Outspoken and consistently outperforming, Camilla Dell is founder and MD of one of London’s most successful acquisition agencies, Black Brick. Here in conversation with PrimeResi, she discusses everything from driving a hard bargain to difficult toy dogs…
You worked at both Foxtons and Knight Frank during the 2000s; how did this prepare you for the world of acquisitions?
For me, working at Foxtons was like the University of Estate Agency and London Property Market. Whilst lots of people like to say negative things about Foxtons, I can honestly say I would not be where I am today had I not started my career there. It taught me discipline, how to be a great sales person, and, most importantly, it sowed the seed for Black Brick. I did not work at Knight Frank for very long and I was based in their buying department. I went there to really test drive my business plan for Black Brick, and, within eight months, I left to set up my firm and have never looked back. Knight Frank are a great firm, but I strongly believe that buying agencies should not be part of estate agents – independence is key.
What were the biggest challenges you encountered whilst starting up your own business?
It’s tough to be taken seriously when you are a small company, work from home, and there are only two of you. Luckily that did not last for very long, because within six months, my team had doubled in size and within two years, I moved from my home office to an office in Mayfair which really put Black Brick on the map.
What was your first deal as a buying agent?
My first deal was for a client who has since become a dear friend and has concluded over eight transactions with me in the last 10 years. He was looking for a penthouse flat in St John’s Wood and loves cars – he owns at least five high value sports cars so off street parking was really important. He needed at least five spaces, and I managed to not only find him his dream penthouse, but also one that came with five secure parking spaces – no mean feat!
What’s the toughest search brief you’ve ever been given?
Every search we take on is unique and has it challenges. If finding a property were easy, people wouldn’t come to us for help. I think the toughest search we had was for a couple who had no children, but they did have a small Chiuahua dog. Therefore, they wanted to buy a flat with secure outside space for the dog (balconies were deemed too dangerous in case the dog fell through the bars!) and in a building with a porter. The combination of these two factors made the search challenging as many buildings with porters don’t allow pets and most forms of outside space were not suitable for small dogs. We eventually identified a stunning apartment with high ceilings and a porter with secure outside space which even led out onto private communal gardens. It took us over 12 months to find it, but our clients were thrilled with the end result.
Your team now includes five buying consultants; what makes a great buying specialist in your opinion?
The best buying consultants are those that totally understand how to be a good consultant. At the end of the day, our job isn’t to sell a property to a client in the way that an estate agent would do, our job is to guide and advise our clients and make sure they don’t make a mistake. This can often take time. Patience is key, as is the ability to build rapport and trust with clients. Finally, fierce negotiation skills, a relentless approach to finding the right property, and expertise in the market are also crucial skills.
How important is it for you to remain independent? What advantages does this give your clients?
Independence is hugely important; buying agents that are owned by estate agents are hugely conflicted. I know this first hand as I used to work for one. Clients always found it odd that on the one hand we were saying we were acting for the buyer, but on the other hand we were owned by an estate agency. Not being independent also makes it incredibly difficult to get access to off market properties. Most estate agents are reluctant to freely share sensitive off market instructions to buying agents who are owned by estate agencies for fear that they may lose the instruction. With us, there is no conflict. We don’t sell properties and we never will.
How do you foresee the demand for acquisition firms developing in the UK over the next five years? Is the market now saturated?
I think the market has become flooded with one/two man band buying agents who often work from home, and do a handful of deals a year. There is nothing wrong with this, but for clients looking to engage a professional buying agent, then there are actually very few companies to choose from. I can count my competitors on one hand in terms of professional firms with a salaried team and proper offices. I think the demand for buying agents will continue over the next five years – the fact is, most buyers find the process time consuming, difficult and frustrating. The market also isn’t very transparent. I often draw the analogy that a buyer without a buying agent is like going to court without a lawyer; the traditional way of buying is actually a very unfair process when you think about it. The seller has their estate agent working for them and it’s in their best interests to sell their property for the highest price, but the buyer has no one. We even up that process and I think it’s a service that more and more buyers are turning to, not just wealthy foreigners.
In the last eight years, your firm has acquired over £200 million worth of residential property for African buyers; where do you think will be your biggest source of clients over the next few years?
Emerging market countries will continue to be big buyers of UK property – they value everything the UK offers compared to their own high risk countries. Other countries to watch are Angola and Brazil – there are huge amounts of money flowing out of these countries. Political uncertainty also drives buyers to the UK.
One of the key benefits of employing a buying agent is having a professional negotiate on your behalf; what are your top tips for securing a good deal?
Know your market, understand pricing, and collate relevant comparable sales data to assess whether a property is expensive or not. Finding out who the vendor is and why they are selling also help, there is no point negotiating hard with a vendor who isn’t really motivated to sell in the first place.
