The benefits of buying to let

Demand is growing for good rental property and there is money to be made, writes Ginetta Vedrickas
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The Independent Online
At the risk of being banned from Butlins, can you spot a connection between Margaret Thatcher and the mother-in-law?

Malcolm Harrison, spokesperson for the Association of Residential Lettings Agents (ARLA) thinks he can. He links the Iron Lady and the gradual demise of old-style comedians' favourite person to his industry's current success.

"Margaret Thatcher pushed many into buying who otherwise may not have," Mr Harrison says. "Couples tend not to marry these days, there's not that pressure from the mother-in-law, so they rent rather than buy."

Is renting preferable to buying? And why are investors buying to let? The London lettings scene is complex and it's hard to have an overview of a market encapsulating corporate and private tenants.

Private rentals in the UK run at around 11 per cent compared to France or Germany's 40 per cent. Rates are rising and pre-Budget jitters now seem like unnecessary angst.

One agent confided: "We've been praying and waiting to see if that nice Mr Brown was going to hammer us. We're breathing sighs of relief as he's been pretty neutral about lettings and there are minor advantages in the small print." Buying British is obviously endemic but are things changing?

Many agents believe that buyers now delay until their mid-30s because of an increasing need for mobility. "Couples are too busy working these days, frequently on short contracts, so they rent for flexibility. They don't want the hassle of coming home and finding the drains blocked, they leave that to the landlord," says Malcolm Harrison, who sites divorce and separation rates as additional influences.

Susan Fitz-Gibbon, owner of Fitz-Gibbon Residential, has clients in all sectors of the market. Covering west London from Kensington out to Hampton, Susan credits the big boys for an expanding market: "The corporates are coming out of the woodwork and they will pay up to pounds 1,200 per week for good-sized family homes. They're bringing in new people and previously slashed allowances are going up."

Susan has six clients chasing each property and many are let the same day. Investors are keen to buy in an area that is cheaper than prime London heartland and yields a greater return, so the suburbs are popular. "We aim for at least 10 per cent," says Susan: "But there's a huge need for more people to let."

Landlords who bought at peak prices sold once the market revived, leaving a paucity of middle market rentable property.

ARLA and seven members in the Council for Mortgage lenders launched the "Buy to Let" scheme 18 months ago to boost rentals. With investors able to borrow at 6.99 per cent fixed for three years, the scheme has helped to bring good quality properties onto the market. Andrew Reeves, a Bromley lettings agent, says: "You won't find granny's cast-off squirly carpets in these flats. They are aimed at thirties professionals in sound employment who are happy to rent providing standards are good."

But is the new investor a Rachman wannabe? "We've finally killed him off. Your average landlord is in his forties or fifties," says Malcolm Harrison: "He's got his PEPs and his Tessas, Aunt Agatha dies and he's got a bit of surplus. He wants an investment he can walk past, he doesn't want to put it in Nick Leeson's pocket and have it floating off to Tokyo."

Jo Kitson, 31, doesn't quite fit the stereotype. She does have the maximum amount of Tessas and PEPs and chose the buy to let scheme to give her portfolio a "broader base of investment". Jo found that she would get the best return on a one-bedroom flat in west London, a popular area for rentals. Was the process complex? "I can't believe how easy it's been. I got a buy-to-let mortgage over the phone, handed over to the lettings agents and within two weeks a South African professional moved in straight from his hotel."

Jo's return is around 12 per cent and she is looking for a second property for herself and another for a friend overseas. Has she any tips? "Find a flat that needs minimal upkeep and decorate it in neutral colours. Mine looks incredibly fresh and if there's a choice of properties you know that yours will rent first."

Angela Folan, another investor through the scheme, agrees. Her two Bromley flats with monthly rentals of pounds 475 and pounds 550 currently bring returns of 10 and 12 per cent. Angela is happy for agents to manage her flats and hopes to take over when her children are bigger so that "it will be like a job". Any problems so far? "My only regret is not doing it sooner. Years ago my bank manager pooh-poohed the idea of a housewife doing such a thing, but this time it was so easy."

Brendan Binnerman, a psychiatrist, will be working in Camberwell, London for two years and is renting a one-bed flat nearby for pounds 500 a month. Was it easy to find somewhere? "It was much harder than I thought. Agents were hopeless and didn't marry up the right sorts of properties with tenants. I was turned down because I smoke and was shocked to find some flats turned out to be council properties and were very dodgy."

Are couples impulsive about the sort of property they rent? Nadine Morgan, the Institute of Psychiatry's accommodation officer, helps visitors find short-let rentals and frequently sees aspirations shift downwards: "Visitors come for six months and hope that relatives will visit. Initially they want a two-bed but when they discover the cost they swiftly change to a one-bed and say relatives can sleep on the sofa."

Buy to Let hotline: 01923 896555, Monday-Friday 9am-5.30pm; Fitz-Gibbon Residential, 0181 892 8921; Andrew Reeves, 0181 464 8566.