A brief history of housing in England and Wales

The historical recognition of the form of houses tends to be identified by reference to a period of English architectural style, for example Tudor or Victorian. The majority of the current housing stock dates from the middle of the nineteenth century and later, although there are earlier houses in existence, such as sixteenth century (Tudor), seventeenth century (Stuart, Carolingian, William and Mary), eighteenth century (Queen Ann, Georgian) and early nineteenth century (Regency). Nearly all of the extant houses of the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are houses that were built for the so-called middle class (e.g. merchants and professionals) and upper class. Only rare examples of cheaper housing from these periods still exist.

The mid- and late nineteenth century (Victorian) saw a huge boom in the construction of housing in response to the mass movement of people from the countryside into the cities as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Cheap terraced houses for the workers, more spacious semi-detached houses for the managers and detached villas for the owners were developed in vast numbers on the outskirts of older towns, often by speculative builders, sometimes by the well-off themselves. These houses had solid walls of brickwork and/or stone, sometimes finished with render, roofs of clay tiles or slates, brick or timber-framed internal partitions, gas lighting, rudimentary cooking, washing and lavatory facilities and coal fires for heating. Much of the cheapest housing was of poor quality, using, for example, sun-baked bricks, and has subsequently been demolished. However, large numbers of terraced, semi-detached and detached Victorian houses are still in existence, albeit modernised at various times during the intervening period.

Houses built in the first decade of the twentieth century (the Edwardian period) are considered by many experts to be the pinnacle of quality in terms of workmanship and materials. Facilities are similar to those of the preceding century but of better quality. This period also saw the rise of the Garden City Movement, based on the writing of Sir Ebenezer Howard, who was highly critical of the urban development of the period and promoted the idea of a planned city with generous public spaces and buildings, low-density houses with large gardens in broad tree-lined streets and separate zones for factories and other industrial development. This led to the creation of garden city towns, such as Letchworth, Hampstead Garden Suburb and Welwyn.

The period between the First World War and the Second World War (the inter-war period) saw much greater state intervention in housing. Previously, involvement on the part of the state had been restricted to the provision of legislation encouraging local authorities to take action, but now the government legislated and provided the funding for the development of council housing, i.e. local authority social housing. There was also considerable private speculative housing development, leading to the suburban expansion of many cities. Both the council and the private housing of the period, particularly the former, reflected some of the principles of the Garden City Movement, especially the low-density housing, large gardens and broad tree-lined streets. This period saw cavity-wall construction and concrete foundations become standard. Floors and roofs were still constructed using cut timbers, bathroom and kitchen fittings were installed as standard, but were still very basic, hot water was often provided by a gas heater and space heating was again based on open fireplaces. Many rural houses still had no piped water, mains electricity or mains drainage.

During both World Wars housing development was suspended and after the Second World War little housing construction took place, apart from repairing bomb-damaged houses, until the mid-1950s when the post-war period of house building really commenced. Both council housing and private speculative development boomed for the next 20 years, although the standards were still relatively low, e.g. few new houses had central heating and roof insulation was non-existent until 1965, and then only minimal. However, most rural properties now had mains electricity and water, and mains drainage became more common.

Gradually, from the 1970s onwards, trussed roofs, often finished with concrete tiles, became standard and modern timber framed construction became relatively popular after a difficult introductory period; even where cavity construction continued to be used, timber or steel framed internal partitions were commonly installed. Central heating became the norm, and during the 1990s, cavity wall insulation and double glazing became standard in new housing developments. Dry wall finishes were also prevalent for new development. During the past 30 years or so, increasing use has been made of new materials and techniques. Examples include composite timber products for structural purposes and finishes and plasticised products, ranging from components such as windows to paint systems. There has also been recognition that many older and sometimes discarded, or unfashionable, products and materials are still relevant, e.g. clay roof tiles, roofing slates, lead work and lime mortar.

Design choices affect your rental yield

Some, if not most, people look to property as a way of making money. The attraction with being a landlord is that it offers you lifestyle options, a stream of income that once set up, provides you with income so you can get out and make the most of life. Is it unfair to say there is a secret landlord inside most of us? If you are able to let out a property, making the right design choices may allow you to reap the most income possible, because it gives a good feel to a tenant who would then be willing to pay a high rent.

Every single decision you make – from the smallest design detail to the selection of finishes and furniture, and the overall arrangement or layout of a room – has an impact on the way that your entire home feels. Together, these decisions can have a profound effect on the way you live your life, and the dynamic you create within it.

Building a conservatory or an extension on your home can add massive value. Not only can it transform the quality of the architecture in your ground-floor spaces, but the additional space will also increase the overall floor area of your house, which will automatically increase its value when the estate agent whips round with his tape measure. Best of all, if your new spaces are well designed, you’ll certainly add that ‘wow’ factor. In fact, extensions are a magical way to flood your house with light, create space where you didn’t even know you had it, and open up the rooms in your home to make them work the way you want them to.

The first question that you have to ask yourself is what kind of extension you want and why? Before even considering your options, you need to analyse your existing house plans very carefully to fully understand the impact your extension will have on the design of your existing house. You also have to be sure that whatever you build completely fits your needs. The most common form of extension on a property is a ground-floor rear extension; the most popular form of extension is a rear, ground-floor addition. Both of these can have a substantial and dramatic effect on the way that the ground-floor spaces work.

In many cases, these types of extensions are used to expand the kitchen-dining area, which has pretty much become the heart of the typical British family home. Creating additional space where the average family needs, wants and uses it most means that you’ll not just be making your home more productive in terms of space, but you’ll be in a fantastic position if and when you do come to sell.

Standard conservatories bought directly from a manufacturer can be even more affordable, but it’s worth being wary of this approach. If selected in the wrong style, a standard, off-the-shelf design can conflict with the architecture of the existing house. This doesn’t have anything to do with whether the extension is modern or traditional – far from it. Most people don’t have a preference for either style, as long as the design of the extension is good – and appropriate for your house. Often, however, I find that the standardised conservatories in mock Georgian, Tudor or Victorian styles don’t really work well when added to the back of a house from a different period. A well-designed and well-built extension will always be a good preference over a low-budget PVC conservatory that won’t necessarily enhance the standard of your home. The truth is that agents sometimes wonder why people do go for fully glazed conservatories with glass roofs, which they then cover completely with blinds because they are worried about their privacy! This high level of glazing is not necessarily very comfortable, either! In the winter months you can end up with a freezing-cold extension and, in the summer, the equivalent of an indoor greenhouse. A more considered design, which overcomes the issues of privacy, heat loss and solar gain , is by far the best way forward. Planned correctly, you’ll still be able to achieve fantastic views and access to your back garden.

