The Secret Agents
Anna Tyzack talks to the people tasked with finding and buying the finest properties.
Since the economic crisis, the famed and fortuned- or some of them, at least- have recoiled from the ostentatious displays of wealth synonymous with the property bubble that lasted until 2007. This is not to say, however that they often employ a professional property finder to carry out the transaction discreetly on their behalf.
Sometimes known as “secret agents”, these men and women are some of the most powerful individuals in the prime housing market. They have market insight, exclusive access to the most coveted properties, and the expertise to broker sensitive, highly secretive deals. “A large part of my job is to ascertain through my contacts which precious residences might possibly come up for sale,” says Paul Belcher, director of Ultissimo, who finds homes for the rich and famous around Italy’s Lake Como, where demand for homes with views of the lake far exceeds the number of properties for sale. “Just occasionally a gem of a house comes up for sale privately at what is considered to be a reasonable price in Como terms, and I warn my client that it’s an opportunity not to be missed.”
Acquisitions agent Banda property estimates that about 75percent of properties over US$15million are now sold “off market” via a buying agent. “It works well for both sides. Vendors want to keep their business out of the spotlight, and can be sure that a buying agent will expose their homes only to committed, high -calibre purchasers,” says Roarie Scarisbrick, a buying agent for Property Vision. Woe betide a buying agent who talks to the press: when one let slip that David Beckham was investing in a property in an apartment on Paris’s left bank, he lost all his credibility- and his clients. “There is a saying in France: ‘vivons heureux, vivons cachés’, which means ‘live happily, hidden away’, says buying agent Alexis Fredet, co-founder of property finder Margaux et Louis, which specialises in finding homes in France for buyers from Hong Kong and mainland China. “A buying agent’s job is to make sure this happens.”
Naturally, then, buying agents won’t discuss their clients or the iconic properties that they obtain on their behalf. When high profile sales find their way into the international press, it’s usually because the buyer is happy for details of the purchase to be in the public domain, or via a leak. This summer, for example, the news broke that Domaine de Valfere, the late American arms dealer Jeffrey Steiner’s former estate, was sold to a Russian buyer, while Irish businessman Derek Quinlan’s Villa La Carriere on the French Riviera’s Cap Ferrat was bought by a buyer from Kazakhstan for just over €65 million (US$80 million). Meanwhile it’s common knowledge in Switzerland that the owner of watch manufacturer Patek Philippe has bought a modern CHF40 million (US$41 million) mansion close to the lake. Edo Mapelli Mozzi, managing director of acquisitions agent Banda Property, estimates that for every high-level sale that reaches the press, at least five more go through unnoticed thanks to a secret agent.
Buying agents are more in demand now that the market has swung in favour of buyers rather than sellers, according to Emanuel LaRoche, one of Geneva’s top property finders. “Geneva is a safe haven with an excellent climate and low mortgage rates- currently from 1.5 per cent- but as a buyer it’s crucial not to overpay,” he says. LaRoche aims to make sure all his clients pay at least 20 per cent less than they would have done in 2008.
In the South of France, where the property market is “very difficult” this summer, Nigel Hindle, co-founder of property specialist Hindle Baldock, steers his clients away from paying over the odds. “There are so many uncertainties surrounding the euro at the moment but France is still a good bet as 25-year fixed mortgage rates are typically as low as 4.2 per cent, “he says. “Unfortunately there is not much on the market and many of the homes that are for sale have artificially high asking prices. I find my clients motivated sellers who are ready to do a deal.”
Of course hiring a buying agent isn’t cheap – usually about 2 to 2.5 per cent of the purchase price, plus an additional premium to secure a property before it has been offered on the open market. But according to Mapelli Mozzi the premiums are worth paying for privacy and professionalism, and to secure the property before it comes to a sealed bids scenario, where prices can escalate much further.
Bidding wars are becoming increasingly common in London this summer. Just recently a house in Mayfair received more than 15 sealed bids in two weeks and sold more than £1 million (US$1.56 million) above the asking price. “There are so many unknowns when you’re buying a property off-plan or unfinished, and very often buyers are hugely disappointed with the end result, “says Scarisbrook, who acquires homes priced from £60 million to £90 million (US$94 million to US$156 million) on behalf of buyers from Hong Kong and China. “I go to the site on behalf of my client; I assess whether it is a quality build and a good investment. And if it is, I make sure they buy the best unit in the best building.”
With a home being such a personal acquisition, it can be hard for wealthy investors to be confident that their buying agent will make the right choice for them. According to Tom Hudson, co-founder of UK buying agent Middleton Advisors, a property finder’s role is to remove the emotional element from the transaction and focus solely on value for money. “We understand the intricate price variations of the area you are investing in, we know about the schools and the transport links, and will advise you what level to offer at,” he says. When a buyer misses out on a property, it will almost always mean they have avoided overpaying or purchasing a home that is compromised, he adds. Camilla Dell, managing director of Black Brick property finders in London, likens the role of a buying agent to that of a stockbroker or art dealer. “The rich and famous automatically turn to experts when it comes to almost every investment decision,” she says. “For those investing in property, the instruction of a good buying agent has become an equally essential requirement.”