By Helena Frith Powell, Sunday Times, 6 June 2004
Paul and Sarah Skitmore, Barbara Wood’s most recent clients, contacted her 20 days ago. They had spent six months prior to meeting Barbara rushing around Spain trying to find a suitable home before the end of the school term. “We needed to get the house before we got the school organised,” says Sarah. “In Spain you can’t apply for a school without a permanent address. And we needed to apply before the end of the summer term in June.” It seemed the harder they tried, the worse it got. Then they contacted Barbara Wood.
Barbara runs The Property Finders. For an up front fee of £550, she will work for you for a year to find your ideal home and then take you through the whole buying process. Once it is completed, she takes 2.5% of the purchase price. “When Paul told me about the property they were trying to buy, I realised that they had wasted months on a place that could not be sold along the terms they had been told,” says Barbara. ” I went to see them and ten days later we went to Spain. I had short-listed two properties and they bought one of those, the final contract will be signed next week.” Paul and Sarah have ended up with an eight bedroom farmhouse in the middle of acres of olive groves, with a swimming pool, lake and tennis court. All in plenty of time for the autumn term. They paid 315,000 euros for it. “We are delighted,” says Sarah. “Barbara completely took the pressure off us. In addition, we have ended up with a much better property which we can move into without renovating.”
Finding a home abroad can be very expensive. It will involve at least two or three trips to the country, hotel bills, restaurant bills, and car hire. “You can spend up to £10,000 looking for a house in hidden costs like flights, hotels and meals,” says Sue Atkins from flyingvisits.com, which runs courses for people looking to buy in France. There is an ever-growing number of professionals ready to help Brits buy abroad that maintain using their services will save you money. Most property finders charge an up-front search fee, normally between £250 and £500 which is refunded if you buy somewhere, and you also pay a percentage of the sale price. Some of them take nothing from the client, but get their money from the agent selling the property.
When Paul and Tracey Beaufils moved to France two years ago, they nearly bought the first house they looked at. “We made an offer and it was accepted,” says Tracey. Luckily there was some confusion. The agent arrived with the paperwork on Wednesday, Tracey and Paul were there on Friday. “When we finally got hold of him, the agent told us the property had been sold to someone else. At first we were furious, but we later discovered it was just as well. The house was on a flood plain. When we drove past it during the heavy rains a year later it was under water.”
Tracey and Paul have set up Buy a House in France and now work to save others from making similar mistakes. “My job is to help them to avoid disasters and make their home-buying experience pleasant and efficient,” says Tracey. “Because I work with all the agents in the region, I have all the properties on my books. Tracey takes clients out for an initial tour of the region and then shows them properties. She will also guide them through the buying process. For this service there is no charge to the homebuyer, she takes her fee out of the agent’s commission.
One of their clients is Barry Budibent who retired from BP in April last year. He and his wife Angela had spent six months looking for a holiday home in Burgundy. “It was not a good experience,” he says. “We spent a huge amount of time looking at properties which, if we had been told more about them in the first place, we would not have bothered to look at in the first place.” They decided to focus on the Languedoc region of France on the advice of friends and came across Tracey and Paul on the Internet. “I called them and we chatted through what it was we were looking for. What impressed me immediately was their knowledge of the local area. On the day we arrived Paul showed us several properties, two of which he thought we would like the most. We ended up buying one of them on that first day.” The Budibents paid 150,000 euros for a four-bedroom village house, a price they don’t think they would have got if they’d been acting alone. “I think he saved us money,” says Barry. “And I know he saves us time. What I also liked is that he didn’t just dump us once we’d bought somewhere, he helped us open a bank account and all sorts of things.”
Some property finders offer a country-wide and even Europe-wide service, but according to Mark Stucklin from Spanish Property Insight, a consultancy that reports on the Spanish property market, this is just not realistic. “The whole point in using a property finder is that they know a lot more than you do, they have the local contacts, the local knowledge and the inside network. For them to offer value to buyers they have to be strong on the ground and that means being based locally full time.” Jan Pratt who runs Shortcuts Mallorca agrees. “We get to know about things that the seller might not want on the open market,” she says. “How are you going to hear local gossip like that from London?” Most property finders agree that the local connection is vital if you’re going to do the job properly.
When Richard Landen , an editorial director with City Wire decided to buy an apartment in Barcelona, his first move was to find a property finder. “I don’t speak Spanish and would have found negotiations impossible. Added to which there are no listings of agents in Barcelona.” He found Beatriz Carro, who runs Barcelona Relocation Services, on the Internet. “She managed the whole thing, from finding me the place, to marching me into a bank and opening a bank account. In fact the whole process was easier than buying a property in England. Beatriz showed me all the different parts of town and talked me through the pros and cons of each area. I ended up with a really groovy apartment in Barcelona’s trendiest part, El Born.” Beatriz charges an up front refundable fee of 500 euros and then a percentage of the purchase price, usually between 2 and 2.5%. “She’s not cheap,” says Richard. “But she’s fantastic and has all the connections to make the process go smoothly.”
Obviously not all property finders can deliver and you should do some checking before you part with any money. Spanish Property Insight publishes a list of dependable property finders in Spain. Jan Pratt, who worked for one of Mallorca’s biggest estate agents before setting up Shortcuts Mallorca, advises potential clients to ask plenty of questions before taking one on. “You should first of all look at their web site and see who they are. Where have they got their experience from? Who do they work with? How do they know the market?” says Jan. “In addition, try to get some feedback from other clients of theirs and make sure they present you with an invoice for the fee and don’t just ask for cash.” Mark Stucklin advises checking their credentials carefully. “Some of them are really not worth their fee,” he says. “I’ve heard of cases where they have charged thousands of euros to do some web-searching you could easily do yourself. Make sure they are professional, you can tell this from their manner and experience. If you can’t meet them face to face before you take them on, have a good long telephone conversation with them.” According to Barbara Wood, those that don’t charge the buyer can’t really be classified as working for them. “Before you chose a property finder, you should ask yourself where they get their money from. If it’s from the seller, then how can they be truly objective? I have had several cases of clients being ready to buy a property when I have spotted something in the title deed that I don’t like. I am being paid by the client, so I can tell them to just walk away without losing money. It would be a very difficult thing to do if you stood to lose your commission.” Paul Beaufils argues that in his case, most of his clients end up living within a 40-minute radius of his house, so encouraging them to make a bad buying decision is not an option.
What to look for in a property finder
- A good website that is clear about areas covered, what they offer and fees charged
- Extensive local knowledge and local network
- A good background in real estate in the region
- Educated enough to negotiate with agents and deal with lawyers
- Maturity – someone who has been around a while is more likely to be able to help you
- References from former clients