We live in an age in which we all love a greater sense of space in our homes. Most of us don’t want to live in tiny, box-like rooms, all with a similar scale, size and proportion. Instead, we like variety in our homes, diverse spaces with plenty of light and a great flow of air. We like rooms to be sized to match our requirements; in other words, we need them to be big enough to host our lifestyles, and smaller when we want to be cosy. The lighting and finishes are then chosen to create an atmosphere appropriate to those rooms.

When it comes to bedrooms, they must be beautifully calm and comfortable spaces, for adults and children alike. The ideal bedroom should be cosy and serene, allowing your mind to be cleared of the pressures of the day when you retire to bed. When you consider the fact that we do, on average, spend nearly a third of our lives sleeping, the quality of our beds and the rooms they sit in become that much more important. The space should be beautiful; the bed should be a haven.

It makes no difference if you are a traditionalist, enjoying an over-the-top bedroom and indulging in Louise XIV-style splendour, or an avid minimalist, with a room stripped bare of any ornament, decoration or distraction. In both cases, comfort and cosiness should be the order of the day, and a fundamental part of your design brief. This means that the selection of your finishes and furnishings is actually the most important choice you will have to make in your bedroom. However, to create a fully successful bedroom, all of the principles of good design need to work together.

Bedrooms need to serve a dual purpose – lulling you to sleep and allowing you to languish in bed for those all-too-infrequent lie-ins, but also stimulating you adequately to give you the get-up-and-go you need to get out of bed in the morning. It’s also an extremely personal room, where we undress, dream, mull over the day that has passed and plan the day ahead, and also spend intimate time with our loved ones. We take to our beds when we are ill, and retreat to our bedrooms when we want a thorough rest. It’s not surprising, therefore, that creating the perfect bedroom is a challenge on a major scale.

Think carefully about your needs before working on the design brief for your new bedroom. A bedroom should be a sanctuary, but a functional one at that. Take your time to work out exactly what will work to create the optimum environment.

Property Investment Appraisal

What exactly does the ‘appraisal’ of property mean? There are two distinct applications in mind. By ‘appraise’ we could mean

a. To fix a price for (an asset);
b. To estimate the amount, or worth or value, of (an asset)

The first of these meanings implies what is known, in the UK, as the valuation process or, in the US, as the appraisal process: the estimation of market value or the prediction of the most likely selling price. There is now widespread acceptance of the international definition of market value set out in the valuation standard of the International Valuation Standards Committee, commonly known as ‘the White Book’ (IVSC, 2005), which is now in its seventh edition.

This definition is the estimated amount for which a property should exchange on the date of valuation between a willing buyer and a willing seller in an arm’s length transaction after proper marketing wherein the parties had acted knowledgeably, prudently and without compulsion.

Many nations also feel the need to have their own valuation standards, not least the UK, whose standards [maintained by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS)] have been through a number of editions of what is commonly referred to as ‘the Red Book’. The latest edition (RICS, 2003) is the fifth and has adopted the aforementioned basic international definition.

There are even attempts to create regional standards (such as the European ‘Blue Book’, published by TEGOVA, The European Group of Valuers of Fixed Assets), and this has created some tension and rivalry between international, regional and national bodies, particularly in Europe.

However, there is now very little disagreement, if any, on the general wording of the market value definition, even if there are some differences in interpretation. These differences will continue to diminish as the property investment market becomes more and more international.

The second of the two meanings, the estimation of worth or value, is not necessarily market-based. Since 1995 this concept has been developed and institutionalised, having entered UK valuation standards in the 1990s as the ‘calculation of worth’, and now defined in the White Book under the term ‘investment value’.

The term ‘calculation of worth’ has now – happily – been dropped by the RICS in favour of the international definition.

The definition is as follows: the value of the property to a particular owner, investor or class of investor, for identified investment objectives. This subjective concept relates specific property to a specified investor, group of investors, or entity with identifiable investment objectives and/or criteria. This definition does appear to fudge a major issue, specifically whether worth or value is to an individual investor or to a group of investors. This has significant implications about how it might be assessed in practice, as the value to an individual and the value to a group may not be the same.

Individual investors are influenced by a set of criteria by which the value of an asset might be assessed. For example, their tax situation, the rate at which they can borrow, how much equity capital they have to spare, what adjoining assets they own and the strengths and weaknesses of their existing investment portfolio are all factors that may lead them to perceive value in a particular property.

Hence, while all investors may agree upon such important variables as the size of the asset being appraised, the cash-flow implications of the lease and the likelihood of achieving planning permission for a change of use, individual investors will always be subject to different motivations.

The distinction between value and worth can be important. Further, it is possible that a group of investors will use the same criteria and share the same characteristics, and would as a result attach a similar value to a property asset. Identifying the possible buyer group is very relevant to appraisal, which is therefore the process of identifying a mixture of objectively measured market variables and the prospective owner’s (or group of owners’) subjective estimates of other relevant factors.

We could use the term ‘appraisal’ to cover the process of estimating either market value (the prediction of the most likely selling price) or investment value (the estimation of worth to an individual or to a group of individuals).

We could therefore encourage the use of the term ‘market valuation’ or ‘valuation for pricing’ for the former, and we would prefer to use ‘investment value’ for the latter. We hope this will not cause too much confusion, but the possibility of confusion unfortunately exists, grounded in the fact that the development of property terminology has been influenced by the isolation of the property world from the securities markets.

There is no doubt regarding the meaning of valuation in the securities markets: it means the estimation of worth.

Pricing is a function that is carried out by buyers, sellers and market makers. The price of a particular company in the stock market is publicly quoted, and large numbers of identical shares in that company can be bought and sold. In property, however, there are no market makers.

The price at which a transaction will take place has to be influenced by an expert opinion – a ‘valuation’ – because there is both insufficient market evidence and insufficient homogeneity of product for traders to be able to fix prices. It is therefore to be expected that at any one time different views of worth will be held by different individuals and these differences will fuel market turnover.

In addition to the main concepts of market value and investment value, ‘sustainable value’ (mortgage lending value), a relatively new phenomenon used in the bank-lending process, has been developed in mainland Europe. It has found some favour, particularly within German banking systems, and the mortgage lending value basis has been adopted, along with market value, within the international banking regulatory process known as Basel.

The concept sustainable value has been subject to intense criticism, as of it does not conform to any recognised economic concept of value and the definition is virtually incomprehensible. The implications for investors can be damaging and may have had some impact on the German open-ended fund crisis of 2005/2006. But it is arguably of no merit and should be abandoned.

The stock (property) selection policies of both major and minor property investors often include an examination of the mismatch between estimates of market value and investment value in order to spot pricing anomalies, and any investor or advisor will benefit from a clear understanding of the difference between the market value of an asset and its worth to an investor or group of investors.

If there is a difference, is this evidence of poor-quality appraisal? It is widely believed that market valuations should primarily be accurate; that is, they should closely predict selling price.

