Tuesday, 25 June 2013

A St Tropez Buying Agent, Taxi Driver, Dinner Companion, Investment adviser,Therapist.......

With time to spare and a summer to plan, my thoughts invariably turn to Saint Tropez.

This corner of the Med has been our regular holiday destination for 15 years or so. And the place where we have bought and sold four homes.

As I'm sure you know, it's a bit of a Marmite town; people either love it or loathe it.

We're in the 'love it' camp for the following reasons.

Even though it attracts people from all over the world in vast numbers, it still feels (and is) small.

There are no high rise hotels or multi-national resort complexes, no Hyatts or Hiltons. And no huge apartment blocks to spoil the natural landscape of umbrella pines.

Even the world famous Pampelonne Beach has no permanent buildings to speak of along its 5kms of sand. (Just some of the most expensive to eat in wooden 'shacks' you'll ever come across.)

Teenagers adore the town for its nightlife and for the fact that their mates all turn up here at some point over summer. So they keep coming on holiday with you way past parents' natural sell by date.

Perhaps more than anything, it's the fact that 10 minutes from the bedlam of the famous quayside and its super yachts you can find yourself in rural France, surrounded on all sides by lush vineyards, wizened holm oaks and rutted, dusty tracks leading to hidden houses.

It's this contrast, so rigorously maintained by the planning departments of the three 'boroughs' that define the area - St Tropez, Gassin, Ramatuelle - that has kept the rich coming.

Up at the other end of the coast, this sense of being in another country disappeared soon after Scott Fitzgerald and friends. These days it's so over-built it's hard to know when you've left Antibes and arrived in Nice.

Of course, the 'Caps' of Antibes and St Jean are packed with wealth, but it's a different kind to that found in St Tropez.

It's like the difference between Knightsbridge and Notting Hill. One is sedate, formal, established. The other younger, edgier, less inhibited.

People go to St Tropez to party, to drink too much Domaine Ott, to wear T-shirt and shorts to dinner on the beach, to turn up the sound system, to spray Cristal over the crowds at Nikki, to strut their stuff at Club 55, to drive a mini-moke, to pretend they're living in the time of Brigitte Bardot and Gunther Sachs.

The rest of the year they're probably uber-bosses at Goldman's, billionaire hedge funders or geeky tech entrepreneurs. But, here, for a few weeks, they can let down what's left of their hair.

(On the weekend before resigning from NatWest, Stephen Hester was seen drowning his sorrows and offloading his bonus at Club 55. While on a nearby table, Rebecca and Charlie Brooks recovered from their recent court appearances with their friends.)

As well as owning several properties in the area (not at the same time, I might add), I have also 'played' at being a local buying agent.

I wouldn't say it was fun (or very remunerative) but I certainly got to know the area, understand the property topography and see lots of big houses by the sea.

Frustratingly, I realised that, unlike London's buying agents, we faced a significant problem: whereas most London buyers need to find a property, nobody actually needs a house in St Tropez.

It's a purchase that is pure self indulgence. So they are going to be very, very picky.

Over a couple of years our potential buyers fell into these categories:

1: The Property Tourist

We had a few of these. And they are very, very irritating.

I had one in particular, a UK based American, who just loved travelling the world looking at houses. One minute he seemed intent on buying in LA. The next it was the South of France. He actually lived in Hampstead.

This particular guy was pretty weird (and wired). He travelled on his own. Didn't drink. Didn't smoke. Didn't seem to like the sun or the beach. And he wore appalling dark winter clothes even in mid summer. I just couldn't work out what he saw in St Tropez.

Still he seemed to have plenty of money, and he just loved taking me to the town's most expensive restaurants.

In the end though it becomes tiresome eating rich food with an even richer self-obsessed weirdo.

His supposed budget ranged from €5m - €15m depending on the day of the week, and over a series of maybe four visits to the area we took him to about 20 different properties.

Some of these he feigned real interest in and would demand that we set up multiple viewings at various times of the day or night so he could see how the sun rose and set, how the stars shone at night, even how traffic noise varied dependent on the prevailing wind!

