Estate agents: you have been warned

Ever felt the cards are stacked against you in the search for a new home? Oliver Bennett hits the road with one of Britain's top property finders to find out how they take control
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The Independent Online

We are in a house in Hampstead, London, the kind of place Hello! would call a "gracious home". From the roof terrace to the baize lawn at the back, it's the kind of pile most people would think more than adequate. Indeed, with an asking price of £3.95m, it should be.

But Fiona Fox, a professional house-hunter and former estate agent, retains a professional distance. "The road is noisy," she says. "I'm concerned that there will be a privacy factor." She has a "brief" from her clients, whom she says are "in the public eye". She won't say who they are, but they have commissioned Fox and her firm, Garrington, to search for a property on their behalf.

House-hunting, or property-finding, is a small but growing sector. It's been around for a while - indeed, Garrington was started by Phil Location, Location, Location Spencer 10 years ago. But property-finding is now at the position that say, personal training was a decade ago; that is, the point of entry is becoming lower. Garrington's managing director, Paul Tabor, says that the market supports about 100 small players (he calls them "cottage industries") and up to 10 larger property-hunting firms in the UK. Some will go as low as £250,000, but they usually count in millions.

The way they work is this. The buyer commissions the finder to look for a house on their behalf, for various reasons: confidentiality, time-poverty, wealth, indolence. The buyer comes with a budget in mind and has a consultation. The property-finder assesses their needs and advises them ("We tell them if they have to adjust their expectations," says Fox) then looks for homes to their specifications.

House-finders help buyers (many of whom are rich foreigners) through the forest of London's property market. "There are about 90 agents in Chelsea alone," adds Fox. "We can navigate through them."

More importantly, property-finders are claiming the whip hand over estate agents. "People are tired of a property market geared towards estate agents making money for themselves," says Tabor. "By bringing in an expert buyer, you give the buyer power." The property-finder is a hand-holder with your interests at heart. But, of course, the property-finding firm has its own interests, too.

A house-finder can negotiate a better deal, and dissuade clients from buying a turkey, and clearly a good deal moderates the cost. Typically, the client pays a £2,000 flat fee, and possibly a retainer/deposit, perhaps another £2,000 every six months. Then, deal completed, they pay an additional 2.25 per cent of the purchase cost. So, if it takes two months to find the perfect £4m house, that's £92,000.

But it can be justified by virtue of a wise purchase, says Tabor. "The higher you go up the value chain, the greater the disparity in agent prices. So it's good that we can offer an alternative and objective view." It typically takes about eight and a half weeks to secure a property.

Who are the punters? "There's a lot of hot money generated from the City," says Tabor. "These people have got nothing to sell and a lot of cash to spend." Property-finders are also used for transactions invisible to the ordinary market, which suits the well-known and security-conscious. Hugh Grant and Jemima Khan used one for their £18m home in Chelsea. Tony and Cherie Blair used one to buy their £3.6m Georgian home in Connaught Square. "At this end of the market, you rarely see an advertisement," says Paul Tabor, adding that house-finders aim to get early notice of properties.

At another £3.95m pile in Hampstead, a Georgian refurbishment this time, Fiona Fox holds a brief that specifies "contemporary and traditional" furniture; a room for a nanny; four bedrooms, including two for children; and off-street parking. The clients have between £2.5m to £3.5m to spend, so this is over the odds, but worth a look.

At the door, we meet Matthew Abernethy of Savills, the selling agent. "We've show-homed it up," he says, as we walk in. Indeed, it looks like a boutique hotel. The message is suave, chic, cultivated.

Fox is cautiously impressed. "It shows well," she says. "The ceiling height is good." She scrutinises the electric fittings. "You can tell a lot by the materials and sockets. If I thought they were cheap, that would ring a bell." She likes the retro cast-iron radiators. But there are problems. "The Heath behind might be a security issue."

At the top of the house, Fox sees the downside of a Thunderbirds-style retracting ceiling. "Noisy when it rains." The house is also a quarter of a mile from Hampstead High Street, so too far from the shops.

The next house is in Belsize Park, costs £3m, and is a private vendor, a TV celeb who no longer lives in the UK. (Fiona will see about 20 places for each client, before showing them three or four.) The only furniture is a snooker table and there's a fitted sound system. Antony Rosenbaum of Goldschmidt & Howland is the guide. "It's got oomph and is more funky than most," he says.

Fox walks through the house. "The plot size is good. There's a lot of natural light. And there's a room for a nanny." But the conservatory is an issue. "I'm working out how practical this is." Nor does she like the red-brick flats over the road. "That brings up the privacy issue. And I'll need to find out who lives next door. If it's divided into flats then that might be a problem."

The final house is on a residential road in Hampstead. It's a late-Victorian terrace family home, still lived in. The family space in the kitchen, living room and basement is terrific, and it's on for £2.5m with a local independent agent, Marcus Parfitt.

But Fox is unconvinced. "There are neighbouring windows looking down over the garden," says Fox. "We could find out who owned those garages," she says, pointing to some lock-ups over the road.

Her clients have got another million to spend, so Fox will keep looking. "This autumn should see some nice new properties." And off she goes in her Audi - more than a mere estate agent.

What property finders look for

* Media room. A hi-tech recreational pit is essential for today's mega-buyers.

* Security systems/foliage. The rich and famous are security-conscious and like to hide from the paparazzi and fans.

* Off-street parking. A place to park your Lexus without the possibility of it being "keyed" by a vandal is a must-have. Add several thousand to the bill.

* A nanny's room. Any wealthy parent wants to have a special room (and preferably a special bathroom) where pouty Ilenka can retire after a day looking after the brats.

* Location, location location - and yes, location. At the top end of the market, the buyers are highly specific about the area. If they want Hampstead, or Holland Park, or Mayfair, or Belgravia, or even Chester Square, Belgravia, where Roman Abramovich lives, then that's what the house-finder has to get, even if it means doing a land search and writing to all the owners to see if they'll sell.

Where to find the experts

* Garrington Home Finders Searches in London and the Home Counties, and advises nationwide.

* County Homesearch Finds properties across the UK and overseas.

* Property Vision Advises buyers in London (if spending £400,000-plus), the UK (£800,000-plus), and the South of France.

* Griffiths Bergius Searches in UK and abroad. Never acts for two clients seeking similar homes.

* West Country

Finds cottages from £500,000, and houses and estates from £1m.