'Apprentice' star Jamie Lester is changing the way Londoners buy their homes
Ten years ago when you walked into an estate agent you knew what to expect; rows of desks, sharp young men in sharp (ish) suits and hard young women in heels. Tack on to that a slight sneer at your proposed budget and a (never fulfilled) promise to call you when the right property came in, and the whole business of moving was liable to make your heart sink before you even put your house on the market.
Fast forward to 2012 and I have just walked into a southwest London estate agent that looks like my kitchen. In Haus Properties, the desks are hidden at the back of the office while in the front a large scrubbed pine table with an inlaid map of the area (Fulham) takes pride of place, surrounded by industrial chic stools. The decor is like a roll call of Livingetc's greatest heroes – there are Orla Kiely sugar pots, a Graham and Green armchair and a clock from Maisons du Monde.
As I walk in, brushing past the floor-length curtains (put there to soften the look apparently), Jamie Lester of 2010's series of The Apprentice, bounces over to shake my hand. He is wearing an open shirt and jeans.
I am ushered through the invisible door (decorated to blend into the wall) to the cloakroom where I hang my coat and remark ruefully on the leather door handles (which I actually have in my kitchen). "It looks like my house," I say as I emerge. "It certainly doesn't look like an estate agent."
"That word is banned," says Lester, his beaming smile wavering only for a nanosecond. "This is a property company and we want it to look like your kitchen. The kitchen is the heart of the home after all."
Lester's new estate agency – sorry, property company – is the logical endpoint of a design revolution begun by Foxtons 10 years ago. They were the first to rip out the rows of desks and replace them with egg chairs and small café-style tables. The company added walls of television screens and fridges of mineral water and everyone wondered if they'd come to the right place.
Since then, other agencies gradually followed suit, although none in quite such an extreme fashion as Foxtons. Now no agency is complete without a sofa and a coffee machine.
Ben Taylor, managing director of Faron Sutaria, says they are simply keen to promote a relaxed environment. "Twenty years ago, one would never have used the word 'retail' to refer to what we do, but since then estate agents have morphed to blend in with the rest of the high street. Our offices need to look as smart and inviting as the shops and boutiques which surround them," he says.
"We have designed our offices to emphasise comfort and, rather than separating staff and potential buyer by a large desk, we have more private meeting areas with low round tables and comfy chairs. This also means, if we are going to ask people to be frank about their living and financial situations, they feel relaxed and at ease."
So, where Lester and Haus Properties have gone for the kitchen look, Faron Sutaria is aiming for your sitting room. "Over the past decade, people have devoted a lot more time, effort and money into creating interiors which reflect their lifestyles and estate agencies have adapted in line with this," says Taylor. "Our offices have chandeliers, soft furnishings and flock wallpaper to simulate the aspirational property look of the homes we sell. There is also a huge coffee culture on all of our high streets now and people are drawn to those kinds of environments and will happily spend a couple of hours in a coffee shop – our clients benefit from a similar inviting, relaxed and comfortable environment."
This, however, is a situation that Peter Young, MD of John D Wood is keen to avoid. "We are an estate agent, not a coffee shop," he says. "Being 'matey' with buyers in the first instance makes those hard negotiations about price and timescale awkward and impertinent down the road. We always address our clients by their title. We're happy for people to pop in and talk about property but the best thing we have to offer is not bottled water but solid sound advice and thorough local knowledge.
"We do have a complimentary in-house interior consultant team to advise vendors on presentation and to assist with all aspects of the move but, while we do a fair amount of hand-holding, this is a professional operation."
So that's us told then. And you can understand why some people are confused. McDonald's has also rebranded in recent years and some of their branches include the egg chairs. It is not inconceivable that you could wander into Foxtons and ask for a Big Mac or try and sell your house to a burger flipper. So why have they done it?
In contrast to the relaxed nature of their offices, Foxtons, which is opening new branches this month in London (recession, what recession?), would only issue a rather corporate statement: "Foxtons was the pioneering agent to introduce our café-style offices back in 2002, revolutionising the high-street presence of estate agents. The objective was to move away from the traditional agency style and to provide a more modern, comfortable and relaxed atmosphere for our clients."
But for Lester the atmosphere is just a small part of it. He is aiming to rehabilitate estate agents as a breed. "We know when the clients walk in that they don't want to be there. They are on the defensive from the start."
To that end he is operating an "open book" policy – no really – with technology that allows each vendor not only to see the efforts that the company is making to sell their property but also giving them details about upcoming viewings.
"We will tell you that you have a visit at 6pm with a prospective buyer who is half cash, half mortgage followed by one that is all cash at 6.60pm," says Lester. "The vendor should know the financial situation of someone who wants to buy their house," says Lester.
In addition to that, the brochures include details of the area's best bars, closest cafés and favourite parks. Feedback on viewings is detailed and added to the "open book", which each vendor can access online using their own password, and eventually Lester hopes to have details of all the other houses on the market in the same bracket.
Finally, and this is the clever bit, Haus will pack and move you as part of the fee. Then, perhaps, Lester might offer you one of the Cohiba cigars which sit on the bookshelves among the Jilly Cooper novels and Lee Child thrillers.
Whether Lester's new look will catch on only time will tell, but in true Apprentice style he is giving it everything.
"This is my moment and I am giving it everything. We are opening a second office in Chiswick in March and I hope to have 10 to 15 offices in total. Then we can be really hausproud," he says. "What's really great is that every time a rival agency does its job it has to mention us – 'what kind of haus are you looking for?' It's great. The name, which was inspired by the Huf Haus that I will one day have, has taken on a personality of its own and we're really pleased."
One senses that perhaps Lord Sugar would be quite proud too.
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