Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Private sales on the Riviera

Is it better to buy through an agent or privately? 

Buying a house or an apartment is a fraught process at the best of times. Buying overseas in an unfamiliar country and relying on estate agents makes the process even more stressful. But buying property through a private sale must rate as potentially the most prone to problems and misunderstandings.

As a buyer's agent, my clients hire me to take over the work, sift through the numerous properties, guide them in the right direction, remove the 'chance' element and make life that little bit less stressful. It makes sense to have someone like me who knows the areas, prices and market and advises independently.  One thing that comes up frequently in my searches are private sales. These are of interest as they will usually be advertised for less than with an agent - and finding the best price is an essential part of my job.

Recently, while looking for a client, I found a villa advertised privately for almost 40,000 euros less than with the agents. After one visit I could see it wasn't right for their brief, but it was worth seeing nonetheless, especially as the price could have meant a considerable saving for my clients. However, I am always a little wary about private sales and tread carefully. It's not that people who set out to sell privately want to create problems - to the contrary, they just want to get the best deal and avoid the agent fees. However, no matter that it is a business transaction, buying and selling has an emotional element that most people find hard to separate out.

Our homes are more often than not an extension of ourselves. They have memories, personal connections. Putting a price on this is often very difficult for a private seller. Letting people wander through your home making comments (or, more tellingly, not making comments) is perhaps even more difficult. Agents play a big part as buffers between the two parties. Obviously estate agents will be working in the seller's interests, but it isn't always an easy relationship between seller and agent either. Agents  frequently take a lot of flak.

I don't think many people realise how delicate the negotiation stage can be, for example. Launching in to this game without any prior experience is risky on both sides. This is when misunderstandings happen. A price is agreed and then after a few days of contemplation the seller feels he has sold too cheaply, or the buyer feels he has agreed too high. That's why an agent will quickly (usually) get something in writing before either side has a chance to change his/her mind.  This initial agreement is not legally binding, but the psychological, quasi-legal effect of seeing something 'officially in writing' makes it a lot easier for people not to back out or feel aggrieved.

The other issue with private sales is that you are having to trust what the seller is telling you - be it about shared boundaries, issues with the property itself, etc. OK, so an agent might not be particularly trustworthy, but the hope is you have at least  some back-up, some sense of 'duty of care'. Although in the past I have had issues with some agents and their lack of transparency, as well as lack of attention to detail, generally they are careful not to get themselves caught up in blatant lies. I haven't found this to be the case with some private sellers, unfortunately.

My advice is be careful when going it alone with a private sale. Make sure you have everything in writing. Not just the price but anything that the seller has promised, be it parking or permission to rent out an apartment.  I certainly don't intend this to be an argument against private sales. I will always search through them and the majority will be fine. But I am working for the buyers, so in this respect I am the 'agent buffer' and I know what questions to ask and what to look for. It does change things considerably.

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