Ross Hooper-Nash is bringing virtual reality into the world of estate agents. Maria McGeoghan feeds her interest in property by finding out more.
I’ll admit I share the nation’s obsession with property and house prices. On a cold winter’s afternoon, there’s nothing better than a brew, a biscuit and an old episode of Escape to the Country or Grand Designs.
So, I was looking forward to spending a few hours in the company of Ross Hooper-Nash, a Cardiff estate agent who is using virtual reality to stand out from the crowd. And he didn’t disappoint.
We’re in one of his smart Jeffrey Ross offices in Pontcanna, Cardiff, which was recently named as one of the 20 hippest places to live in the UK. “Go, on then,” he says, pointing to a terrace house in a cul-de-sac just across the road. “How much do you think that went for?”
With only Manchester prices to base my guess on, I go for a £350,000, which I think is expensive. “No,” he replies with glee. “We sold that for £500,000.”
And that’s the story of property in this part of Wales. High prices, hot competition and not enough homes on the market.
During his 10 years running his own business, Hooper-Nash – now 35 – has seen it all. We talk prices, online competition, trends in what buyers are after, the new “John Lewis culture” and the one thing that will put someone off making an offer on a house.
But back to where it all started. “I just love houses and that’s why I got into it,” he explains. “I’m a nosy bugger with a passion for property. I thought I can do that. I’ve always sold since I was at school.
“I used to take in sweets and I started a tuck shop. Me and my brother had different sites at upper and middle school in Cowbridge. We were taking £400 a week 20 years ago. We were the best-dressed kids in school.
“We used to go to Makro and pay a fiver for a tin of lollies that could return us £40.
“There was a Welsh international at our school who was six-foot-four who came in one day and said he was going to sell sweets too. I told him he had to sell in the new block being built and he couldn’t sell Cadbury’s.
“It worked. He stuck to his patch and we became great friends. And then it all fell apart when the school brought in a vending machine.”
Hooper-Nash carried on selling when he studied for a sports science degree and then started work at an estate agency. He launched his own business right in the middle of the 2007 property crash and – through a combination of hard work, good service and trying to do things a little differently – he now has 23 staff and three offices in Cardiff.
“Cardiff has changed hugely since I started out,” he says. “I started the business in 2007 and the big crash was already here.
“I had a financial backer who decided to pull out because of the crash but I carried on anyway. Those good days when estate agents were earning lots of money I never even knew.
“We were known as Abode at the time but there were 58 different Abode estate agents by 2009 so we changed the name to Jeffrey Ross.
“I was an estate agent working on lettings for a national at the time and I thought I can do this on my own. I had no children and one bedroom flat. Now we are in our 10th year.
“My father-in-law gave me some money and I went in to the back of an office in Pontcanna. I looked after lettings and my partner Jeff looked after sales. Lettings were good, but nothing sold.”
The business is very much a family affair with Hooper-Nash’s mum, dad, wife and twin brother all working for the company.
“I’m very fortunate that my family has joined me,” he says. “My dad used to have his own successful business, but he sold it and my twin brother works with me. I twisted his arm. My dad runs all my accounts. He allows me to go out and do what I’m good at, which is selling houses and not be bogged down in paperwork.
“My dad does all our human resources and my mum works with us too. It’s quite an unusual set up but I’m very fortunate.
“Sales are up and down but lettings are pretty constant. We are one of the few agents left in Cardiff that is not owned by a bigger company. We get letters every month asking about acquiring us.
“We’ve got a good core lettings business. The sales become the bunce on top.”
Jeffrey Ross was the first estate agency in the UK to use virtual reality (VR) tours of properties as standard on its website. Through a series of three-dimensional (3D) pictures, potential buyers can don VR goggles — they sell cardboard versions for £1 — and look around the house as if they are actually there.
The 3D photography also builds a “dolls house” version of the property where buyers can zoom in on any room. It looks fantastic and is a long way from the “fish eye” wide lenses that can distort the proportions of houses.
“You really do feel like you are in the room,” says Hooper-Nash. “Technology really excites me.
“Our engagement and sales have gone up since we launched VR. We had a buyer who said that she had virtually looked around a £2m house 11 times and she was ready to put in an offer.
“We had someone else living abroad who was using it because by the time he had told friends to come and view a house he liked it had gone. We’re getting less time wasters and less second viewings. It’s a very positive thing.”
Looking at the quality of the properties in the shop, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that Jeffery Ross houses are posh. “You can’t be all things to all people,” says Hooper-Nash. “I think we are positioned in that part of the market, the upper middle area. We just position it well.
“It’s the same service if you’ve got an ex-council house or a million-pound property. It’s still the biggest asset you ever deal with.”
And what about the arrival of online estate agents to the market? “The online market is huge but there is always room for a good local agent,” he responds. “People want to talk to someone who knows the area. Certain streets around here will go for 30-40% more than ones across the road and it’s in the same postcode.
“It’s all about demand, proximity to the park and square footage. But if you are just looking online you don’t know anything about these houses.
“Areas like Pontcanna have changed. Gentrification happened when the media types moved in, but they are now being forced out by the prices.
“More affluent people are coming to the area and it’s pricing others out of the market. There’s definitely what I call a ‘John Lewis culture’. People who used to live in bigger houses outside the city are downsizing when the children grow up and leave and they want to be able to walk into the city and shop at John Lewis.
“We know where the demand is. There are 100 flats going in Trade Street. You wouldn’t walk down there at the moment but by 2019 it’s going to be the city centre, with hotels and bars.
“Our average fee is £2,500 and for that you get 23 staff who are experts in the area, virtual reality, professional photography, accompanied viewing and experts who can negotiate a good price.
“The average house price in the past three years has been £250,000 and the average rent is £650 a month. We’ve got 15 buyers for every house in some roads.”
In such a hot property market, a new trend is going to sealed bids to avoid constant outbidding. “We avoid gazumping by drawing a line in the sand saying we want best bids by a certain date,” Hooper-Nash explains. “You have to create that excitement. It gets people through the door. It’s so price-sensitive and people are prepared to go way over the asking price so they don’t lose a bid. You’ve got to be brave to do that.”
Parking space is also less important and comes below close proximity to parks, cafes and the city centre. There’s also been a marked decrease in people buying a fixer-upper to develop themselves.
“A couple of years ago, people were paying more for a fixer-upper than one that was already done,” he says. “They were obsessed with having a project and spending far more than buying a perfect house to begin with.”
And what about telling vendors that they really need to tidy up before would-be buyers come poking around their homes? Hooper-Nash laughs. “Sometimes I tidy up for people. When my brother was selling his house, I cleaned his oven for him because I knew the people viewing it would open it and have a look. They did.
“We give people home staging advice. If a property hasn’t sold then we give them an honest critique and say this is why it hasn’t sold. It could be painting the front door, too much clutter or the smell of dog, which is really off-putting. If you are a dog owner then you don’t smell it. Home owners being present also put people off.”
So, what does the future hold for Jeffrey Ross, which has revenues of £1.4m and a 30% profit?
“We are not the biggest agency, but we are growing,” says Hooper-Nash. “Our pipeline is bigger than it has ever been and we handle about 1,000 transactions a year. We are doing good things and we are confident that next year we’ll be doing a lot more.”