Accuracy may therefore be a relevant and useful test of the quality of a market valuation. Investment valuations, on the other hand, should primarily be rational; they should be professional and expert reflections of a combination of objectively measured market variables and the prospective owner’s subjective estimates.

Building a Property Portfolio? Some considerations

The overall demand for private rented property is now stronger than ever, with the mortgage market restricted for purchasers and house price inflation, particularly in the south east, creating the need for high deposits which people cannot find. Lending has become far more stringent, owing to the onset of the credit crunch and the banks unwillingness to loan money, particularly to property investors. Essentially, accessing finance has become a big issue. The banks favour those with large cash deposits. This is the same in the buy-to-let sector as for domestic mortgages.

However, if finance can be arranged then the yields that one can expect from buy-to-let properties are high by comparison, currently standing at 6%. Of course, this depends on where the property is located. See overleaf for a table indicating the best buy to let areas in the UK. A yield is a portfolio’s annual rental income as a percentage of total value. The reason is that demand for private rented property is high, particularly as first time buyers cannot get a toehold in the market. They are instead turning to the private rental sector. Therefore, investing in property, for the longer term, as opposed to investing for short-term gain, is still a viable option.

Rental returns on buy-to-let are biggest in regional centres like Southampton, Manchester and Nottingham – where one in four homes are now privately rented. Property investors are looking way beyond London and identifying regions where yields are almost three times as high as in the capital. Cities offering the greatest yields – rental income measured against the property cost – include Southampton, Blackpool, Nottingham and Hull.

The latest data on buy-to-let returns, from lender HSBC, also shows the proportion of property in each area already owned by landlords. And in many of the top-yielding areas private landlords already own one in four properties, or more. Southampton, with rental yields of 8.73pc, currently tops the list for rental returns. Manchester, Nottingham, Blackpool and Hull complete the top five locations with the best rental yield at 7.98pc, 7.67pc and 7.47pc respectively.

In all of those areas, except Hull, private landlords already own one in five properties, or more. These areas also offer the characteristics that make for excellent buy-to-let investment, the experts say: relatively low house prices coupled with strong demand for rental property from large student and young professional populations.

The lowest yields were registered in areas such as London where recent price rises have been large and rapid, outpacing the growth in rents. In London in particular, there is a higher proportion of rental property than elsewhere, with 38pc of property in Westminster, for example, being privately rented.

Rental yields
Investment properties which are rented out receive an income from tenants. In order to calculate the gross rental yield the annual rental income is divided by the purchase price of the property (annual rent÷price) × 100 = Gross rental yield).

So, if the property was purchased for £75,000 (total) and the rent received is £450 per month the yield would be: £5400 (annual rent) ÷ £75,000 × 100 which equals an annual yield of 7.2. This is a very respectable return on your capital. Of course if you are a landlord then you will want to factor in the costs of being a landlord, such as maintenance, insurance, loan costs, empty periods etc.

Capital yields
If and when a property increases with time, this is known as capital growth. A simple example is if you buy a property for £75,000 and it increases by 25% there will be a capital appreciation of £18,750. It is a rule of thumb that low price properties might produce a high rental yield and low capital growth and vice-versa, although this is not always the case. Again, each case differs and many factors will play a part but as long as you know what you want then you should be safe with your investment.

If you are interested in averages, landlords receive £678 in rent each month as a national average. However, as always, averages don’t give the whole picture. Landlords in London and the South East collect the highest rents, with £1,079 and £816 respectively. In the west Midland rents average £678 and in East Anglia £676. Approximately 60% of this is spent on borrowing and management costs, leaving landlords with a healthy 40% profit on average.

With buy-to-let mortgage rates so cheap (at the moment) now is the time to expand your portfolio releasing equity and raising deposits to buy new properties. However, when expanding your portfolio it is important to be realistic and ensure that you invest in properties that can be sold on easily, as there may come a time when you need to get your hands on the capital that you have tied up. As with everything, property is a good investment as long as it is managed well.

Too many would-be landlords buy property and neglect it which has a negative impact on the environment and also a negative impact on the investment as a whole. A run down property will decrease in value and the possibility of renting it out for a full market rent will also diminish.

What kind of property is suitable for letting? Obviously there are a number of different markets when it comes to people who rent. There are those who are less affluent, young and single, in need of a sharing situation, but more likely to require more intensive management than older more mature (perhaps professional) people who can afford a higher rent but require more for their money. The type of property you have, its location, its condition, will very much determine the rent levels that you can charge and the clients that you will attract. The type of rent that a landlord might expect to achieve will be around ten per cent of the value of the freehold of the property, (or long leasehold in the case of flats). The eventual profit will be determined by the level of any existing mortgage and other outgoings.

If you are renting a flat it could be that it is in a mansion block or other flatted block and the service charge will need to be added to the rent. When letting a property it is necessary to consider profit after mortgage payments and likely tax bill plus other outgoings such as insurance and agents fees (if any).

Factors involved in residential property valuation

The residential market is imperfect. There is no central market place as a result buyers and sellers are relatively uninformed and even their professional advisors, valuers and agents, only have a limited knowledge of what is available for sale and of what is happening in the market.

Every house, flat, bungalow or other unit of residential accommodation is unique in some respect. Even a pair of semidetached houses differ as between right-hand and left-hand units.

This makes the task of valuation much more difficult than in those markets where there are standard units or products such as stocks, shares, gold, apples and cars. It is further complicated by the fact that there is no acceptable unit of comparison.

Residential property can occasionally be compared on the basis of a price per m2 (or sq ft) of floor space, but issues such as the number of bedrooms, reception rooms, car spaces, circulation space, views and the like can all vary between properties of precisely the same floor area, thus making the total unit of accommodation the only acceptable unit of comparison.

In the past the market had seasonal fluctuations, with greater activity and steadier, possibly rising prices, in spring and early summer, a quiet period in August followed by a mini-spur in September. These seasonal movements are less pronounced today but can still be detected. They can be different in different parts of the country and significantly different between London and popular holiday areas such as the Lake District. They can be affected by significant changes in market forces such as a change in mortgage interest rates.

In addition to seasonal movements, there are cycles of under-supply and over-supply and other movements of a migratory nature such as the desire to balance proximity to work with proximity to the country, and leisure activities with travel time and cost.

In most markets increases in effective demand against a fixed supply will lead to an upward movement in price. The upward movement in price encourages suppliers to produce more and for more suppliers to enter that market. In the residential market the response to such a shift in demand is slow.

It is argued that planning controls impede the supply of land and hence the supply of new houses coming on to the market. Even without such controls there would be a delay caused by the inability of the house-building industry to raise productivity in the short run. It is difficult for the market to respond precisely to match an increase in demand in an area because land becomes available in sizeable chunks and house-builders tend to be market followers, not market creators. The result is that an increase in demand in an area may in time be followed by an over supply.

