Despite the economic doom and gloom, surveyors are weathering the storm. Property sales may have slumped, but for many building surveyors the order books are filling up fast as homeowners, developers and buy-to-let enthusiasts rethink their priorities.
Stephen Boniface, a partner at the mixed surveyor/architect practice WCP, based in Bishop’s Stortford, is the outgoing chair of the Building Surveying Faculty at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). He believes that the thousands of UK homeowners who have decided to stay put until the current economic conditions improve are still prepared to make costly improvements to their properties.
“Whether it’s a standard loft conversion or a single-storey extension at a budget of £30,000 to£50,000, or a more substantial expansion running to more than £200,000, we are finding that residential clients are still very keen to spruce up their properties for the long-term.” Another area of surveying that shows no signs of slowing down is dispute resolution. “When it comes to boundary disputes or litigation between landlord and tenant, people are just as keen to take the legal route in a slump as they are in good times,” says Boniface.
With 170 different specialisms covered by the RICS, the credit squeeze doesn’t necessarily mean that times are hard for surveyors, says Gary Strong, director of practice standards and technical guidance at RICS. “It is true that building surveyors like me are busy during a recession when people decide to repair and renovate rather than relocate, and I understand from colleagues that specialisms such as land and mineral surveying are largely unaffected by economic downturns,” he says.
He believes insolvency practitioners are inevitably doing well as more firms go to the wall and their lenders seek to recover their losses, but so too are management consultancy surveyors able to offer a wide range of skills to clients in more defensive mood. As the Government seeks to limit any significant increase in unemployment caused by shutdowns and redundancies, surveyors in the public sector are also being kept very busy, he adds.
All firms with a large property portfolio are under increased pressure, but the move to sweat more value out of existing assets is, ironically, providing more work for surveyors, not less, says Helen Gough, a partner at commercial property consultancy King Sturge and incoming chair of the Building Surveying Faculty at RICS. She says: “The resilience of building surveyors in a tough market is very noticeable at the moment, with our clients in retail, offices and industrial property looking to get as much value as possible out of their assets while the downturn continues.”
While Gough believes that “it’s probably true that we’re having to work harder to bring new projects in and are doing more speculative work,” she says that her firm’s order book for next year is stronger than this time last year. She also notes that as the current downturn continues, many clients are looking for “a more multidisciplinary approach” from their property advisors. They say that one man’s misfortune is another’s opportunity and for Jon Gershinson, managing partner at the commercial division of property consultancy Allsop, insolvency practice is booming. Like Gough, Gershinson believes that when times are hard, the profession must start to think more laterally.
“When it comes to insolvency, surveyors are the true property experts and it is up to us to find the most creative way forward – whether that’s a case of lending a house builder more money to get the job finished or renting out new property in the interim and then proceeding to sell when the market recovers.”
Gershinson, who also chairs the RICS Recovery and Insolvency Forum believes that more surveyors will inevitably consider building a specialism in this area as time goes on. “I believe many more surveyors are now looking to move into this potentially very lucrative area.” While Gershinson says he sees “no evidence whatsoever” of the downturn ending, Stephen Boniface is optimistic. “In recent weeks, requests for valuations have begun to increase again and we believe it is possible that the worst of the property slump is already over. Although I don’t want to suggest that all the problems are over, we take the current flurry of orders as a very good sign.”
However rosy or otherwise the future economic forecast for the UK looks, it is clear, says Gary Strong, that for RICS members, extra training and new skills may well be the best way forward. “We are looking to offer more courses and products for members who are suffering now and I believe we’ll see more building surveyors move into areas such as dispute resolution. “If the market does worsen, we’ll look to get together with career development providers such as universities to provide extra training for those members who are really feeling the pinch.”