Is the role of the property buying agent the same in 2015 as it was in 1985?

Jonathan Harington charts the rise of the property buying agent

People think the buying agent role is a relatively modern, new phenomena. But this really isn’t the case at all. It all started in the mid-1980s with houses, but it had been going on for many years before with farms and estates.

Admittedly, when I started in 1986 – I was one of the very first buying agents – there was only one other business concentrating on buying. And it was not until about 2005 that the numbers of agents drastically grew. Today I am told there are three hundred buying agents alone in Chelsea. Having said that, there’s a wide range of expertise and professionalism and there are very few who come close to me or my team. Many people today – agents included! – confuse a buying agent with a search agent and there is a profound difference between the two. (Read more about this in my Blog ‘What’s the difference between a Buying Agent and a Search Agent?’).

In the last 29 years acting for buyers I have bought 193 properties across just about every county south of Lincolnshire with a huge range of values, from £300,000 (which in 1986 bought you an extremely nice Manor House) to £36m. They have included houses, cottages, parts of houses, barn conversions, land (both small blocks and up to 2,000 acres), farms, studs, racing yards and the perfect shooting estate. In fact, you name it outside London and I’ve bought it.

The role of the buying agent hasn’t essentially changed. From time immemorial, buying a house has been a can of worms for the buyer. The main difference between then and now is then it was mostly the selling agents’ offshoots doing the buying. Today, whilst the big selling agents still have buying arms, and still try to overcome the inevitable conflicts, there are independent specialists like Haringtons who look out solely for the interests of the buyer.

The need for a property buying service

I started my property career in 1976 on the sales side working at the headquarters of what was then Lane Fox (now Strutt & Parker) in London selling country houses, farms and estates. At Lane Fox we did a lot of buying in those days but it was a secondary business and it was not until ten years later that I realised how important it was for the buyers to have a dedicated service. It was the sellers who were static, but it was the buyers who spent hours travelling the country to find their perfect property with endless wasted and depressing visits.

You can imagine the scene on a Saturday morning. The brochure had arrived in the post (today it would be a PDF by email of course) and the property looked perfect. They made an appointment, and husband and wife set off down the motorway on a Saturday; an hour and a half later arriving at the property. You can hear the conversation in the car as they got closer. “Are you sure this is it? There’s no mention of a power station, pylon line, pig farm, railway, slurry pit, or road noise next door.” They trot around the house complaining bitterly and feeling incredibly grumpy.

Then they get in the car and start to blame the selling agent who, in their opinion, had let them down. But they’ve forgotten that the selling agent is trying to sell the property and wants them to go and look at it. So then there was almost certainly a domestic in the car on the way back with either husband or wife blaming the other. “You’ve ruined my weekend. Why didn’t you check on all those extra elements?”

This would go on – and still does of course – countless times a year for the hapless buyer.

The original property buyer

On the back of this I decided to set up a buying side of Lane Fox. I went to the partnership and suggested that we did it as a separate business and not as a secondary business to selling. It had to be buying only and it had to be done for only a few clients. They agreed, and the last house I sold was in September 1986. Before I switched to buying, I was lucky enough to have a huge range of experience at Lane Fox (Strutt and Parker) as in those days there wasn’t a separate department for houses, farms or development. We did it all and that set me up superbly.

I ran the buying service at Lane Fox for ten years and was approached by Knight Frank in 1996 to set up their buying business. In those days we did not act on both sides. So if one of my team had a client who wanted to buy a property being sold by Knight Frank, we pulled out. As time went by, Knight Frank’s market share shot up and this became a major problem. Savills approached me at about this time to set up their buying business. But by then I decided independence was vital. Savills in fact went ahead and set up a buying side with a separate name so they could indeed buy houses for clients and also sell to them. In 2004 Knight Frank followed and since then Strutt and Parker are also doing the same.

In the meantime I decided that in-house buying agencies in sale departments was wrong and created far too many conflicts. I also thought the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) would stop it. So, partly because of this and partly because I had some excellent backing from some former clients, I decided to set up my own independent buying business, “Haringtons”.

The verdict…

Has the role changed since 2015? Not really other than it is has become much more accepted and understood but the number of so called buying agents has proliferated and of course is unregulated. I do not believe anybody is equipped to be a buying agent unless they have first spent several years selling, on top of that it is a hugely professional business which requires an in-depth knowledge of the market, the right and wrong areas, valuation and negotiation, together with a good knowledge of planning, land management, the listing system and property law.

There are a terrifying number of so called buying agents that have none of this experience.

Buyer beware!

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