What’s involved in finding an ‘off-market’ property to buy? (updated Spring 2020)

I have bought around 400 properties for clients over the last 34 years, and in most cases the buyer just wouldn’t have found the house on their own. Many people ask me, how do you find owners that want to sell their properties privately? This is what’s termed ‘off market’: when a property for sale hasn’t been advertised.

Is it down to chance? Hardly, or I’m the luckiest person there is! There’s a method, but it has taken many years to hone.

I should explain, there are three types of ‘off market’ we generally come across.

1. Direct Approach
When we’ve spotted an ideal property that suits our client’s requirement and go to an owner directly or an owner has come to us.

2. Discretion
Where a seller has appointed an estate agent, but they want the sale to be confidential. It’s not uncommon in these situations to find ourselves having to sign confidentiality contracts where we commit to only speak to one client, and we won’t speak to anybody else about it.

3. Advance
And then there are the properties which are going to be coming on later in the year, often over the winter months when vendors don’t want their houses to be openly marketed when the exterior is not looking its best and the trees have no leaves.

There are times when we know a house is coming up. I’ve been dying to get in but the vendors have given the agent strict instructions not to let anybody view before a particular date. In these situations, we have had a good snoop, walking nearby footpaths and taking pictures. Quite often we know the property already, having viewed it at some point over the last 40 years. Anyway, we get as much information as we can so when it does finally come to market we are ready to pounce.

Of all the houses I’ve bought over the last 40 years, probably about 60% of them have been purchased in one of these ways, ‘off market’.

So what’s my method? Quite simply: contacts.

There are no short cuts. Finding off market properties is all about developing relationships and establishing a reputation with people in the market. This takes many years and a certain predilection for getting to know a lot of people, and knowing them well and gaining their trust.

When you’ve been buying houses for as long as I have, and built up a network and reputation, after a time people come to you. They may be past clients, or selling agents who want an easy sale, or other buying agents who have clients wanting to sell privately. Or as mentioned earlier, sometimes we may approach an owner direct. It’s about being in the right place at the right time and how you achieve that is largely down to experience, as these examples illustrate.

Some years ago, we were looking for a house for a client in the Newbury area. I had spent three months doing so when I heard about a perfect property from an agent who was about to bring it to the market but had restrictions on when he could start showing it. Because I knew the agent particularly well, I managed to get in two or three days before any other buyers. It was ideal. I phoned my client, collected him from Heathrow, drove him directly to the house and we agreed to buy it within 48 hours.

On another occasion, I saw a property in a rental advertisement and thought it just right for a client at the time who was wanting to buy a property in Hertfordshire. I spoke to the agent, who explained their client wanted to let it but – in their opinion — was asking for too much. I registered my interest in buying it and after six weeks, sure enough I had a phone call: they couldn’t find a renter and the owner wanted to sell. We bought the property before it even came to the market.

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. Although finding it is only the beginning, you need a highly experienced professional to take you through the minefield of valuation, negotiation and due diligence.

By Jonathan Harington

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