The valuer’s task is to interpret the state of the market in an area at a point in time. Currently the residential market in the UK is experiencing a period of continuing price growth which is seen to be a reflection of: people living longer, greater single occupation of property, migratory growth in population and increased demand by individuals and investment companies to acquire property on a ‘buy to let basis’. The residential sector has been identified by many, at least in the short term, as a safe place for capital.

Over a number of years changes in consumer preferences occur which can be incorporated in new home design but are more difficult to incorporate in the existing housing stock. These style changes can shift the demand and hence value patterns of an area and must be monitored. The upper end of the market can be particularly vulnerable to these changes of fashion.

Residential property has a fixed location and can only be enjoyed at that location. The enjoyment of a property will depend upon general environmental factors and specific local factors. In the case of owner-occupation, the market reflects the relationship between employment opportunities, communications, general facilities of an area and the environmental factors. Growth in economic activity, more jobs and better pay, tends to cause a rise in values because of the relatively fixed level of supply.

Analysis of the economic opportunities of an area is essential if house buyers are to make sound house purchase decisions. Current concerns of global warming may begin to affect values in areas identified as liable to increased flood risk, coastal areas at risk and greater concerns by discerning buyers for environmentally sound energy efficient homes.

Total home demand has to be translated into effective demand. Effective demand is a function of the national economy and gross national product. The valuer needs to know and to consider what is happening to base indicators such as the level of unemployment, the way employment is changing, current wage levels, and the propensity of the population to save and to invest in their own homes.

The reduction in employment during the early 1990s caused by cutbacks and closures led in some areas to reductions in value both in real terms and in money terms. Money in bricks and mortar will not always be safe.

The housing market and levels of home ownership are closely connected with the availability of credit. Effective desire can only be translated to effective demand through the availability of credit, largely in the form of funds for mortgage loans offered by the building societies, the banks and the insurance companies. Availability of, and the cost of, finance are socioeconomic elements in the market-place, as are the loan terms of such organisations. Lenders are very competitive but changes in lending policy can increase demand. Thus increases in income multipliers or joint income multipliers can increase the number of potential buyers or their potential price range.

Credit for house purchase offered by banks and building societies is dependent upon two factors: the security of the property offered against the loan, and the financial status of the borrower. Very simply, the more one earns the more one can borrow. Thus in a housing market where demand exceeds supply higher salaries and wages will provide purchasers with greater purchasing power: this balanced against the fixed supply leads to higher property prices through competition between buyers. The cost of buying, the interest payable on house purchase loans (mortgages), is outside the control of the banks and building societies in that to maintain a flow of savings to sustain a flow of loans they have to compete in the money market. As a result, mortgage interest rates can rise and fall with the world’s changing view of the British economy and with changes in the Bank of England’s base rate. Many mortgage interest rates are linked formally or informally to base rate. A rise in base rate will generally give rise to an increase in mortgage interest rates and a fall to a fall in interest rates.

The government can influence the economy, finance and hence the marketplace. Governments set minimum standards for new homes, through planning control, building, energy and health regulations. These standards affect costs, which influence developers’ attitudes as to feasibility and influence the volume of new houses in the market-place. EU regulations may also influence market forces. The requirement for a statement as to the energy rating of a property may impact on the value of low rated properties in the same way as energy ratings have led to the disappearance of most non A rated electrical goods.

The government can and has influenced the market in other ways, such as by encouraging public sector tenants to purchase their homes, by imposing rent control and protection on the private rented sector, and by changes in taxation.

The general level of values depends upon the general and area-specific levels of economic activity, community income and wealth; the existing quality and quantity of residential property in an area; the rate of addition to that stock; the point at which a local market happens to be in a particular cycle, and the underlying confidence that people within and outside a particular area have in the economic future and prosperity of that area.

The fixed location of property means that the nature of the neighbourhood and the immediate surrounding properties are crucial factors in terms of buyers’ attitudes and hence in determining a value for a property within the level of values for that area.

A number of factors affect the attitude of buyers. These factors in turn determine whether an area at a point in time is considered to be desirable with rising values, acceptable with stable values, or depressed with falling values. A similar house in each such area could have very different values.

People need property, in this context people need somewhere to live. The size and composition of the population is an indication of the number and possible size of houses required by that population. But the residential market is a local market so it is important to consider the population within a definable area and to know its composition and the extent to which it is changing. Is it an ageing population, is it growing or declining naturally and/ or by migration into or away from the area? Demand characteristics can change both across the country and within local areas. Over recent years developers have become niche operators, seeking to satisfy current demand.

Market analysis identifies the need for, say, starter homes, single-person homes, family homes, luxury homes, retirement homes, student villages. Market analysis will also identify preferences in terms of type of accommodation, design, materials, construction, internal layout and facilities.

The socio-economic composition of a neighbourhood has a major impact on values. A socially deprived or underprivileged area will display that fact in the deterioration of the urban fabric, including the deterioration in physical condition of homes. Deprived means depressed, which signifies low incomes, multiple occupations and low values.

In time, however, a combination of other factors, including the architectural and historic nature of an area, may draw in a wealthier class who will gentrify or reinstate the properties to their original condition and turn such an area into a high value area. Such movements are observable but not always predictable.

In a similar way areas historically noted for housing the wealthier owner-occupier may go into decline as large units or large plots become a financial burden and are sold for conversion and multiple letting. In time the same area may revert back to single family ownership or be substantially redeveloped for low-cost housing or high-value housing, depending upon the level and nature of demand at a point in time when redevelopment is seen as the proper solution for a declining neighbourhood.

The level of vandalism and crime are regrettably indicative of an area’s undesirability. Such changes are partly attitudinal and, like a disease, can spread very rapidly If a community senses that no one cares about an area, in particular the authorities, then the residents cease to care. The result is decline, which is immediately reflected in falling property values.

Active residents’ associations and neighbourhood watch committees show concern by the community for their neighbourhood which can stimulate pride in an area and lead to rising values. The market and market values are obvious reflections of social desirability.

The extremes of social deprivation and social well-being coincide with the extremes of values to be found within a defined geographic area. The residential valuer must be alert to the potential for change and be aware that within broadly defined residential groupings there will be pockets of properties which appear to defy logic but nevertheless maintain high values in areas of low values or areas of low values in an area dominated by high values.

Once a change in an area is signaled the value movement tends to be fairly fast as the new socio-economic group moves in to replace the higher or lower socio-economic group.

These social features are closely related to the income profile of the population and the underlying economic activity of that section of the population that predominates in a given residential area. This is further reflected in market activity. Properties in desirable areas change hands quickly, with a minimum of properties remaining vacant. Properties in declining areas tend to remain on the market for longer periods, tend to become vacant and remain vacant, deteriorate, shift to multiple occupation, and may finally be condemned.