In your experience, what percentage of London’s prime property stock is only available off-market?
This is very difficult to assess because the true meaning of the phrase “off market” often gets misinterpreted. For example, a property may not be openly advertised, but there is an estate agent involved – does this therefore make it off market? On average around 25% of the deals we do for our clients are either totally off market, or there is an estate agent involved but no marketing information on the property.
How do you maintain such a regular supply of HNW clients?
Over 30% of our clients come to us through a previous client recommendation. Clients are also recommended to us via other professional intermediaries such as law firms, accountancy firms and banks.
Which schemes/developers were you most impressed by in 2014? Is there one in particular you are tipping for great things in 2015?
We tend to favour smaller, more boutique developments with fewer than 100 units. We bought two apartments last year in a development on Hanover Street which only had a total of six units. We also really like Native Land and their Old Burlington Street development. 2015 will be an interesting year for London’s higher end developers as there are so many new schemes under development and due for launch in a very tricky market.
How many clients does Black Brick have on the books at the moment?
What advice would you have for someone thinking about starting a career in acquisitions?
Too often I meet candidates with no property experience who want to become buying agents. My advice has always been to learn about the market first, and the best way to do this is to work for one of the big estate agencies. There are no short cuts to this job.
What was the firm’s biggest deal of 2014?
Were there any interesting trends you’ve noticed amongst your buyers over recent years?
Our recent analysis looked at over 200 property purchases in Prime Central London since 2007.
In looking at transaction trends, it’s not surprising to note that the fewest transactions were during the height of the financial crisis in 2008, however, this was short-lived as Black Brick more than doubled the number of property purchases it made the following year.
Interestingly, budgets for investors (who make up 40% of all purchases) were on average, just over £2m in 2007, this fell to £1.31m in 2009, and reached just over £1.4m in 2014. Meanwhile, although average owner occupier budgets rose from £1.33m in 2007 to £2.92m in 2014, they’ve fallen from 2013’s peak of £4.66m.
The data also highlighted the fact the services of buying agents are not just for wealthy overseas buyers; UK purchasers form the third highest percentage of our buying clients.
The property market in London is time consuming, frustrating and difficult to navigate even for local buyers, hence the growing number of UK buyers within our client base. Our British clients tend to be busy executives from the financial services sector, who may have previously been looking for some time on their own, but have become increasingly disillusioned with not being able to find the right property, getting gazumped or having access to off market opportunities. Interestingly, 88% of our UK client base have been owner occupiers, buying a home rather than an investment, and the most popular postcodes have been SW1, SW3 and SW10 – mainly Chelsea and Belgravia with 70% of our UK buyers purchasing in these postcodes, dispelling the myth that prime Central London is purely dominated by international buyers.
What are you predicting for the London sales market in 2015? Is there going to be an optimum window for buyers, and if so, when?
2015 is likely to be a year of two very clearly defined halves split by the general election. Should the Conservative party win the May 2015 election, we expect an extremely active London property market and the opportunity to drive a hard bargain with vendors will be significantly reduced if not lost all together.
We believe the period between now and the general election may prove an attractive entry point to PCL property over the long-term, especially if prices are driven down by the changes in stamp duty.
Meanwhile, given the extent to which Labour’s proposed policy Mansion Tax policy has already been watered down, we do not expect a Labour victory to have a dramatic impact on London house prices – though some short-term weakness in prices is likely. For owners in the £2m to £3m price band, the Labour Party has outlined the cost of the Mansion Tax at £3,000 a year. We do not believe this is significant enough to precipitate any widespread selling should the Mansion Tax become law.
Our experience with previous tax changes affecting prime Central London property is that it is the uncertainty that buyers don’t like more than the imposition of the charge itself. In the recent cases of the higher Stamp Duty above £2m and the imposition of Capital Gains Tax for foreign owners of UK property the market paused while waiting for the precise details before regathering momentum.
What are your clients saying about the UK property market in general right now? Are any particular concerns holding them back from buying?
Some are showing slight hesitation about when to buy due to the looming general election, but most view the next six months as an opportunity. The recent dollar strengthening against the pound is also giving our dollar based clients an effective 11% discount off the price of UK property at the moment.
Where would you like to see Black Brick in five years’ time?
We are already one of London’s leading independent buying agencies, and I would like to see us expand into other parts of the UK. Buyers purchasing in other parts of the UK also need assistance and often university cities make great investments, so it would be interesting to develop the service outside of just Central London and the Home Counties. We are also expanding our Property Management and Vacant Care side of the business and in five years’ time I would love to see this side of the business make up 50% of Black Brick’s revenues.
Where would you personally spend a budget of £10m right now?
I would spread this across several properties, all sub £2 million and some sub £1 million, which is where I think the biggest growth will be over the next few years.