Agony of an estate agent

With mortgages rationed and house prices going backwards, real-estate brokers are suffering a catastrophic fall in business that could decimate the sector. Oliver Bennett visits Manchester, a buy-to-let blackspot.

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Hunters is a bright, welcoming sort of place, with red pillars, blue fascias, yellow girders. In a glass box at the bottom of No. 1 Deansgate - a soaring new skyscraper in central Manchester and an expensive address in its own right - it's the quintessence of the modern 'boutique' estate agent.

Inside, sales director Glynn Rudge is tapping at his computer as the day gets under way. In front of him is a wall full of sales instructions. To the London eye, they look astonishingly cheap: a flat for £64,950 in The Peninsula, another for £169,950 in The Edge, a landmark shard of glass in the Chapel Wharf area.

This morning, only Rudge and his colleague Natalie Bamford are on the sales desk. It's a pleasant atmosphere, but hardly frenetic. There is little sign of buyers, and no browsers. Could it be the summer, or is this another baleful effect of the credit crunch?

Hunters has lost a couple of people in the past year. As a chain across the north of England, it has the resources to survive, Rudge tells me, but others have suffered. Bamford adds that whereas there would have been 10 sales each per week last year, it's down to one or two now. Rudge, a half-full-glass sort of chap, is sanguine. 'In terms of footfall, we don't see a lot of people,' he says, breezily. 'Most of the business is now done on the internet or the phone.' But the day I spend in the agency tells its own story. No-one comes to the sales desk in person. The hospitality coffee machine remains dormant.

Central Manchester is the coalface of the UK's anxious property scene. Here, one of the most speculative markets in the UK developed over the past decade, with 81% of all homes built between 2003 and 2006 being flashy concept apartments, many for buy-to-let. Now it lies exposed. Property consultancy Hometrack found homes in the north-west were taking longer to sell than anywhere else. Prices have dropped, in some cases by more than 50%.

The few buyers have high expectations. 'We're seeing people who say: "I've got 120k and I want an apartment with parking",' says Bamford. Meanwhile, she adds, sellers are often in panic mode. 'I've had people come in with buy-to-let portfolios saying: "We've got to sell them all now".' Worse, people are losing their properties.

'She's had two properties taken into possession,' Rudge says to a caller, then puts the phone down and explains. 'The blocks designed with buy-to-let buyers in mind are seeing repossessions - much more than the predominantly owner-occupied blocks.'

So how does he now view the heady days of the early-to-mid Noughties? 'I'd question whether these £230,000 asking prices were true,' says Rudge. 'Buyers often got a 20% discount. But, yes, some people didn't do their homework and overpaid, thinking property would always rise in value.'

Along the property chain, people are hurting: buyers, vendors, estate agents. Says Peter Bolton King of the National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA), the industry's trade body: 'We've got members who are really struggling with cashflow. People are going under.'

It's a bad situation that's even worse than many think, says Ed Mead of London agents Douglas & Gordon. 'Some say that volumes are down 50%. I say it's more like 75%-80%.' Mead thinks about half is due to the credit crunch, the rest to a crisis in confidence. 'At the moment, it's summer. It won't pick up in August, so the big test is September.' And if that doesn't bring succour, then the next hope is spring 2009 - leaving a six-month gap of potential devastation.

That is likely to wreak havoc among estate agents. Of the estimated 11,000 to 12,000 agents in the UK, at least 4,000 will close by next year, according to recent predictions by investment company Movewithus, which noted that sales in its network had dropped by between 30% and 50% since last year. Meanwhile, Countrywide, the UK's largest estate agent, conservatively suggested that more than a thousand firms could go out of business. Some 50 agents in Rightmove's 6,800-strong network have closed, stopped sales or been taken over since November.

The authoritative Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) said last month that sales were lower than they had been since 1978, when records began. At the beginning of 2004, estate agents were selling an average of 32 properties per quarter; for the past three months, the figure stands at 14.4. That's an average of 1.1 properties a week.

'There's a lot of misery on the sales side,' says Mead. 'Well-known names are losing offices. Everyone has let staff go. Negotiators have got very little to do. There's nothing worse than that. People are becoming demotivated.'

It's not possible to put a number on the agents going under, says Bolton King at NAEA. 'There's no register of agents, which is part of the problem. Any idiot can set up as an estate agent tomorrow.' He thinks that if one good thing comes out of this, it will be that agents will be forced to raise their game. 'A number of agents have no training and qualifications,' he says. 'They have no basic skills.' At least, he reckons, there'll be a shake-out of the parvenus.

I look over Hunters' selection of properties again, and remark that they seem cheap. Well, this is hardly a time to over-promise, Rudge says. 'Also, we don't take on too many instructions. At present, we've got 100.' What does one do, however, if there are so few sales? 'It's not just about sales,' says Rudge. 'It's targets, people, juggling.'

There's only so much juggling agents can do, and some in Manchester have gone to the wall. 'A few have gone, but they weren't experienced,' says Rudge. 'They didn't change their business model. Those of us who have been through the earlier downturns know how to advise clients.'