Local politics are a reflection of and a response to these changing social and economic forces. The future of a neighbourhood can be affected by the strength of the community in political terms. Strong representation can produce improvements to schools, health and community services and dictate the attitude of the authorities to that area. Small changes on their own have little impact, but in combination can strengthen a neighbourhood. Thus the attention of the authorities to street cleaning, refuse collection, repair and maintenance of roads and footpaths, street furniture, local schools etc will all become part of the environmental picture which impacts upon buyers’ attitudes and hence on their willingness to commit themselves to a purchase at a particular price.

Physical and environmental factors help to define the neighbourhood. Those areas which are, in physical terms, well maintained and environmentally most attractive are those which are likely to become socially most desirable and hence in time occupied by the economically stronger. This tends to create a community with political strength which becomes protective and perpetuates the status of the area.

Natural and man-made features may provide the boundaries to identifiable residential areas. In some cases there may be a spill-over effect, with values declining gradually from high value areas to low-value areas. In other locations there can be pronounced changes in value either side of a building or road. Roads, particularly motorways and main commuter routes, railways, rivers, lakes, village greens, sports fields, parks may all act as boundaries.

Proximity to one or another may give rise to higher or lower relative values depending upon the desirability or otherwise of being close to such a feature. There are rarely any hard and fast rules about the behavioural attitude of the residential property market. This is because it is often the combination of many factors that creates good or bad in the eyes of the buyer. Some river locations are highly sought after, others far less so given the current increased awareness of flood risk.

Motorways and railways may act as boundaries but the combination of ease of access, visual intrusion and noise, together with other environmental factors, will determine whether they add to, or take away from value.

Soil, subsoil, natural drainage, probability of flooding, micro-climate, topography and aspect are all physical factors which historically may have determined the desirability of building in an area and may still today have an impact on values. Proximity to the right schools, shops, libraries, golf courses, country club, leisure facilities, may add to value.

But on the other hand, proximity to anything likely to cause a nuisance such as factories, sewage-works, football grounds, bingo halls, discotheques or anything that might give rise to rowdyism and general misbehaviour will tend to depress values.

Communications to the rest of the area, surrounding public open space, motorway linkages and places of employment are all very important location factors. So too, is the existing quality of development, road patterns and standard of property maintenance in determining the good, the bad and the indifferent areas of a defined residential market. Nor would it be a complete story without mentioning the importance of pressure groups in the form of conservationists, environmentalists, ecologists and politicians.

All of these have an impact on the market for residential property. Thus at a given point in time these various forces will have combined together to create a particular level and pattern of values in an area. A change in one or more of any of the forces or components mentioned will alter the supply of, or the demand for, all residential property; or for a sector of the market or just for one specific property; the result being an increase in supply or a decrease in demand or a decrease in supply or an increase in demand and a corresponding change in prices and hence in values. It would be rare indeed for only one force to be moving, so interpretation of cause and effect can be very complex. The general economic climate together with the quality of different residential areas creates a pattern of values for a defined market. Within that market the valuer must now consider the site-specific qualities of a house and its physical condition in order to assess its market value.

Increasing numbers of buy to lets by cash buyers

According to Countrywide, nearly two thirds of the properties purchased by landlords were made using cash buyers. This is in contrast to the other third, which were completed using arranged mortgages. The value of properties purchased for the purpose of buy to lets totalled £31.5 billion, and of these, those made using cash payments accounted for a staggering£21.0 billion.

What can we glean from these financial statistics? The first we can deduce from the smaller percentage share is that some landlords are leveraging their existing properties in order to expand their portfolios. The one third of properties purchased are to have been based on buy to let mortgages, where perhaps an existing mortgaged property is remortgaged to release equity that goes towards a second property intended for lease. It reflects the thinking that buy to let is increasingly seen as a better investment than traditional bank investments. And while buyers are aware that a fall in house prices may result again in the future, they seem to be banking on the annual percentage gain to negate that loss.

Slightly more worryingly is the fact that two thirds of purchases were made outright with cash buyers. This highlights the fact that landlords are increasingly getting richer through the housing market, increasing their financial wealth considerably enough to afford such purchases in cash. And it points towards a worrying trend where those who have capital find it easier to accumulate even more capital, while thousands of young buyers are increasingly priced out, and have to resort to one of the following options:

Commuting to work in an area where salaries are higher and living in an area where the house prices are lower; this commute length is likely to increase as the property prices and rents increase;

Paying high rental rates and not being able to save for a deposit towards a house until significantly later in life, or not at all;

Having to make do with a lower standard of rental housing, to be able to afford to live in a particular area;

The figure of two thirds of landlord purchases by cash surpassed the three in five figure in 2011. In 2007, this figure was only two in five. In other words, the proportion of landlords buying in cash has increased by 26% in ten years, from 40% in 2007.

A favourable location for outright buy to lets is in the North of England and Scotland. While that may be good news for home owners, in that it drives house prices up as well as rentals, tellingly, the majority of purchases made are not made by people within the area, but by landlords outside of it. And this cannot be good news for the people who live in these regions. The ideal scenario for most people is to work in an area where salaries are higher, to have an income that outstrips living costs such as rentals or mortgages. But with landlords buying in Northern England and Scotland, turning it into an investment hotspot, the people in the area are trapped in a cycle of comparatively lower salaries and high prices.

Nearly four out of every five homes in the North East of England were bought by outright cash buyers, an astounding figure.

The trend was however reversed in the capital. It can be surmised that property prices in London were too high for many outright cash purchases. Landlords buying in London were the most likely to use a mortgage and London was the only region where statistically, two out of five purchases were cash-backed, well under the national average. Of course, this suggests that in some areas the proportion of outright cash buyers was even higher.

What inferences can we draw from the data? The first is that investment properties are on the rise. For estate agents, a registration with The Ombudsman Property Service is a sign that you work within a framework of established rules and regulations, which may be the distinguishing factor in determining if landlords choose to entrust their properties to you to manage or not.

Young professionals seeking to rent a property should choose one managed by a landlord or agent signed up to The Ombudsman Property Service. This means they are obliged to work to professional standards. You may get the offer of a cheaper rental property from a private landlord, on fairly informal terms, but accepting this may mean you have no means of redress when disputes arise.

The news that rental costs are increasing are not good. What can young professionals do in order to get on the property ladder? No one wants to be committed to a lifetime of renting, if they could help it, because while the ability to move from place to place and lead a bohemian lifestyle may seem idyllic in your twenties, having no roof over your head when you’re in your sixties is hardly a thrilling nomadic existence. And when you can see it coming from the vantage point of your forties and fifties, these thoughts will continually prey on your mind.

