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Property Natter: a changing of the guard?

The big story to break this week in the property world was the announcement by the new owner of Humberts that the historic agency would be closing many of its traditional branches to move to what is being called ‘Humberts Hubs’.

The first of these hubs will be opened in early autumn. While all existing staff will be retained, some previous job titles are set to drastically change as the firm moves from what it calls ‘old fashioned’ agency to a much more ‘customer-focused, service-oriented, forward-looking operation’.

The new owner of Humberts, which was first founded in 1842, is Matt Spence, whose company Natural Retreats – established in 2006 after he developed his first holiday let location on his family’s farm – purchased the agency in May this year. Before that, the in-trouble firm had been on the verge of collapse and was being managed by restructuring consultancy Begbies Traynor.

Spence, whose luxury self-catering firm has around 1,000 holiday lets on its books in the UK and the US, has been vocal about his plans to ‘revolutionise the industry and become the champion of the rural economy’.

He said previously that the revival would be focused on highly coveted chocolate box towns and locations in rural Britain, the sort of places people flock to both live and holiday in. Now, the move away from traditional branches seems to be top of the agenda.

The first hub will be in Poundbury on the edge of Dorchester, with this hub serving both Dorset and Hampshire. Four more hubs are set to follow shortly in Tunbridge Wells, Cirencester, Exeter and Bath.

This interview with Estate Agent Today fleshes out Spence’s wide-ranging plans in more detail, from moving away from the ‘over-institutionalised’ self-imposed rules of estate agency to offering a Kirstie and Phil-style level of personal guidance and customer service.

The creation of the hubs and the move away from traditional branches seems to suggest an attempt to break into the ever-growing hybrid market, where a combination of online and traditional services is offered. We’ve seen more and more of this in recent years, with experimentation by the likes of Countrywide, the merger of easyProperty and GPEA and the investment by Savills into YOPA to try and compete with the threat posed by Purplebricks and the recently merged Emoov/Tepilo brand.

Is this an attempt to fight fire with fire, or merely a reaction to the increasingly digital age we now live in? It’s not clear yet how much the Humberts Hubs service will cost, but will they aim to compete on the prices offered by the ‘low-cost’ hybrids?

The move by Humberts is not dissimilar to an example I mentioned in a previous Natter. Nathan Anderson-Dixon, managing director of Midlands-based estate agency Adobe, centralised many of his firm’s processes after 15 years of operating as a traditional agency. It now has one central office and has actively embraced technology – and more specifically VR technology – to offer something different to consumers.

Will we see more of this in the future, with fewer traditional branches and more central hubs or offices? Will there be more diversification, as has been the case with Savills, Knight Frank and (largely unsuccessfully) Countrywide, as agencies try and widen their income streams? Will we see letting agencies, stung by the upcoming ban on fees charged to tenants, more enthusiastically embracing other potential avenues of revenue such as Airbnb-style short-lets and Build to Rent?

Spence has said Humberts staff will offer an ‘anything at all’ approach, offering services ranging from cleaning, gardening and property maintenance to advising on schools, mortgages, legal advisers, removals and pets. Could this be the future role of agents, taking on a broader, Jack of all trades, hands-on approach?

As ever, we’ll have to wait and see. But such a bold move from an established, historic, well-respected agency like Humberts could prove to be a game-changer in the industry.

Does the property market really slow down over the summer?

It’s long been seen as gospel that the property market dramatically grinds to a halt in July and August with the kids breaking up from school and everyone heading off on their holidays. What’s more, the distractions of the World Cup, Love Island and the searing heatwave we’ve been experiencing of late surely put people off thinking about buying or selling a home?

But is this the reality down on the ground, or is it merely a self-perpetuating myth? I checked in with three agents operating in different parts of the country to find out more.

Simon Bradbury, Managing Director of Thomas Morris Sales & Lettings, which has a number of branches across Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire, says he has never noticed a consistent downturn in activity in the summer months. "Over the years, with the exception of one week either side of Christmas, the time of the year does not appear to impact the market significantly in my view," he said.

"A heatwave does not appear to impact viewing activity," he added. "Properly motivated buyers and tenants still want to view property in almost any weather, the only exception being snowy or very frosty weather which raises practical challenges for all concerned."

Jonathan Cunliffe, a leading estate agent in Cornwall’s prime residential markets for 25 years, recently decided to branch out on his own after a long time spent in senior positions at Countrywide and Savills. He’s created his own niche, high-end property agency in Falmouth – called simply Jonathan Cunliffe – which covers the whole of Cornwall.

He said in most years the property market in Cornwall is generally quieter in July and August as buyers (and sellers) concentrate on their holiday time. “They tend to return to the market at the end of summer with September and October being one of the strongest periods of the year,” he added.

When I asked him whether the weather has any impact at this time of year, he said what happens outside does seem to affect property market activity. “Average weather does seem to be the best for selling prime property and if the weather is too good people are out there making the most of it, and if it is too bad, they ‘batten down the hatches’ for a few days.” In this current heatwave, then, it seems highly likely that activity goes down rather than encouraging more people to go house-hunting.

Karl Knipe, Director of Kings Group, a popular, well-established agency offer traditional agency services to a number of locations in North London, Essex and Hertfordshire, agrees that very sunny temperatures tend to put people off.

“The property market in my 32 years of being in the business has always been cyclical with a slowdown during the summer months. Every two years this is accentuated by the World Cup or European Football Championships and, of course, other major summer sporting events such as the Olympics,” he said.

Despite that, he believes it’s still a great time for buyers to buy as there’s so much less competition.

“Buy now and benefit is what I say to would-be movers, as the buyers haven’t gone away but are only having their attention turned elsewhere at present and could be back with a vengeance in September and the return of children to school and good old British rain.”

And on that note, it’s time I got out there to enjoy the weather!

Until next time…

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