It’s been said that the estate agency business is becoming a ‘race to the bottom’, with the rise in online agents and the proliferation of new agents driving fees ever lower. Even in London, where instructions and prices are widely believed to be stagnating, research from HouseSimple.com last year revealed that a new agent opened its doors every 1.6 days in the capital.
Against this fiercely competitive backdrop it might seen foolhardy, crazy even, to spend big when opening up a new branch, but we’ve found there are agents doing just that and what’s more, they’ve no regrets about doing so.
I wanted to create an environment where you could come in, sit down on a sofa, have a drink, use the wifi… look at some tempting properties. Phil Williams, Walton and Allen.
Phil Williams, Head of Residential Sales at Nottingham agent Walton and Allen is among them. He oversaw the opening of the company’s first shop two-and-a-half years ago after joining the firm, which had previously specialised in lettings and block management.
“Walton and Allen was a big player in the lettings market and had a staff of between 900 and 1,000 in block management. They became an estate agency by default, because landlords wanted to sell their properties. This gained traction and they called me in, due to my background at Haart and Sequence and tasked me with building a new shopfront.
“I set about looking for new premises but I didn’t want something like your normal estate agent. I wanted somewhere where you could sit down on a sofa and do what you would do at home. I wanted to create an environment where people could come in, use our free wifi to sit down and it would be more of a social area for people.
“Between the hours of 4pm and 6pm it is probably the busiest lounge in the area because it is near the tram stop so people come in, they have a look around, they make an enquiry.
“Until recently we were open until seven pm and we will be doing that again in the summer time so when people are finishing at five in the evening, then they are going to nip in and have a drink from the bar and browse properties at their own leisure.”
Williams feels he achieved the social space he was after, and the shop now has two sofas, two pod areas, removable stools so negotiators can sit with clients and even a virtual reality area. But this vision didn’t come cheap – after starting with an initial budget of £50,000, the company increased this to £75,000, and this doesn’t even include the £30,000-plus of touch screens the company sourced from Intouch Display on a payment plan.
Intouch’s Steve Blackaller says the company’s investment in touch screens was unprecedented. “They are the only one throughout our hundreds of clients that had that much kit. We have had several agents that have had multiple window screens and that have done double screens like they did, but for the sheer amount of equipment they’ve got, then Walton Allen is unique.”
But Williams is convinced the fit out investment was worth it. “I think we had to drop a big stone in the pond because Nottingham has got very strong roots with a lot of estate agents. We have managed to expand with three other offices because of the success of the central office and we had very good profits last year.
“In the city centre the average fee is £1,200, our average fee is £2,100. So has it paid off? Yes. Was it a big risk? Very much so. Did I lie awake at night back in the beginning? Many, many times.”
The virtual reality investment has also delivered significant time savings for the business, says Williams. “The viewing ratio to offer for us was about 13-15 but since virtual reality has come it this has fallen to about 6.7 viewings to an offer.
For Walton and Allen, a return on the initial retail investment may have come quickly, but agents need to take a long-term view when it comes to setting up shop, says David Salvi, director at Hurford Salvi Carr.
The London agent opened a new branch in City Road, between Old Street and Angel, in October 2014 and another in Aldgate in December 2015, each with a cost in the region of £250,000.
“When we go into a venture it is with a 20-year life expectancy. We don’t do things for a quick return,” says Salvi. “I can’t see the point of doing an average job because at the end of the day, most agents do a similar job. Most of our competition are very good and very professional so we want to stand out from the crowd.”
The agency went to some lengths to stand out in its City Road office, with the industrial feel of the office enhanced by a unique set of mangle-style window displays.
The displays took months to design and involved a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between the agent, the architect for the project Danny Shafrir and refurbishment specialist MPL Interiors, but Salvi says the finished product was worth the effort.
“It is a stunning piece of kit and we do get a lot of comments about it,” he says. “An estate agent’s office is more than an office for workers, it is an advertising hoarding for the whole market. So when the office is closed it is doing its job, when it is open it is doing its job. If an agent doesn’t make the most of its window it is missing a trick really.”
Harry Simons, partner at MPL Interiors, says this is the kind of project that can only be accomplished with a bigger budget. “When MPL Interiors works with clients who have more generous budgets, we can pursue the bespoke route to create unique, one off interiors that become talking points.
“The architect Danny Shafrir was very keen to achieve an industrial – almost steam punk – look in the Hurford Salvi Carr City Road office, and this could only be achieved by creating most of the elements from scratch – nothing remotely like his vision existed in the ‘off-the-peg’ world. We were able to commission a set of unique mangle-style property display units that were many months in the planning and everything – even down to the handles – was custom designed.”
Fancy fittings, however, are most suited to agents with business in high end areas, says David Stevens of interior design firm ME&C Creative. “The thing for an estate agent is they don’t want to be perceived to be spending their clients’ money in terms of you go into their office and it is a Rolls- Royce affair, it doesn’t really portray the right image in terms of their customers will think that is where all their fees are going. On the flipside, when you get to the higher end of the market, it has a better effect.” Stevens says there are different types of high end, however, and says his work for Shoreditch agent Morgan Randall’s opening last year was an example of a big budget project with a twist. “With Morgan Randall, because it is in the Shoreditch they had to be seen to be creative, be a little bit funky and been seen to embrace that area, which is why we’ve got a huge graffiti mural on the wall and why it is a little bit more quirky than it would be if it was a standard estate agency.”
There are different types of ‘high-end,’ this office is big budget but it had to be seen to be creative, embrace the area. It’s not a standard agency.
As well as Shoreditch-style artwork, the estate agent also has 18,000 LED lights that can be altered to produce multiple effects, Apple Store inspired 1.2m square tiles and floor to ceiling glass panels.
Salvi agrees that individual area plays a big role in design. “If I was to put the City Road fit out into Aldgate it could work but it would be less inviting, it would be going against the aspirations of the people who live in Aldgate. Aldgate is a bit like a mini Canary Wharf, everything is corporate, a lot of the buyers are from Asia and the Far East and are very city orientated type people so we designed something completely different for that market, which was more like a good five star hotel entrance foyer with some beautifully finished brass and matte black internal screens and a lacquered brass window display which was very high end.
“Our brand is our brand and the marketplace is the marketplace and the office has to make our customers feel comfortable so the office appearance is number one. So if you were to remove our logo and our brand and put somebody else’s up in that location it would still work.”
It’s fair to assume, however, that with Hurford Salvi Carr’s long-term view there’s little chance of someone else replacing their logo, but Salvi says just like any other agent, the firm is always watching out for the competition. “There have been so many people opening in the last three years and we are part of that scenario so our competition is growing. Many of the agents we are up against are very good agents.”
Call the specialists
Crucial Projects www.crucialprojects.co.uk
Excite Creative www.exciteinteriors.co.uk
Intouch Display www.intouchdisplay.co.uk
MPL Interiors www.mplinteriors.com
Mid West Displays midwestdisplays.co.uk
Pure Display www.puredisplay.com