A recent report suggested young professionals could give up certain luxuries in order to accumulate enough capital to form a substantial deposit. The deposit for a London property is approaching £80,000 or £90,000. Taking the average annual salary of £26,000, minus rent, the average person would be in their forties by the time they got a foothold on the ladder. The report suggests that a foothold might be more quickly established if nights out, takeaway sandwiches and coffees were forgone, among other expensive luxuries like cigarettes. But it would be difficult to live a life that seems devoid of any entertainment, even though it may be a sacrifice the first time buyer may have to make.

The difficulty with reconciling what one wants from life with what one can afford is one of the difficulties we all have to overcome. Young people have aspirations of how they would like their lives to turn out, and aspirations of lifestyle that they have to manage. But perhaps the notion of doing without luxuries for a few years is a step too far, and those that have their eyes on the gulf between house prices and salaries have decided they cannot bridge the gap, or commit to closing the gap, and have decided to enjoy life and all its luxuries while they can.

The divergence between salaries and house prices has also inadvertently fuelled another trend. This trend is the currency of hope. Young professionals, unfortunately, are increasingly seeking an outlying factor to help them expand their savings enough to meet their dream property. An outlier is an event that lies outside traditional empirical data, what might call a one-off that defies evidence. An example of an outlier might be a lottery windfall. There is no past evidence that points towards a future win, but when it happens suddenly a sudden restructuring of the status quo results. Another outlier is perhaps an inheritance; a sudden unexpected sum of money would help make up the gap for a deposit. First time buyers are relying also on parental help. But there is also an increasing number of young professionals who are turning towards reality television, singing competitions and all kinds of sudden fame in the hope that it would suddenly lift them out of the existing situation, and provide some additional financial boost into their dream one.

Are others relying on property as their hope?

Valuing a residential property

The first aspects of a property to be considered by the layman are usually the location, the appearance and the physical condition. Where it is, what it looks like, its accommodation, services and condition are all important factors when considering value, but for the valuer the most important initial considerations are legal. This is because it is the legal title to property with all its encumbrances that is bought and sold. ‘Every man’s home is his castle’summarises most people’s aspirations for home ownership, to own something which is theirs and which is defensible against all-comers. In practice, the main line of defence is title; if the title is in any way limited, then solid walls may not prove to be the best defence.

In England and Wales the titles to be valued will either be freehold or leasehold, but it is also possible to own no more than an interest for life in a particular parcel of land.

The legal term for a freehold interest is fee simple absolute in possession. This just means that the whole estate, or any part of the estate can be transferred by the freeholder at any time, either during the owner’s lifetime or on their death by will or under the rules of intestacy.

A freeholder has the right to occupy and use the land, create lesser interests out of it such as long leases, periodic tenancies and life interests. In theory the Crown owns all of the land so a freehold interest is the closest that a person can come to absolute ownership of land. This is illustrated by the fact that if a freeholder dies without making a will and without any living relatives to inherit the land, then the title will revert to the Crown.

Although the freeholder has in theory absolute rights over the land, this ownership is secondary to other common law and statutory rights.

Civil and military aircraft can enter the airspace over a land, subject to limitations.

All gold, silver and coal belongs to the Crown who grant licences for the excavation of such minerals. Items of historic interest that are found on land may also belong to the Crown, but compensation can be paid to the owner of the land on which the items are discovered.

Ponds and lakes that fall within the boundary can be owned, but control and use of larger water bodies is strictly regulated. Ownership of river frontages may or may not include fishing rights and the riparian rights of others must be respected. Two other title restrictions require special mention.

First, on transfer of title it is possible for an owner to impose on a purchaser specific restrictions known as restrictive covenants. From a valuation viewpoint the most important are those covenants that restrict the use: development may be restricted to a specific number of houses, occupation restricted to family occupation, use may be restricted to public open space, and there may be restrictions on parking of caravans. These restrictions may remain enforceable for many years, but the right to enforce may be lost if the person enjoying the benefit of that covenant has permitted breaches to occur.

In other cases it may be necessary to apply to the Lands Tribunal under the Law of Property Act 1925 for the restrictions to be modified or discharged. Clearly such restrictions may hold values up where they help to maintain an environment, but they may also depress values where they prevent the land being used to its highest and best use in today’s market. Thus land suitable for building 10 houses may be restricted to one house by a covenant created in the 19th century.

Second, it was possible for a freehold title to be made subject to a rent charge. This entitled a party with no legal interest in the land to receive an annual payment. The Rent Charges Act 1977 prohibits the creation of new rent charges and contains provisions for the gradual extinguishment or voluntary redemption of such charges as currently exist (see Appendix IA). Rent charges will cease to exist from July 2037.

A freeholder is subject to the general laws of the land when it comes to determining what he can do with his land. There aver various acts that determine use of the land, such as the Town and Country Planning Acts, Environmental Protection Acts and the Building Regulations.

The police may also override the freeholder’s legal position to enter the property to enforce the law.

Freehold property also includes improvements to the land such as buildings and those things so attached to the land that they are held to be fixtures and so part of the land. The distinction between personal property that is movable and personal property which has been so attached to the land as to become a fixture is often very fine and has given rise to a branch of law known as the law of fixtures. In the residential market it has become the custom for questionable items to be listed as being included or excluded from the sale. The valuer will take the obvious fixtures into account in a valuation as they may add to the value of the property. Clearly an item such as a central heating boiler is a fixture, but it is less certain whether a built-in hob and oven in a kitchen will be classed as a fixture. When in doubt the valuer should make it clear in a valuation report which items have been included in the valuation of the property.

Until the passing of the Leasehold Reform Act in 1967 it was quite common practice for residential property to be sold on a leasehold basis and in the case of blocks of flats, house conversions, sheltered housing or whenever property management may be a major issue it is still common practice to sell on a leasehold basis with a share in a specifically created management company which owns the freehold.

In September 2004 a new form of land tenure was introduced. It is called commonhold and it is a way of owning freehold land. It is intended to be an alternative to the leasehold system for multi-owned, interdependent properties with common parts. Its most obvious application is to blocks of flats and apartments, but it could be used for developments of houses or mixed use buildings where there are communal areas. A commonhold association must be formed as a private company limited by guarantee. This owns the common parts and all individual unit owners are members of the association and so they can control those common parts. The individual unit owners will own the freehold of their unit.

A leasehold estate in property will be for a definite term. This is an important value factor.

Traditionally such leases in residential property have been for terms of 99 years or 999 years. But in addition to the covenant to pay rent there may be covenants to repair, insure, pay local taxes, to clean, to maintain grounds and gardens or to meet some or all such costs through a service charge levied by the landlord. In most instances these covenants impose a contractual requirement on the leaseholder to undertake everything that one would expect from a reasonable freehold owner of residential property. However, a freeholder has a choice of whether or not to paint the property, to clean the windows and to maintain the garden; the leaseholder will not necessarily have that choice. Further, the leaseholder may be specifically restricted in terms of the use and enjoyment of the property. There may be covenants about music after 11.30 pm, about hanging out clothes to dry, about erecting TV and radio aerials and satellite dishes and a requirement to obtain the freeholder’s consent for all alterations and for any sale (assignment) or further sub-leasing of the property. A licence fee may have to be paid to the freeholder whenever the freeholder’s consent is required under the terms of the lease.