Rudge says that, just 18 months ago, everything was rosy in the Central Manchester market. 'Then, a year ago Northern Rock had problems. The market slowed down slightly.' Now it is seriously divided, with some housing stock performing acceptably, other stock performing abominably. 'Put it like this,' adds Rudge, gnomically, 'you have a right side of the road, and you have a wrong side of the road.'

He takes another call, taps at his keyboard. A couple come through the glass doors - and go straight to the lettings desk. Rudge completes his call, and explains that, in the local market, developers built in the hope of snaring Manchester's young professionals.

By mid-morning in Hunters, the market conditions are obvious. No-one has yet come into the sales desk, and I haven't even seen anyone window-shop. 'I'd say two-thirds of buyer activity has gone,' says Rudge, who himself blames a combination of 'media speculation' and the clampdown on lending. 'I've got buyers who want to buy, but someone who might have got a mortgage two years ago is going to struggle now. Even 95% mortgages have disappeared. Deposits have gone up. If you've got to find £16,000 instead of £8,000, it's a big ask.'

Now, industry commentators are not even comparing the situation to the dark days of the Lawson recession in 1992. 'It's worse,' says Yolanda Barnes, director of research at global real estate company Savills. 'It's closer to the situation in 1974, when there was a secondary banking crisis. Mortgage lending was different then, but I've been told that in that year, Savills didn't do a single deal for nine months.'

Other agents corroborate this view. 'The level of transactions is far lower than 1992, and I understand from colleagues that it seems to be the worst market since the 1960s,' says Richard Hair of Hair & Son in Essex. 'Every day I hear about agents going out of business.'

Hair thinks the situation is so bad it will change the business model. 'Agents were once happy to spend and spend, with flash offices. There'll be a period of retrenchment. And regrettably, the public will have to pay more money.'

For as agents come under pressure, they are raising their commission to 2%. 'Our fees have been relatively low for the last 30 or 40 years,' says Bolton King at NAEA. 'Under the circumstances, agents have to do this.'

They will also have to diversify. Says Ivor Dickinson, Mead's colleague at Douglas & Gordon: 'If you only do sales, you're not going to survive. For example, we have lots of strings to our bow, from lettings to block management.' Even so, 2008 is hardly going to be written in the annals of estate agency as an annus mirabilis. 'The market changed in August last year, and I haven't replaced anyone for nine months. But it's not just a problem of losing staff - it's also difficult hanging on to them. Good people are not seeing commission, so they're going to other jobs, like PR.'

Late morning, and Hunters' office still has that tumble-weed feeling. Rudge and I head down Deansgate to a flat in the Great Northern Tower, another newbuild. It's a repossession. The bailiff and two workmen arrive. No-one wants to be identified. We zoom up to the 20th floor. The men take the lock off (alarmingly easily) to reveal a barely lived-in apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows looking down across Manchester's spires to the Pennines beyond.

Legal documents are signed; Rudge takes measurements. This two-bed penthouse would have started at over £300,000. Now? 'We'll probably ask £250,000,' says Rudge. The bailiff says she has seen a lot of these recently. 'The other day I had a repossession where they'd left their children's photographs behind.'

Back in the quiet comfort of the office, I ask Rudge whether we're witnessing the bottom of the market. 'I think it's gone as low as it can go,' he says. Not missing a chance to find virtue in necessity, he adds: 'I think Manchester is extremely good value. A two-bedroom flat for under £100,000 - you wouldn't have got that a year ago.' Is there not an over-supply? 'Oversupply,' he muses. 'I hear that word all the time. Put it like this: I think there's a good choice.'

It's time to meet a buyer. Rudge and I walk to the Northern Quarter. Outside a block called Design House, I meet Simon and Natalie Lowe, both 26, newly married and ready to move in together.

We walk into a flat, again with floor-to-ceiling windows. It's priced at £179,500, but Simon is noncommittal. 'Prices still seem to be dropping,' he says. 'If we were selling, then maybe we'd move now. But we don't have to. I'd like to think they'll come down even more. As buyers, we're having our cake and eating it.' We return inconclusively to the office.

Few will care about the plight of estate agents - indeed, they may even rejoice. 'I hear people say: "Isn't it great seeing estate agents suffer?",' says Mead. 'But they are the bellwether of the wider economy. The market is consumer-driven, and we are part of that chain. If we go down, then everyone else follows.'

'Most agents take 50-50 basic and commission,' he says. 'Typically, a junior negotiator might earn £25,000 - provided they get that commission.' Without it, would they receive only half that amount? 'Absolutely. I know of several estate agents who can't pay their own mortgages.'

Back in the office, Rudge is confident, having booked two valuations with two vendors. Things can only get better, he reckons. 'Property has doubled every eight years since 1940, remember.' He's aiming to hold the line, and thinks the market will recover within three years. 'We know things are down 10%,' he says. 'Prices are realigning.' And there are good aspects. 'Two years ago, someone on £18,000 a year couldn't buy a property; now they have a chance.'

But in the meantime, there'll be plenty of wreckage as agents hang up their suits and hand back the keys to their branded cars. 'You can open an estate agency pretty quickly,' says Bolton King. 'Trouble is, it can close quickly too.'

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