How much luck is involved in buying a house privately or “off market”?

Jonathan Harington reveals the tricks of the trade: buying a house privately

I always say that, for us, finding the house is the easy part. And do you know, the majority of the houses and estates we buy – and I’ve bought 193 at last count – are what’s known as sold ‘off market’? That means, buying a house privately; they have not been advertised.

“How on earth do you find them?” people constantly ask me. “You’ve the luck of the devil.” Luck? Well, I can’t see how luck can come into it when I’ve been finding houses for nearly thirty years! Unless you subscribe to the view that people make their own luck.

So how do we go about buying a house privately?

Having been in the property game for 39 years, I have an enormous number of contacts right across the market including, obviously, all the selling agents. More and more, people who decide they want to sell privately come straight to us. We also get information from other buying agents who have clients who want to sell privately. So with this huge range of contacts I am able to make it happen for clients and find the house they want. Many come to us because they can’t find a particular house and they get very focused on the fact that we buy off market. Yes we do. Probably about sixty percent of what we buy is actually off the market.

There are a number of different ways of describing off market.

There are obvious ones where we’ve approached an owner or an owner has approached us direct. But then there are ‘off-markets’ where an agent has been brought in by a seller, but they want to keep it very quiet, they don’t want to go public for personal reasons. Often in these cases we find ourselves having to sign confidentiality agreements confirming that we will only speak to one client, and we won’t speak to anybody else about it.

And then there are the properties which are going to be coming on later in the year, particularly over the winter months when vendors don’t want their houses to be photographed when the gardens are not looking at the best and the leaves aren’t on the trees. All this combines to make them think the best time to sell is later in the year and so they will often quietly market it and let one of two chosen people through the front door.

And finally, there is the ‘off market’ property that we know is coming. Many a time I’ve heard a house is coming up. I’ve been champing at the bit to get in but the vendors have given the agent strict instructions not to let anybody in before a certain date. In these situations, we have had a good snoop, sometimes have walked footpaths and taken photographs – more often than not we have seen the property in the last 39 years and know all about it. Anyway we get as much information as we can so on the day that it does actually appear in the market we are ready to pounce.

I would illustrate this with a house that I bought in July 2001 on the edge of a village called Bucklebury in Berkshire near Newbury. I’d been looking for the client for about three months as we very interested in buying a particular property in this area. And then I had heard from the selling agent – who I knew particularly well – that he was going to be bringing on this house. But he was very restricted on when he could let someone through the front door. I finally got there before anybody else because he was a good friend who got me in probably two or three days before other buyers or agents. My client was in Italy and I rang him as I drove down the drive and said, “Forget the other one. You’ve got to see this”. He was flying back from Italy that night so I drove to Heathrow Airport, picked him up, and drove him down to the house that very night. He got his wife around the following day and we agreed to buy it forty eight hours later.

This was in the days when houses like that were absolutely flying off the shelves and it was a judgment as to whether you buy it at that point or wait till it came to the open market. The judgment was to buy it then and there and it was the right decision. I believe it would have fetched an awful lot more money if it had gone to the open market. This is always a judgment call. Getting into houses privately can be a good thing. But in each case the vendor will almost certainly want a premium, and then the judgement is do we pay that premium or let it come to the market. In those days before the Lehman’s crash there were many cases where paying a premium appeared to make sense.

Here’s a house I bought pre-market, rather than off-market, in Hertfordshire back in January 1999. The house was being let and the agent, I think it was Savills, had been instructed to ask far too much money for it. I happen to have seen the rental advertisement (we don’t normally have clients looking for rentals but it does happen but very occasionally) and wondered if I could persuade them to sell it as it was ideal for a client at the time. So I rang Savills and said “what’s the story on this house? We haven’t got a client who wants to rent, it but looks perfect for a client of ours who is looking to buy in that part of the world.” I was told by the person at Savills that they were trying to let it but they felt it highly unlikely they’d get the sort of money they were asking. The previous owner had died and it was being let by the son. The agent thought there was a good chance that at some point they might change their mind and go to the market. I went to see it and we just waited in the wings. Sure enough, about six weeks later I had a call saying ‘Yes we have been instructed to sell it’ and I went down with a client that same day and we bought it before it came to the market. That is an example of just keeping in touch with the right people.

I can give another example of fifteen hundred acre commercial farm I bought in Hampshire in 2007, where I was speaking to someone at Knight Frank and I was saying I had a client looking for some farmland. He said that he had just been talking to someone who’d rung up for some advice about some land they owned. He didn’t think they were going to be selling it but they were just asking advice on value and so forth. To cut a very long story short, when he rang them back they said they might be interested in selling. That was in August 2006 and in March 2007 we exchanged and completed.

I would’ve said that was a huge amount of luck from my point of view. People say you make your own luck and I guess there is an element of making your own luck by keeping in touch with the right people and knowing what’s going on in the market.

Although I referred to three different sorts of off market the fact is in every case the houses we buy are ones that we have known about before they ever get near a website or a Country Life advertisement. I could probably illustrate every house I’ve ever bought in one form or another to show this.

What can you learn from this?

If you’re looking to buy the best property you’re going to be dead in the water unless you have a highly experienced and well connected buying agent acting for you. Finding the right property isn’t just about being the keenest to get into the estate agents – most properties worth their while will never make it to the open market. You should take advantage of this by partnering with someone who has the contacts and knowledge to find the right property.

I really couldn’t think who to recommend!

Scroll to Top