A valuer when instructed to prepare a valuation must be satisfied by inspection and enquiry as to the nature of the title to be valued and any restrictions or other encumbrances that attach to the title. However, because of the time-limits imposed upon the valuer by many clients, valuations are often prepared on the basis of an unencumbered freehold or on the basis of minimum information relating to a lease. A valuer is valuing on the basis of information supplied and will naturally reserve the right to review that valuation if that information is subsequently found to be incorrect. Nevertheless valuers are trained to observe and should therefore account for the obvious, such as signposted public footpaths, unmade and un-adopted roads, shared driveways and shared areas in blocks of flats.

Buying to let? Some issues you may wish to consider

Property is great whether you’re looking for a steady supplement to your retirement income or a secure financial future. Most buy-to-let landlords want to become financially independent, and property is a proven investment strategy for achieving that goal. But after you sign your name on the dotted line and officially enter the world of owning rental property, you face some tough decisions. One of the very first concerns is who will handle the day-to-day management of your rental property. You have properties to let, rents to collect, tenant complaints to respond to and a whole host of property management issues to deal with. So you need to determine whether you have what it takes to manage your own buy-to-let property or whether you should employ a managing agent.

A great advantage to building wealth through property is the ability to use other people’s money – both for the initial purchase of the rental property and for the ongoing expenses. Although the availability of buy-to-let mortgages has suffered since the downturn, more lenders are re-entering this market, so choice is increasing all the time. You will need to raise a deposit and then borrow the rest of the money from a mortgage lender.

The deposit required for a buy-to-let mortgage tends to be higher than that needed for a residential mortgage, and is significantly higher since the downturn. Expect to pay at least 25 to 30 per cent of the purchase price for the best rates, although some lenders request as little as 15 per cent.

The ability to control significant property assets with only a relatively modest cash investment is one of the best reasons to invest in bricks and mortar. For example, you may have purchased a £100,000 buy-to-let property with a £20,000 cash deposit and a mortgage for the remaining £80,000. If the property’s value doubles in the next decade and you sell it for £200,000, you will have turned your £20,000 cash investment into a £100,000 profit. This is an example of capital appreciation, where you are able to earn a return not only on your cash investment but also on the entire value of the property.

Rental property also offers you the opportunity to pay off your mortgage using your tenant’s money. If you’ve been prudent in purchasing a well-located rental property in a stable area, you’ll have enough income to pay the interest on your mortgage, as well as all the expenses, maintenance and insurance.

Over time, your property should appreciate in value while your tenant is essentially paying all your expenses, including the interest on your mortgage.

Your lender and tenant aren’t the only ones who can help you with the purchase of your rental investment property. Even the government is willing to offer its money to help your cash flow and encourage more people to become landlords. In calculating your income tax obligations each year, the government allows buy-to-let landlords to offset their rental income against interest payments on their mortgage and certain expenses. For example, you can claim 10 per cent of the annual rent for wear and tear on fixtures and fittings in furnished properties.

Over time, rental income generally outstrips operating expenses. And after your tenants have finished paying your mortgage for you, you’ll suddenly find that you have a positive cash flow – in other words, you’re making a profit.

One of the first steps in determining whether to completely self-manage your rental property or delegate some or all of the duties to other people is to analyse your own skills and experience. Many very successful property owners find that they’re better suited to deal-making, so they leave the day-to-day management for someone else. This decision is a personal one, but you can make it more easily by thinking about some of the specifics of managing property. Property management requires basic skills, including marketing, accounting and people skills. You don’t need a university degree or a lot of experience to get started, and you’re sure to pick up all kinds of ideas on how to do things better along the way.

If you’re impatient or easily manipulated, you aren’t suited to being a property manager. Conveying a professional demeanour to your tenants is important. You want them to see you as someone who will take responsibility for the condition of the property. You must also insist that tenants live up to their part of the deal, pay their rent regularly and refrain from causing unreasonable damage to your property.

Good management leads to good financial results. Having tenants who pay on time, stay for several years and treat the property and their neighbours with respect is the key to profitable property management. But, like most things, it’s easier said than done. One of the greatest deterrents to financial independence through investing in rental property is the fear of management and dealing with tenants.

If you choose the wrong tenant or fail to address certain maintenance issues, your buy-to-let investment may turn into a costly nightmare. By doing your homework in advance, you can reduce those beginners’ mistakes. Experience is a great teacher – if you can afford the lessons. If you already own your own home, then you already have some basic knowledge about the ins and outs of owning and maintaining property. The question then becomes how to translate that knowledge into managing rental property.

As a landlord, you may choose to handle many responsibilities while delegating some of them to others. Look at your own set of skills to determine which items you should delegate. A contractor may be able to handle the maintenance of your rental property and garden more efficiently and effectively than you can.

The skills you need to successfully manage your own rental properties are different from the skills you need to handle your own property maintenance. Most buy-to-let landlords find that using trusted and reasonably priced contractors can be a valuable option in the long run.

Ultimately, you can delegate all the management activities to a professional managing agent. But hiring a managing agent doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. Depending on the arrangement you have with your agent, you may still oversee the big picture. Most agents need and seek the input of the property owner before they start so that they can develop a property management plan that meets the owner’s investment goals.

Keep in mind that no one else will ever manage your rental property like you will. After all, you’re more motivated than anyone else to watch out for your buy-to-let investment interests. Only you will work through the night painting your property for the new tenant moving in the next day. And who else would spend his annual leave looking through the local newspaper classifieds for creative ad ideas?

You may find that a managing agent can run the property more competently than you can. Many buy-to-let landlords possess the necessary skills and personality to efficiently and effectively manage their rental properties, but they have other skills or interests that are more financially rewarding or enjoyable. Hiring professionals and supervising them is often the best possible option.

Conduct due diligence before buying by auction

Buying a property by auction is a method that seemingly circumvents the long drawn out process of submitting multiple offers for a property, then waiting for the estate agents to get in touch with the sellers before returning with a counter proposal. Ever bought a property the common way before? You ring up various estate agents to be on their books, scour property websites, book an appointment for each potential viewing, second viewings for more attractive properties, submit a low bid, wait for the agent to get hold of the buyer, get back to you, and then repeat multiple times until a satisfactory bid is accepted. And that is not even half the tale. The problem is that in between the various stages, there can be significant time lags, some on your part, some on the agents, and some on the buyer. Some of these delays can be intentional, and some can be deliberate.

You might disagree with the last statement in the previous paragraph. Deliberate delays? By yourself?

