5 September 2016, The Sunday Times
It’s all fine and dandy, until you try to sell up: there are fewer buyers and they tend to be more picky. Experts share their tips to ensure you seal the deal
Owning a house with four or more bedrooms and a couple of acres of land might not seem like something to complain about. But if you’re trying to sell a home that’s on the large side, you may well have found that what you thought was the ultimate aspiration can actually be a real headache (not that you’d let any of your space-starved friends hear you whinge about it — much).
Research by the property portal Rightmove shows that, in July, homes with four bedrooms or more took the longest to sell: typically 74 days from being advertised online to being marked as sold subject to contract, compared to an average of 58 days for one-, two- and three-bedders. That’s not such great news for the thousands of parents who, with their children heading off to university, have decided it’s time to downsize.
As well as being patient, owners of sprawling pads have to be ready to cut the asking price. “Our analysis of the first half of this year shows that properties where the achieved value fell below the asking price sold at an incrementally slower pace,” says Oliver Knight, a country research associate at Knight Frank estate agency. “When the achieved value was 90%-95% of the asking price, exchanges took an average of 12 weeks. This compared to two weeks when there hadn’t been a reduction.”
Beyond the average family home, of course, those with serious square footage have fewer potential buyers — especially since the higher rates of stamp duty made the cost of moving up the property ladder substantially higher. So you’ll need to be realistic if you really want to sell.
“Correct pricing is key in today’s market,” says Rupert Sweeting, head of the country-house department at Knight Frank. “I am always advising clients to be brave enough to make the house look good value, as this approach will increase the number of viewings and the likelihood of competitive bidding.”
Alongside price, Sweeting adds, it has to look good — obvious to some, but it’s amazing how many houses are shown to viewers with beds unmade, dirty clothes strewn over the floor and the loo seat left up. This makes for a stark contrast with the decluttered, styled photographs in the brochure. “First and last impressions count, as many buyers make up their mind within the first or last five minutes.”
Even if you’ve got price and presentation covered, there’s a host of other thorny issues to tackle when trying to sell a large home. Here’s our tailor-made guide.
Does my house look big in this? Your brochure — whether online only or in vellum-bound glossy print, with drone shots — is your bible. And whether you have four bedrooms or 10, a modest garden or acres of parkland, every inch of it has to look good for the photos (and be maintained). Yes, we’re all bored with hearing about decluttering, but it’s a vital tool in presenting a fresh-looking home.
Don’t leave the place bare, though, says Richard Barber, director at the prime central London estate agency WA Ellis. “Good furnishings ensure the property is photographed well. If your home is empty, rent furniture with help from an interior designer. Spending £10,000 will easily add £20,000 at the £1m level.”
As for the grounds, have them photographed when they are at their best and full of colour. “Even if you want one more Christmas in the family home, have your pictures taken earlier in the year, when the garden is in bloom,” says Caspar Harvard-Walls, a partner at the buying agency Black Brick.
Other things to stress in the brochure (if you can) are low heating bills and the fact that the price includes curtains, carpets and any specialist garden machinery — which will help ease in new owners.
Do your homework You need to be ready for when someone makes you an offer you are prepared to accept. Decide on the price point and timescale you are happy with. Before the “For sale” board goes up, get all your legal paperwork in order, including any related to building regulations and planning consents, so nervier buyers don’t pull out.
A view to a kill You want to make a good impression from the second potential buyers arrive. “Ensure the driveway is clear of boats and spare cars, and freshen it up with gravel — but not so it feels like a painful walk along Chesil Beach,” says Richard Banes-Walker, a partner at Strutt & Parker estate agency’s office in Farnham, Surrey. You’ll also want to keep the house welcomingly warm on chilly days, so don’t spare the thermostat.
It may be a good idea to make yourself scarce, at least during first visits. “An owner being present on a viewing more than halves the chance of a sale,” says James Robinson, general manager at Lurot Brand, a London estate agency. “Regardless of the size of the house, your being there will make many buyers feel claustrophobic. And you probably won’t like what your agent needs to say about the house in order to sell it.”
If it really is vast, the innovative features that make it liveable should be stressed. Laundry chutes, lifts and intercoms can make things feel more manageable, and maintenance should seem smooth — have average running costs ready on a spreadsheet. Above all, make sure viewings are kept interesting: even the most committed buyer’s attention will flag once they have done the 20,000 sq ft mansion, polo fields, stabling, leisure suite and office complex. Work with your agent to set up refreshment pit stops where your home or grounds can be seen from flattering angles.
If you’re not sure how to pitch it, you could always enlist a friend as a “mystery shopper” and test-drive the agents’ patter — but, again, be prepared for some brutal honesty.
From garish to greige Getting rid of that creepy doll collection, toning down the purple walls and hiding those nude photos of yourself can never be a bad thing, but the process of “essential neutralisation” that many agents extol can be taken too far. In fact, making a home too neutral, and a canvas too blank, can be offputting, as the Los Angeles-born composer Brian Banks, 60 — who has worked with musicians including Michael Jackson and David Bowie — and his British wife, Sarah, who runs his production company, have decided.
The couple bought Elberton Old Manor, a grade II listed house set in 1.7 acres of gardens near Bristol, for just over £1m in 2004, and have spent about £500,000 creating a luxurious family country home. They have restored the property, which has almost 8,000 sq ft of living space and seven main bedrooms, and created state-of-the-art equestrian facilities, but now their daughters, Charlotte, 19, and Elektra, 16, are leaving home, so they are selling up for offers over £2m.
“The kitchen is quite neutral and the bathrooms are classic, but we have a piano, all our artwork and clearly defined living spaces with different feels to them,” Sarah says. “It’s a quirky, interesting home, and I think people want to know a place is truly loved and live in.”
• Don’t be greedy. If you price your home correctly, it should sell, whatever its size.
• Keep up the cleaning and tidying. A home should be immaculate for every viewing, inside and out, not just the first.
• Discuss strategies with your agent. A particularly appealing room or feature should open and close a viewing: most decisions are made during the first five and last minutes.
• If you have extensive grounds, make sure you have a pit stop set up for refreshments — you don’t want to exhaust viewers.
• If your house needs work, and you can’t afford to get it done yourself, get detailed quotes prepared.
• All legal documents and paperwork should be in order from the off. Many buyers end up pulling out because they are not prepared to wait.
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