In an ideal world, searching for a property abroad would be a labour of love. There would be long, sunlit days spent exploring areas of your chosen country, sampling the local produce and finding undiscovered corners to set up home. Unfortunately, the reality for most of us is quite different. Time-strapped buyers can use the Internet, the media and advice from knowledgeable friends to gather information but even these cannot help with all the organisational problems of buying a home abroad.
As well as choosing the best location and knowing which ones to avoid, potential difficulties international buyers may encounter include language barriers, unfamiliar legal systems and unscrupulous developers. If buying a property in the UK is one of the most stressful things in life, how much harder must it be to buy in a different country - possibly accessible only by plane, with different customs, a different language and a different time zone?
Property search agents, also known as property finders or buying agents, work on behalf of buyers with the aim of helping them find their ideal location and property. They claim to save property hunters time and hassle. Many also claim that, despite charging for this service, they will end up saving you money, too. Does this all sound too good to be true? Well read on.
Search agents will start by getting a thorough briefing about their client’s criteria. Is this an investment buy or a holiday home? How often do you plan to visit? Who else will stay? Is rental return vital? How important is it to be close to schools and hospitals? They should know your budget and time-frame and how flexible you are prepared to be.
‘Location, location, location’ is all-important and a search agent should be able to help you here. They should be able to suggest places you might not have considered and they should have good local contacts, so they hear about property for sale that is not listed with local estate agents.
Search agents should prevent buyers from making costly mistakes. Buyers might want to buy in an area where they have happily holidayed in the past but experienced property search agents say this is not always a good idea. Just because a location is ideal for two weeks in the height of the season doesn’t mean it will have year-round appeal. Consider the ski resort that buzzes for four months in winter but closes up completely for the other eight months, making even buying food a difficult chore.
Expert knowledge of a country or region is a vital part of the role of the property finder but where they can really add value is in helping buyers clarify exactly what they want. Unrealistic expectations about everything from the weather to day-to-day living can lead to disappointment.
“We attract clients who are busy or don’t know where to start,” says Jan Pratt of Shortcuts Agency, based in Majorca. “We provide impartial advice and listen carefully to what they want. We can be unemotional and steer them away from an expensive mistake. For example, if they have fallen in love with a house hidden away in the mountains but have several teenage children, we get them to consider whether they are too isolated.”
A search agency should be able to suggest up and coming areas that you may not have heard of but which offer better value than the more established destinations.
Rita Fryer of The Property Finders, an agency with offices in Spain, Italy, France and Southern Ireland, says that they often end up suggesting areas that a buyer hadn’t considered. “Unless they live there already, buyers do not know or understand the property terrain,” says Fryer. “We are there to simplify the process, acting as the buyer’s eyes, ears and especially feet.”
A good search agency should mean you don’t waste time jumping on planes to view properties that turn out to be duds. They will visit properties for you, excluding any that do not fit your exact brief, and make sure that your time looking at properties is spent profitably.
It is vital to sign a contract to ensure you know exactly what you are getting for your money. A good agency should help you from start to finish, handling price negotiations for you, advising on how to finance the purchase and helping throughout the conveyancing process.
Fees vary but average charges will be between 1.5% to 2.5% of the purchase price. Most search agencies will also charge a retainer, normally around £500, which may be deducted from the final payment.
This industry is unregulated. Anyone with a telephone can set themselves up as a property search agent, so check credentials carefully. Gauge as best you can just how extensive an agency’s local knowledge is. Ask to be referred to previous clients.
A good knowledge of developers and resorts is essential but ask yourself if the search agent is working solely in your best interests. Impartiality is important, so if they have done a deal with a local developer to promote a particular resort, there will be a clear conflict of interest.
Finally, most agents are based in popular holiday home locations: fine if you want to buy in the South of France or the Spanish islands but less good if you want to buy off the well trodden path.
This is a youthful industry that is expanding rapidly on the back of our apparently insatiable thirst for buying property abroad.
Many buyers make a successful overseas purchase without the use of a search agent but for busy buyers who want assistance and inside knowledge, a property search agency could be a helpful safety net to prevent a costly mistake on a major purchase.
Cathy Hawker is a freelance property writer who contributes regularly to The Evening Standard and BBC Good Homes Magazine.
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