and schools for visiting employees, are commonplace, but less well-known are firms such as Sarah's which specialise in finding homes or investment properties for individuals and which rely on the personal touch. Proof of Sarah's perspicuity lies in her track record, exhibiting fast results for around 75 per cent of her clients. "Surprisingly, but satisfyingly, most choose on their first or second tour."

What's the difference between an estate agent and a buying agent? "It involves much more than sending out property details," says 36-year-old Sarah who has 16 years' experience of working in property. She frequently scours 80 sets of details before personally viewing 25 of those. She then produces a short list of five, plus individual reports for clients to take away covering issues such as transport links, proximity to schools and restaurants and bars. "I then collect my client from their chosen location and take them around the properties."

Sarah relies heavily on her database of 700 estate agents and is often their first point of contact when a hot property comes on to the market. "I've built up excellent relationships and they know my buyers are serious." In four years of search experience, just one failure stands out: "He paid his registration fee and we went on the first tour, after which he changed his budget. I found a new batch of properties but then, after the second tour, he said 'Oh, I think I'll rent after all'. He simply didn't know what he wanted and no one could have helped him."

Indecision cost this client £400 in registration fees, but once a property is found clients pay commission on completion of 1.5 per cent of the purchase price. Most of Sarah's searches fall within the £600,000 to £700,000 price bracket, but she will look for homes costing around £200,000 ("any less and it's not worth my while") and has no upper limit.

This may seem like a rather hefty additional expense, but most clients see it as an investment. Accountant Alan Pocock credits Sarah for saving him far more than his eventual £10,000 fee. "She saved me around £50,000. After she had found me a new flat my previous home's sale fell through. Within 12 hours she found another buyer, who paid £30,000 more and also completed within three weeks."

Following his divorce, Mr Pocock had looked for somewhere to buy but found it too traumatic. "I was going around in circles and wasn't in the best frame of mind." Through his hairdresser "doing a bit of networking" Mr Pocock heard of London Property Search, met Sarah and was instantly impressed: "She's shrewd, very perceptive and determined, just the sort of person you want working for you."

Mr Pocock had already viewed Taylor Woodrow's Montevetro development on his own but, as the building contained only undecorated shells, was unable to decide. "The windows were covered and you couldn't see the view. The sales people said 'if you want one get out your cheque book', but before I could decide they were all sold." After discovering the show flat was for sale, Sarah accompanied him on a viewing and, after convincing him that the property was suitable, she subsequently negotiated with the developers, saving Mr Pocock another £20,000 and further stress: "She was absolutely right - I love living here."

In this case thorough knowledge of both market and client were vital, but buying agents need other qualities, says Todd Zurlinden, who heads the Association of Relocation Agents and the European Relocation Association: "You need to be a good psychologist and be able to get into peoples' heads, but you must also be an all-round business person and have the ability to market yourself."

Mr Zurlinden's organisation currently has 140 members but he admits that many contemplate, but eventually abandon, the idea of setting up as a buying agent. He organises regular seminars and produces a guide to homesearch to help potential agents decide if the industry is for them: "If I sell 100 and 50 people think 'that's not for me' then I'm doing them a favour."

Associate membership lasts for two years, during which prospective agents must take out professional indemnity insurance and "prove themselves" at an interview. Mr Zurlinden finds that many estate agents "switch sides" and become search agents, but he is clear that estate agents who also act as buying agents are unwelcome. "Our organisation takes the firm view that it is a conflict of interests."

Agents who buy and sell may be unwelcome, but so are the cowboys that Sarah regularly hears about. "I got a call from someone on behalf of their elderly mother, who was in a terrible state. She had paid £800 to someone and had received nothing more than one set of property details through the post," she says.

Fleecing an elderly lady of £800 is undoubtedly sinister, but ignorance of the market can also cause long-term harm: "People set up, they don't know what they're doing or what the market is doing. You're not just finding someone a home; it's a big chunk of their money being invested," says Sarah, who can be persuasive. "I'm not a bully by any means, but I am quite tough, and being honest is important."

Honest advice is crucial to buyers of investment property. Sarah talked her client Charles Moore out of his decision to buy a two-bedroomed investment flat in Chelsea and persuaded him to buy a four-bedroomed Fulham house before his move to Singapore. "Her advice was spot on," says Charles. "The Chelsea lettings market was difficult, but the house she eventually found was let before the builders were out of there."

* London Property Search, 020-7228 1927, www.property-search.com

* Association of Relocation Agents, 08700 737475, www.relocationagents.com