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Unique properties

publication date: Apr 21, 2006
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It’s an effective branding exercise for one thing: clients know exactly what to expect from your business, and, in an industry that suffers from a spectacular lack of recognition - the average person on the street would be pushed to name five different estate agency brands - that’s a serious plus. It immediately demonstrates to potential clients just how your agency differs from the rest on the high street, something agents spend millions of pounds each year on advertising budgets to achieve.

We spoke to three estate agents for whom specialisation has proved a good business model; all believe they have been more successful by choosing to limit what they are selling. Tom Trudgian, of Stern Studios, set up his company with his wife Sonia Stern in the early 1980s. Their company, as its name suggests, sells studio and one-bed properties in London, from £120,000 to £250,000, a price range that most estate agencies feel is not worth the paltry commission.

Stern Studios, on the other hand, make it a policy not to accept any properties over £250,000, even if we were offered a six million pound property, as then they find themselves in competition with the rest of estate agencies, and lose their function. Their market is first time buyers, companies buying for employees, buy-tolet investors and, more and more, people who have recently got divorced and hate the thought of going back to renting but can’t afford anything bigger.

Thirty years ago I was new to the industry and I bought a studio flat for £9,000, explains Trudgian. In those days, you couldn’t get a mortgage for a studio flat. I wanted to sell my studio and move up, only I couldn’t find an estate agent who would take the property on for me. So I marketed and sold it myself.

Then, in the early 1980s, banks started offering mortgages on studios, and the studio market took off. The consequence was many more people could buy studios and prices rocketed. When I first started selling studios in 1978, I remember having a list of studios for sale, all under £15,000. That soon changed.

Stern Studios makes it financially viable by having a high turnover of sales, with very few studios remaining on their books longer than three weeks. One memorable flat sold by Stern Studio was in Princes Court, Knightsbridge, London opposite Harrods. The studio a converted broom cupboard sold for £120,000 and measures 9 foot by 11 foot. At the time it was probably the most expensive property, per square foot, in the UK. Since then, another teeny-tiny studio has snapped up the dubious honour.

Trudgian explains the demand for studios as a lifestyle choice. “Some people don’t want to commute two hours-plus a day,and would prefer a shoe box in central London to that. Our clients are generally the sort of people who want to be 30 minutes from their work”. He adds the market is buoyant, and that it always will so in London for their will always be a demand at a first time buyer level.

Another niche market agency is Waterside Properties, also set up in the late 1980s by its managing director, Peter Halliday. “We looked at the market place and found no one else was doing something similar, selling properties in marinas, or properties near the water. That was a major starting point”, he explains.

“When we started there were a lot of marina villages being built on the south coast – the concept being that you had a mooring at the bottom of your garden. Buyers often have another large house in Ascot, but fancied something with a quality of leisure time. Often it was a second home purchase, or sometimes it was a complete lifestyle change.”

When they started in 1987, the recession was in full swing, so it took until the early to mid 1990s before things took off. “The type of properties we deal in, people are likely to want a specialist to deal with. We set ourselves apart as the waterside estate agents.”

The company now has nine offices, including ones in Eastbourne, Brighton, Southampton and Portsmouth. When asked if Halliday ever considered selling anything other than watery locations, he replied an emphatic, No. We’ve never looked back. It would dilute what we do. This way, people know what we’re about. Their average client is over 40, and the properties they deal in range from £250,000 and up to three million. There’s also an international wing to their company, Waterside Property Overseas, selling in the Mediterranean and Caribbean - the company was voted the best UK-Caribbean agent at the Bentley Property Awards 2004 and 200%.

Lastly, we spoke to Urban Spaces, who specialise in selling lofts. The company started in 1995 when Harry Handlesome from the Manhattan Loft Corporation jumped ship and joined David Pollock and John Hitchcock to start the company. Chloe Brown, marketing manager, explains that “there was a growing phenomenon of loft living at the time, and Urban Spaces offers cool living spaces to the Clerkenwell area in London, dealing only with lofts, live/work spaces and contemporary homes.”

She explains that where Urban Spaces captures the market is by offering a contemporary, city experience. Tapping into the aspirations of their client base the company offers spaces in breathtaking buildings, with unique interior design for those who are interested in design. We promote lifestyle as much as property. She adds the market for lofts is very busy at the moment, buoyed by healthy City bonuses. Average properties sold are between £250,000 to one million.

So lofts, studios and properties by water have all proved lucrative routes for three agencies with a difference. Plus, it’s often a good way of combining a personal enjoyment or interest with business, often a successful business combination.

Last word goes to Halliday: “I wanted to work in property but didn’t fancy being a high street agency. We love what we do, it’s a nice market place, and a good opportunity to combine personal interest with good business sense - and what could be better than that?”