House hunting is never the fun it should be. We start out with dreams of the perfect overseas pad only to be beaten into a compromise by lack of time, information or availability of decent properties.
That's where a property finder can be worth their weight in gold. They take the hard work out of sourcing homes to your specification, and try to help the whole purchase run smoothly.
"Buyers don't understand how long the process can take," says Barbara Wood of The Property Finders, which has agents in several European countries. "It can go on for months, especially if you're working full time or have a family."
Wood's team won't source properties until a thorough brief has been drawn up on their client's needs and circumstances. Then they search for homes that fit the bill as closely as possible, only showing clients properties that they also know are legally available.
"Estate agents work for the seller and can only offer you what's on their books, yet much of the best property is sold via word of mouth," Wood says. "We have the knowledge to search markets for homes that won't be advertised. Estate agents also won't necessarily look at the paperwork to check a home is fully legal, but we do."
The Property Finders takes a €900 (£714) registration fee and 2.5 per cent commission on a successful purchase. Wood says that good agents should be able to make back their costs by negotiating on price.
Business owner Bob Watson, who engaged The Property Finders to source his villa in Catalonia, was happy to hand over the reins after he failed to find a suitable place himself. He says that without their expert help in sorting out practical and legal issues, he almost certainly would not have made the purchase. "It makes sense to have someone doing the legwork for you," says Watson. "I think it's worth it for anyone. A good agent saves you time and also gives peace of mind."
Search agents come into their own in difficult markets. European cities can be especially tricky if you can't visit in person or don't speak the local language. Estate agents in Rome or Paris, for example, work differently to the UK; many aren't geared up for overseas buyers.
Miranda Bothe, a qualified estate agent who now works for Paris Property Finders, says that around half of the homes in the French capital don't make it on to estate agents' books. "If you're not local, it's almost impossible to find good property," she says. "A search agent can save you a lot of time as they'll scout out the properties first. Only when I have seen apartments that I know will absolutely suit my client do they come to look for themselves."
Bothe charges 3 per cent commission. She says she can help buyers find the best value for their budget, recommend up-and-coming areas and advise on locations to avoid. Like Wood, she'll also help with contracts, legal advice and after-sales services, such as finding decorators and builders. "Clients are paying for a personalised service, but also for my extensive knowledge."
If you have aspirations to own outside Europe, London-based Quintessentially Estates could be right for you. "We can save you money and time," says the company director, Lucy Russell. "We have in-depth market knowledge, can help with legal aspects and offer a three-month after-sales service."
The company will discuss at length what you're looking for, be it a second home, relocation property or a pure investment. Russell's team will then shortlist a selection and arrange for you to visit them in one hit. Once you've made a choice, they'll put you in touch with a lawyer. "We work with the best local advice and recommend people who know what they're doing," says Russell. Quintessentially charges a registration fee of £500, redeemable against the final purchase, and a 2 per cent commission. Russell claims that her company often has exclusive access to properties, and says her clients are busy people who can't spend months viewing properties and going through a protracted purchase.
Paris Property Finders: 00 33 (0) 1 7277 0039, www.parispropertyfinders.com; The Property Finders: 0800 622 6745, www.thepropertyfinders.com; Quintessentially Estates: 0845 224 3658, www.quintessentiallyestates.com
How to make the most of agents
*When engaging a property finder, quiz them about their professional credentials and level of experience to see how well they know the market.
*Registration fees are usually non-refundable should you not go ahead with a purchase, and you may also be asked to cover an agent's expenses.
*Be honest about what you can afford and what you want. An agent can only help you if they have accurate information.
*Ask what level of service the agent provides. Do they help with translating documents, appointing legal staff, and connecting utilities once the sale has gone through?