Let’s give an example. Perhaps you have viewed a property and like it. You would want to make an offer to avoid another buyer snapping it up, but make an offer too soon and the agent and seller know you are keen. Your first couple of offers are likely to be rejected. Remember that the agent is working for the seller to get the best possible price, and not for you, and will keep pushing you back until he senses he has extracted every last pound from you. Your rate of response is an indicator of how keen you are on the property, and also a hidden signal of how much more you can go. Hence while you are eager to get hold of the property, you may feel it is wise to slow down any counter offers you make or any further contacts with the agent, to give them the impression that the property is not all that important to you. It is a way of making them sweat instead of you.

Of course, estate agents are wise to these antics – they themselves partake in it. When they say they will get hold of the seller right away, do you really think they are ringing the seller every twenty minutes until he picks up? More likely they will leave it until the end of the day, or tell you the next time you’ve rung that they haven’t heard back yet. They are deliberately introducing delay to make you get jittery and also to flush out your interest. And this is done to multiple buyers to extract the best property price. And in doing so, the best commission.

But in the process, a lot of time is wasted.

This is perhaps why a sale by auction draws so many. It is a scenario where all cards are on the table, all offers presented in public view – unlike a sealed bid process, where all cards are presented to the estate agent without any form of public scrutiny.

Buying by auction seems a simple enough progress. There are many ways to go about it. Before an auction takes place, all buyers view the property in order to ascertain a bidding strategy and the upper limits to which they will bid. It is important that a viewing be made as there are many things that can be gleaned away from the sales brochure. While agents are bound to market the property responsibly, they are looking to get a commission by sale and would of course market it in the most positive light. You cannot go by the sales brochure alone.

Potential buyers may make their interest known to the marketing agent, and their bid acts as a reserve.

On the day of auction, bidders either attend in person, or send a proxy to represent them in the auctions.

A property auction can be a strange scene. A room with some bidders in person, some on the phone with clients, the agents trying to draw prices towards or above the reserve. Sharks circling for the kill? Perhaps, but sharks would only come if there is food for the taking.

The importance of having viewed the property prior to auction cannot be stressed. The Property Ombudsman was recently called to resolve a dispute between a buyer and an agent.

The dispute centered around an auction property that had been incorrectly described as having two bedrooms instead of being listed as the one bedroom property that it was in reality. The error was only corrected at the last minute. The marketing agent found out only the night before and endeavoured to contact those who had submitted bids, presumably to get them to notify him of a withdrawal if they did not want to continue. At the property auction the property was clarified to be a one bed property, and as could be expected, the winning bid did not come from any present among the bidders. Instead it came from one the agent had received a prior written bid on.

The property ombudsman had to mediate between the “winner” who claimed the agent had misrepresented the property. It found that the buyer should have been aware of what was being purchased and done his own due diligence, but it also found that the agent should have made better attempts to get in touch with the buyer to ensure that the change in sales description was acknowledged.

The agent was asked to recompense the buyer to the tune of £750 but there was no compensation for the difference between the price between a two bed flat and a one bed flat.

Buying by auction presents conveniences but don’t be misled. There are responsibilities on the part of bidders and agents that arise as a result. If you are considering buying by auction, it goes without saying you absolutely must see the property before buying!

Beware the internet-only buyer

If you were an estate agent, what would you do if a buyer wanted to make a purchase of a property without even seeing it?

You might commend yourself on the quality of brochures and website. Maybe the website has flash features that allow your users to see the interior of properties in a panoramic view, which in itself is a good thing because it means it cuts down on the number of initial viewings you have to do, if potential buyers can look at a property beforehand and not have to book an appointment to view it.

Technology has significantly improved our lives and sped up processes, and is an advantage that there is less time spent waiting, communication flows faster, and information is more accessible.

Take for example, the conveyancing process. In the days before the internet the conveyancer went about his business and if you wanted to know at which stage a house purchase was at, you’d have to keep ringing or pay a visit to the office. Now the conveyancer can log the stages that have been complete, and you can view a record of work on your mobile device. You don’t have to waste time or money calling the conveyancer, he or she doesn’t have to be distracted from his work, and it is a win-win situation.

Having technology and using it well is also a time saver. Nowadays it is easy to view the interior of properties, and a schematic of the property dimensions before actually setting foot in the property. It cuts out one layer of viewings both for the interested party and estate agent, and because any information about the property can be put online, such as whether it is a freehold or leasehold property, the ground rent, or any information on the vicinity – the estate agents are able to give as much information to buyers, which not only saves them from repeating the same facts over and over again, but also helps by filtering out uninterested buyers (for example, if the property was leasehold and the buyers wanted one with a share of the freehold) and diverting in potential buyers. In the latter case, for example, if a property is within the vicinity of a good school, putting up the information online would help draw in buyers with families.

In the examples above, we have written about the benefits of technology with reference to property sales, but the benefits are equally applicable to lettings. The use of technology accelerates the initial stages of a sales or letting for both an agent and a consumer and for an agent, the people that get in touch thereafter can be said to be considered serious parties. Nevertheless, no matter whether the property is for sale or for rent, there is no substitute for actual viewing somewhere down the line before signing on a purchase. Even people who buy off plan visit the site to acquire a feel for the actual place, one that cannot be obtained from the glitz and glamour of a website or sales brochure.

So it was slightly surprising, even suspicious, when a TPO member agent received emails from a overseas buyer in China, who wanted to make the full asking price on a property, but without having actually setting foot in it.
The estate agent was sought by emails  times. Each time the overseas “buyer” demonstrated an interest in offering the full asking price offer on a property. The TPO member agent asked for personal documentation and when they arrived by email the documents were found to contain a series of potentially destructive computer viruses. Thankfully the member agent had exercised caution and vigilance, and exercised good judgement in not getting swept away by the opportunity of making a quick sale.

The Property Ombudsman (TPO) has issued a warning to all estate and letting agents to act with caution, as fraudulent ‘buyers’ target agents with the latest computer virus scam. It is not entirely dissimilar to the ransomeware viruses that crippled the NHS a few months ago, and there are no limits to which fraudsters will not go to in order to hijack a computer, even to the point of nurturing a business relationship before going in for the kill.

What would you do if you received an unsolicited email from a stranger? Your first instinct may be to google them to see if they exist. But fraudsters will have already done so, and assumed the identity of someone to appear credible. It may be prudent to exercise caution in these dealings.

It is not known what impact the viruses could have had on the agent’s IT system if it had not been identified.

Gerry Fitzjohn, Board Chairman for TPO commented: “Fortunately in this case, the scam was identified and no company or customer details were compromised.  However, this is a reminder to all agents to be both cautious and vigilant. The importance of antivirus software is a given, but it is not a guarantee against computer viruses, so the best defence is also an educated user. If something seems too good to be true, it usually is. We would urge all agents to circulate this warning amongst staff.”