The start of a new year is famous for being a time of change. The season of indulgence is rounded off with resolutions — some realistic, some fanciful – as many people resolve to get fit, get a new job, redecorate or even, as many estate agents and letting agents will be well aware, move house. With all this change in the air it’s perhaps understandable that some agents will return to their office after the break and think that perhaps it’s time for a bit of a facelift.
But in this increasingly seven-day-a-week market, how does one carry out a refurbishment of a tired agency office without impacting business too much?
The most common way is to do the work in sections, says Harry Simons, partner at MPL Interiors. “MPL has helped people stay open by sectioning an office in half so we will put up a temporary partition wall and then everybody will move into one half and work from there and then they will swap over once the finished half has been refurbished. That is the most common way because people can keep their phone lines running, they can keep their same address and keep their high street presence.”
This approach can work particularly well for double fronted shops where it is easy to split the office in half, although sometimes the main door will need to be relocated. Although noise and dust may disrupt staff, at least they do not need to navigate a new commute to another office and the office doesn’t need to close.
This ‘half and half’ approach is the preferred option of Dexters, says projects manager Rona McDonald. “We rarely close a shop for a refit so work with our contractor to find a solution to keep everything running.
“We don’t like to move staff. We will occasionally move a couple of staff out but we still have to have a presence there because we’ve got the public coming in and out all the time.
“Quite a lot of the shops that we have are double fronted so we work on one side and then flip it. When we can’t do that – if it is a smaller shop but we still need to refurb it – then we just close sections off, usually with a heavy vinyl covering, and it is never for more than a couple of days because we try to do as much as we can out of hours.”
NEGOTIATION IS KEY
Harry Simons says out of hours work is a popular option with many clients, but they can expect to pay a premium for contractors to work outside standard hours. McDonald also points out that neighbours can be a problem. “If there are tenants above some of the shops, which of course in some of the suburban areas there are, we do have to liaise with them.
“That is difficult because the hours we can work only go up to certain times in the evening. When we are doing the out of hours work this sometimes causes them a problem and sometimes causes us a problem. It is a negotiation, we haven’t had any big problems but that is something that can easily go awry with banging and crashing into the evening, so as long as we finish by a decent hour in the evening it is OK.
“With Sunday working you have got to be very careful. We try and do the noisy work first thing in the morning on the weekdays rather than weekends, when people need their leisure time.”
With multiple parties involved, I cannot reiterate enough how important it is to have clear and efficient communication at all times. Bartek Boski, Marsh & Parsons.
Sometimes, however, shutting up shop is unavoidable, says Bartek Boski, Facilities Manager for Marsh & Parsons, who is currently overseeing a revamp of the firm’s Chelsea office. “We decided to undertake the work because as well as the Chelsea branch not having had a revamp for some time, the freeholder of the building was also carrying out works.
“As the extent of the works was quite large, we decided to relocate staff to our neighbouring South Kensington office while they are carried out, allowing the staff to work in a more comfortable and safe environment.
POP UP SOLUTIONS
For agents without a nearby office to help with the transition, Simons says pop-up offices can be a viable solution. “MPL has done some pop-up offices, so we will sometimes find unlet or disused units in the same vicinity and we will set up a popup branch for that company. MPL will do a temporary fit out in the pop-up office with some temporary furniture, phone lines, data, power supply and lighting.” You also have to be realistic about timescales. Simons says refurbishments typically take between five and seven weeks for an office of eight to 10 people with a small communal kitchen and a set of toilets.
But he cautions when extensive works are required it’s never easy to be precise about timescales. “Estate agents may want to meet a very precise date but with a lot of refurbishments they don’t know what they are dealing with until they take the plaster off or remove items, so timescales do need to have some room for manoeuvre.”
If planning permission is required or your office is in a conservation area, you should expect the process will take longer and structural changes and bespoke furniture will also add to the time needed.
Boski adds that the involvement of freeholders or management companies can also complicate things. “As is often the case with major reworks, there is more than one party involved in the management. Therefore, I cannot reiterate enough how important it is to have clear and efficient communication at all times.”
Simons adds, however, that refurbs are often accelerated when rebranding is taking place. “We’ve known branches where there has been a massive brand overhaul where they go from one branch to the next and within four or five days a cosmetic brand overhaul has taken place.”
One day we were Marchand Petit, the next we were Alexander Lush and it was seamless. We did it all in one day. It’s all about planning and organisation. Sandy Lush, Alexander Lush.
In terms of expedited refurbs it would be hard to beat the example provided by Sandy Lush, Managing Director of Alexander Lush Estate Agents in Millbrook. When she changed from being a Marchand Petit franchisee to an independent agent last August she decided she wanted her rebrand and refurb completed in just one day.
“One day we were Marchand Petit, the next day we were Alexander Lush Estate Agents and it was seamless. We did it all in one day. We did the painting the night before and we came in first thing in the morning, put the office together, all the signage went up that morning, all the ‘for sale’ and ‘sale agreed’ boards all changed over on that morning. Our website was launched that morning and Rightmove and Zoopla changed over that morning too.
“To be fair we didn’t have to change any of the computers or any of the desks or anything like that and our window display stayed the same, we just had to change all the window cards.
“It’s about planning and organisation. I was working on it all the time, plan, plan, plan, but all of that planning paid off.”
Lush was so confident everything would go without a hitch that she even arranged an opening night party on the evening of the changeover.
Although extreme, Lush’s focus on quickly establishing a new brand is shared by many of those opening new businesses, says Tom Cummuskey, Sales and Marketing Manager at Kremer Signs.
“People always want things in a hurry as obviously they want to get exposure for their brand as soon as they can. For new agencies they can’t commit to anything until they’ve exchanged on the property. The second that happens we are normally called in straight away — the first point of call is to get the signage up whether the office is going to be open straight away or in a month or so, it doesn’t really matter because until then they can put a vinyl wrap on the window saying ‘coming soon’. Having the signage up to raise awareness before they start trading is obviously quite key to revving up a bit of interest before they actually open the doors.”
Established agents tend to start thinking about revamps towards the end of the year, says Cummuskey, for two main reasons. “From September through to December are our busiest times for office revamps and signage generally because agents are looking to start the coming year with a new brand or look so they are looking to get the office fascia and any kind of signage to marry up with that. Also, during the darker seasons they are looking for around the clock exposure so they want to look at different ways to illuminate the offices and illuminate the signage and this is the best time of year to do it, when it is a lot darker in the afternoons.”
For those with a New Year’s resolution to plan a refurb, the end of the year may seem too far away, but the general consensus is that the other good time of year for a revamp is summer, particularly July and August, when many people are away and the property market traditionally goes through a bit of a lull.
With any luck, a rush of New Year buyers will keep you busy for the first couple of months of the year and when it dies down you’ll have the perfect amount of time to start planning a refurbishment to take place over the summer.