He didn't buy anything, and I don't think he ever expected to.  He was bored, probably friendless and this was one way to keep himself occupied and fawned over.

Eventually I rented him a house for a few weeks, and his whole family descended on the place. Typically, he somehow persuaded me to pick up some of his children and their friends from Toulon airport (at no charge). They were rude, ugly, tacky and saw me as some ex-pat chauffeur at their beck and call.

The client and his brood pretty much trashed the house, but complained endlessly about it and kept phoning me at ridiculous hours.

In the end, I just didn't answer the phone. I haven't heard from the guy since, thankfully.

2: The Impossible Dreamer

This person was a lawyer. Actually a very nice and rather clever lawyer. I liked him.

The problem was he wanted a house in an area where there are quite literally no houses. Bastide Blanche is a highly protected part of Ramatuelle where just a couple of vineyards, a few farmhouses and the odd crumbling shack share some of the most beautiful unspoilt beaches and hillsides along the whole coast.

Most people only visit it by boat to enjoy crystal clear shallows in untouched bays, but you can just about get there in a 4x4 if you are adventurous.

We call one of the beaches here 'the chitty, chitty, bang, bang beach' because it really was where a famous scene from this old movie was shot.

Anyway, we made it equally crystal clear (that's crystal, not Cristal - as in the house bubbly at Nikki Beach) that he could never have a house here. Ever.

In truth, his budget wasn't big enough to buy anything worth having close to St Tropez. So we took him to country houses at the back of Grimaud, up near La Garde Freinet or Plan de la Tour. Some would argue (me included) that these are actually classier areas, offering better value and nicer neighbours.

But when you want to live in Notting Hill, you don't tend to like the guy who says you can only afford Shepherd's Bush.

3: The Impetuous Buyer

The vast majority of houses in or around St Tropez were built between 1960 and 2000. Most of them to designs created by the same two architects.

So, unlike inland Provence, the chances of finding an old bastide or mas for sale are not disimilar to your chances of winning a Euro lottery rollover.

At one point, however, we were tipped off by a small estate agent that one such rare property was coming to the market.

It wasn't ideal, there was no view and it needed a great deal of renovation. But it was beautiful, had its own small vineyard and had once been the home of Ms Bardot's parents (how's that for St Tropez provenance).

With the largest top end agent on the Riviera about to launch it onto the market, we had only a day or two to do something.

Fortunately it's the kind of house a discerning UK buyer will wait years to find, and we found just such a buyer - a now well known London businessman.

He offered the full asking price on the basis of a couple of dodgy amateur photos and a chat with me.

"No," he said, " I don't need to see it, I just need to buy it. Now."

This was terrifying. He was about to commit €10m to the purchase and renovation on my bloody say so.

In the end we persuaded him to route his Courchevel bound private jet via Toulon so that he could pay a quick visit before going off to ski.

He bought it. And has never regretted it. After a massively expensive renovation, it's now one of the most beautiful houses I've ever visited in the area. Phew.

4: The Big Shot Buyer.

These aren't really buyers at all, they're predators.

Their day job usually involves finding opportunities to scalp their competitors. And they bring the same concept to finding a holiday home. They're looking for a seller with a 'margin call' he can't meet, an expensive divorce to pay for or a failing business they need to refinance. In other words, a 'distressed' sale.

It isn't really a holiday home they're looking for. In St Tropez, the right house is a power thing. It's a statement of wealth as potent as any Rich List, a summer HQ by a pool, a Gatsbyish entertaining opportunity and a less expensive new trophy than a change of wife.

I can't tell you too much about these ex-clients as they will quickly recognise themselves and get all lawyered-up (as the say in the jolly old US of A).

One of them however used to find it hilarious if he ever phoned while I was on a London bus. The idea that anyone he knew actually took 'a bus' was a new and profoundly amusing experience.

However rich these people were they weren't about to 'waste' any of it, though.

