Pen Llyn estate agent embraces technology and teams up with local photographer to continue trading during pandemic
Like many small business owners, Susan Jones’ initial reaction to Covid restrictions was somewhat panicked. But while shops selling essentials were allowed to stay open, and other types of businesses could be operated from a spare bedroom, Susan’s business was different - because Susan is an independent estate agent.
“I felt like I'd just gone over a cliff,” she says. “When The Law Society put the directive out that you couldn’t exchange contracts, it basically meant that everything ground to a halt.”
“I was lucky,” she continues. “As we went into lockdown I had a backlog, so that kept me busy for a while. But then it became apparent there were absolutely no enquiries whatsoever, and I was searching for things to do.”
Susan decided that if she couldn’t do viewings in person, she’d need to rely on technology instead. At the time, the guidance was that if you really could not work from home you were allowed to go to work. But public perception was a worry; even if a house was empty, Susan says she felt uncomfortable being seen physically visiting it.
“It came to a point where I had eight properties waiting to be measured up, and I thought I'd better start putting these into some sort of order and getting them done. I’d also started getting enquiries and I thought how can I do viewings when I can’t do viewings?”
Susan firmly believes that to resolve a problem, you need to start by identifying the problem. “I thought, what if I did videos of these properties? I filmed three on a Saturday and worked all day on the Sunday putting the videos together. On Monday morning I finished one, sent it out to a guy on the Monday afternoon, an offer came in and we agreed on the Tuesday, and it completed that Friday!”
Susan quickly realised that online viewings were the way to go.
“Because the money had come into the bank I thought there's definitely something in this, and I started trying to do more of them. But it's not my forte and that's when I started working with getting Euron [Jones, Pwllheli photographer] on board. We make two videos - one that's in the public domain, which is shared on all the platforms and social media, and the second which for security reasons I only send out to people if I know who they are. And I can never get my head round why other agents were just putting it all out there. Because you've got no idea who's virtually viewing these properties.”
You mean someone could be someone scoping the place out to burgle it?
“Yes, exactly. So for security I just treated it like a physical viewing, I'd get all the details and also it saved time because the actual viewing became like a second viewing.”
Has this revelation permanently changed the way Susan does business?
“Yes, it's been a huge opportunity for me. I was ahead of the game, but I had the advantage being a sole trader, because the competition were all office based and they had to close, and it took them time to be able to put things in place. When you're self-employed being furloughed is not really an option, is it? There were no grants available, nothing. So you've just got to find a way around different problems.”
Has the property market changed during the pandemic? For example, people realising that if they’re working from home they could work from home in the countryside instead of the city?
“Yes, and also you've got professionals, usually business owners, where they've got children and they can move the family here for the summer and can still work.”
Are there areas of Pen Llŷn that are more popular with that type of worker than with others? Are you seeing people making permanent moves as well?
“Covid had an effect on a lot of people. You had people that had retired here wanting to move away from the area to be closer to family, and vice versa where you had people that had moved down to Cardiff for example and wanted to come back home to be nearer to family.”
It seems that in the past two years prices have shot up and properties are selling very quickly. Is that likely to change?
“It's definitely calmed down a lot,” Susan says. “The enquiries have calmed down but it's that time of year. I don't think it's going to take much to tip things over the edge. I think the tail end of the first quarter [of 2022], the beginning of the second quarter, things will start to get difficult for a lot of people. A lot of businesses are paying too much for staff because of Covid and some can't get any staff, so if they start hitting the wall people start losing their jobs, and if interest rates go up, people won’t be able to afford mortgage repayments. A lot of people have taken out buy to let mortgages thinking it's quite easy money, but if the interest rates go up it doesn't mean the rents are going to go up. I think it's going to be very difficult for a lot of people to be honest. But the housing market, with or without Covid, has always been up and down anyway.”
If next year gets difficult will house prices go down?
“It's all about supply and demand, isn't it? At the moment the demand is outstripping the supply which is driving prices up. If that starts changing and repossessions start, and more people are selling because they're able to go abroad or whatever, then if the supply is there and the demand is not it's going to bring prices down to achieve the sale.”
What makes Susan different from larger estate agencies is the very personal service she offers. She conducts viewings herself where possible, and being born and bred in Pen Llŷn gives her excellent local knowledge – and unlike most agents in the area, the majority of her public communications are bilingual.
Does she feel these things help her stand out?
“If you know what you're selling and you know who's looking to buy, you can marry it all up a lot easier. But it's easy when you love what you do!”