Service with a smile

Service with a smile

How do you get to be best in the business only three years after you launch your company? Michael Hodgson tells Brian Nicholls how he did it.

Starting a business at 27 is quite common. But then being judged best among peers within three years surely lays a benchmark. That’s what chartered surveyor Michael Hodgson has achieved with his Sunderland start-up.

“We opened the doors with no properties to sell and it was pretty slow to start. But we’ve gone on from there,” he says.

“At the moment I’ve about 220 properties on the market – residential, commercial, sales and lettings. So I seem to be established.” Sunderland is quite a tough nut in his business, there being maybe 22 other agents working Wearside - and about 10 of those working the city centre.

“It makes for good competition,” he laughs.

“Competition is good. A majority of people now probably get three valuations from different agents, who come out to see them. The clients then decide from there.

“As the agents are all around the same on fees, I think, they have to sell themselves and their services on what they offer besides. That means demonstrating quality service. In terms of winning, it’s who can offer the best service, really.” That’s why Hodgson is so delighted to have won a gold award in the nationwide Awards for Business competition, when he was named best North East estate agent of 2008, then silver award winner last year. The awards are customer, not peer, driven.

“We don’t have a say in it,” he says.

“Everyone for whom I was acting in buying or selling a property fills out a questionnaire, about 15 questions on how they rate service received.

“We’ve been delighted on both occasions to go to the Marriott Hotel in London and learn that your clients have put you up there on the rostrum. You get marked on every house sale - it’s like being back at school! But the recognition in the end is really worth having.”

Hodgson has wisely chosen to build a business on territory he knows; Sunderland, the Boldons, Whitburn (where he now lives) and Cleadon. He was brought up in Cleadon and went to school at Tunstall then The King’s School, Tynemouth.

“My family have a retail business and were regularly buying commercial property. So I grew up against a background of them buying and renting out for development,” he explains.

“I didn’t want to go into retail business. I wanted to do something for myself. Property was what interested me. When I was doing my A levels I also did a test, answering about 500 questions on likes and interests. That came out saying I should take a property-related course.”

He chose a course in urban property surveying at Northumbria University over options in Edinburgh, Reading and London. As part of the course he took a year out with GL Hearn, the national property consultancy with a Sunderland office. Later, with a BSc (Hons) to his name, he went to work for another national name, Sanderson Weatherall (Newcastle, Teesside, London, Leeds and Manchester), and became a chartered surveyor. After broadening his experience with residential property surveying, mortgage and buy-to-let valuations he set up. As a chartered surveyor, he can now cover all aspects of property. He feels fortunate to have got a few good years in before the economy hit recession.

“It was enough to get myself established,” he says, without dismay about the testing time since.

“A downturn helps focus your mind. My core business, about 80%, is residential sales and lettings. The commercial side tailed off a little but it has still been quite busy with rent reviews and lease renewals.” He does bank valuations too, serving on several panels.

“So you have different pools of work - a bit of everything. That helps you over a recession.” His expertise is taking him further afield too.

“I do acquisitional work for people and have a couple of properties in Durham at present. I also do off-market work where clients say they want a specific retail property. I’ve just done one in Ipswich.

“And I’m about to do a rent review down Yorkshire way, an investment I’ve just helped the client to find. Being as varied as this, I love coming to work.” Selling a house for someone, he says, is a very personal thing – for him as well as the vendor and buyer.

He explains. “People buy into their estate agent if the job has been done well. That side is good. Also I also enjoy working on stuff that reaches market. Someone says out of the blue: ‘I want to go and buy that house.’ You write a letter for them to set things off.

Eventually they buy it. Tasks like that are good and quite rewarding.” Repeat business is also treasured.

“You do get a lot of that. People who move a lot will then tend to come back to you. Also you have clients who’ll recommend you to friends and family. It goes on from there. The estate agency side is very recommendation driven, very much networking.”

Wearside’s market, as elsewhere, is very price sensitive just now. “You have to be sure to price property correctly or it doesn’t sell,” he says.

“The first week of January was dreadful with the weather, but the following week viewings were up, more people were registering and we’re selling more now.” He doesn’t expect a fantastic 2010 and will be pleased even to see it remain steady. The scarcity of mortgage products has eased.

What of the “love ‘em or hate ‘em” flood of telly programmes about buying, selling, refurbishing and decorating homes - the stations’ sesame to cheap production? However, they seem to perk the housing market and, in Hodgson’s experience, sharpen the instincts of both buyers and sellers.

“I think property is becoming everyone’s hobby,” he says. “They track prices and maintain a bit of interest throughout, so I think the amount of television programmes helps us. Many people are more inclined to talk about their place when selling now – no one just says, ‘this is the living room,’ and so on any more.

“They’ll explain: ‘We’ve redecorated this room, made this improvement with the extension, or fitted a new kitchen,’ and go into detail. “They tell you a little about what they consider are selling points. It’s nice if people selling their house are selling it to me too as I’m walking round. I’ve then got to sell it on to the people who hopefully are going to buy. So these TV programmes help really.”

Hodgson has a tightly knit staff of three and hopes to grow things steadily, continuing to provide that publicly acknowledged first-class service.