The guy looking to spend €25m on a house still negotiated a months rental down to the last €1000. The man who contemplated spending €1m to rent a house for 6 weeks still wanted it in the agreement that he wouldn't be liable for the electric light bill. And the 'impetuous buyer' still wanted a valuation almost monthly to be sure that his investment had been a good one.

The rich, as some wit once said, are different to you and I. But not that different. Even in St Tropez.

* Part 2 coming soon with 'where to buy' and 'who to know' in St Tropez.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Portals. The drug of choice for estate agents?

When you ask an agent these days how the sale of your property is going, you're unlikely to get much of a human response. Instead, you'll get a mini-spreadsheet.

It lists how many people have 'viewed' the property at Zoopla and Rightmove, plus any relevant traffic on their own website. Sometimes it even tells you how long these wonderful cyberspace visitors actually looked at your particular property online.

Another agent might have a whole section of its website devoted to giving you these 'personalised' stats in graphic form. So you don't even have to phone or email them.

All very nice, I'm sure. But like so much from the digital world, these figures are as meaningless as they are addictive.

Now, it just so happens that I have some personal experience of the perils of addiction as well as the pratfalls of the digital industry. So, all told, I feel well qualified to comment of the effect of drugs like Zoopla and Rightmove.

As with cocaine or alcohol, they can seem like your best friend when life's a little rocky, the party a little dull, the relationship a little stale or your confidence a notch below par. A harmless, occasional stimulant, some might suggest.

And of course, that's how 'portals' were initially pushed to the industry.

"Try this if business is a bit slow."


" This will make you look sexier than your competitors."


" Improve client relationships by giving them more stuff."


" However small and scruffy your office, you can look like John D Wood online."

Very soon, however, it starts to not work so well. As other agents join in, the buzz begins to wear off. You need more and more 'digital' to get high (or, at least, appear high up the search lists).

And, before you know it, you're done for. An addict. Paying digital agencies, techies and social media chappies through the coke damaged nose for an ever increasing range of services.

And what have you got for your money? Very little, actually. Because who knows how many of those 500 people who viewed your £3m Chelsea house online last week could actually afford one, or even want one.

How many of them were in fact other agents keeping track of the market? Or the client and his family obsessively checking the competition? Or any number of other perfectly legitimate but valueless anomalies.

Of course, like all addicts, agents are in denial about this.

They don't even recognise their own classic addiction symptons such isolating themselves (have you noticed how many agent's offices are not really configured to welcome visitors - they prefer virtual visits to personal visits.)

Truth is, these days, they're too busy coping with their online addiction to bother much with real people.

So where does this all end?

Well, when an addict can no longer afford his habit there's really only one way to go - become a pusher themselves.

And, that's exactly what a group of top agents have set out to become.

They plan to launch yet another online Portal and become the Mr Big themselves. (With Rightmove valued in the billions, who can blame them.)

Good luck to them, but might I suggest that one or two agents go into rehab instead.

The result might be that they find a different way forward. One that is based on people rather than google-like web surveillance.

You may have noticed that some of our most successful insurance companies have now opted out of their industry's price comparison portals.

They've cracked their addiction and prospered. How long before one of the top agents does likewise?

It can't come soon enough for me.

Monday, 10 June 2013

How to lose £200,000 on a house without even trying.

The more the property market becomes obsessed by 'price per square foot' the less, it seems to me, you can depend on the people who measure those immensely valuable feet.

We recently bought a house which the agents particulars claimed was just over 1200 square feet.

When we came to draw up detailed plans for the architects, the first calculation suggested that it was in fact 1280 square feet. At potentially £2000 a foot, this was a great little bonus.

However, when the the architects got to work, using the same drawings, they calculated it at only 1108 square feet.

We checked and checked again. Two sets of so-called experts checked. Both came up with different calculations.

Mad isn't it. How bloody difficult can can it be?

Finally, weeks later, all parties have agreed it really is 'approximately' 1108 square feet.

That 100 square feet we've lost has knocked around £200,000 off the end value of our property. And of course, I have absolutely no 'come back' against the vendors or the agents.

Incredible, but true.