Forget Zoopla — if you have serious money to spend, hire a private office
The property is a double-fronted, four-storey Victorian house with a south-facing garden. It may not look it, but it was one of the most expensive properties sold in the UK last year, with a valuation of £20 million. All the more remarkable when you learn that the buyer, the American investor J Russell DeLeon, was actually downsizing. He had bought a larger house nearby for a similar price some six months earlier, but that didn’t work out so he and his wife decided to buy this house, in Notting Hill, west London.
Neither property ever hit the open market, though. Both were quietly sold off-market — offered to potential buyers without the brochures and website listings traditionally associated with estate agents and house sales. Welcome to the hush-hush world of private offices, or so-called “black book” agencies, which are increasingly responsible for big ticket property deals and the purchase of trophy assets in the UK.
If you are in the market for a shooting estate in Scotland, a townhouse in central London or a villa in the south of France, you can employ a buying agent to find exactly what you want; the agent will scour their black books of selling agents and rich clients to find the perfect properties for you — and all without attracting the attention of the property portals (or nosey neighbours and business associates) with the agents often forced to sign non-disclosure agreements to ensure clients’ privacy.
Last year almost one in ten sellers in Britain sold their properties off-market. In London the figure was nearer one in four (22.3 per cent), and it is even higher (29 per cent) for properties worth £1 million or more, according to Hamptons International.
The man tasked with finding a suitable home for “Russ” DeLeon was Mark Hutton, co-founder and managing partner of the property consultancy Hutton Bubear. “They wanted to sell their house in Notting Hill, they then wanted to buy another, slightly smaller house in the same area,” Hutton says, without revealing why. As super-prime agents like to say, rich people make all sorts of choices simply “because they can”.
DeLeon made his wealth in online gambling — he founded PartyGaming, an online casino software company, with his ex-wife, Ruth Parasol. The company merged with its Austrian-based rival Bwin in a £2 billion deal that made DeLeon and Parasol very wealthy. DeLeon is now married to Kimberley Yoshimi, a cosmetic doctor.
Hutton says that the house they were selling was a seven-bedroom property spanning some 6,000 sq ft, while the one they bought is “probably 2,000 sq ft smaller”. He adds: “In capital terms they’re still big houses in Notting Hill and big sums are involved.”
Hutton was introduced to the DeLeons by a previous client, which he says is the norm in the discreet world of super-prime property. “Almost all our clients come through word of mouth,” he explains.
Hutton has been working in property for 23 years, mostly as an estate agent. Then, in 2015, he was put in charge of the residential phase of Battersea Power Station, before setting up the London office of Hutton Bubear in 2021. The consultancy launched a private office division a couple of years ago. Since then, Hutton says, his firm has worked on £300 million worth of deals.
“Some people like the discretion associated with it,” Hutton says. “Also what we found is that sometimes testing the waters very discreetly with an asset can allow us to gauge whether the price is in the right place or not.” Hutton says that at times the price can be “out of kilter to the market” and if a property has been on a portal like Rightmove or Zoopla a price reduction would leave a trace.
“Psychologically that sort of footprint can taint the marketing process — it can put some buyers off because they assume something must be wrong with [the property].” When it came to DeLeon’s new home, for example, he says that the asking price was £20 million but they managed to negotiate down to about £15 million.
Hutton is reluctant to divulge how many people, or who, is in his own black book: “It has been sort of ebb and flow, depending on who’s active. But especially at the top end of the market, I’d say, there’s not that many.”
Black books like those used by Hutton would include contacts at the large selling agencies such as Savills or Knight Frank, boutique agencies including Beauchamp Estates or Wetherell, private investors or developers — think Nick Candy or Vincent Tchenguiz — and foreign billionaire buyers such as the American hedge fund manager Ken Griffin or Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, the former prime minister of Qatar known as HBJ. Middle Eastern families from Saudi Arabia or the Emirates are also kept in the loop.
“Private banks, law and accountancy firms, family offices — it’s anyone and everyone working with ultra-high-net-worth individuals,” says Camilla Dell, managing partner and founder of the buying agency Black Brick, who adds that her database includes 300 buying agents who can be “cherry-picked” depending on the clients’ requirements.
Dell says that half of the deals she advised on last year were off-market, while so far this year the figure is at 55 per cent. “It’s a bit like a game of poker, sellers don’t like to show their cards,” she says. “Privacy, security and confidentiality have probably become more prevalent. There’s more wealth, and more millionaires and billionaires around who don’t want their properties to be advertised. Just for security reasons, having a floorplan online can be a huge risk and a great resource for burglars.”
Off-market sales can happen very quickly. At the end of last year Dell advised an American buyer on the purchase of a £8.75 million flat sold by the developer Nick Candy. The deal was finalised within a week.
It took Hutton about two weeks to find a buyer for DeLeon’s “old” Notting Hill house — an Englishman who works for a large American bank. Then another five or six weeks to negotiate terms. In the meantime they found their new property, knocked the price down and, because the house needed refurbishing, recommended architects and interior designers. Meanwhile DeLeon and his wife have moved to “a little” rental in Kensington while the works are carried out.
The mandate didn’t end there: Hutton says that they are now advising DeLeon on the purchase of an investment property in London, the sale of a chalet in Switzerland and finding a villa to rent in Ibiza. “You spend a lot of time with these clients and so you get to know them and other areas of their lives kind of come into the conversation. It’s just a case of being able to join the dots.”
Hutton is coy about fees, though. “We do charge a fee for our services, but some of these activities are not something we look at generating revenue from, they’re just additional parts of the business. The bigger firms probably charge between 2.5 and 3 per cent. We’re probably more competitive, but it’s case-by-case, and once it’s agreed with a client it obviously remains confidential.”