Charles McDowell on London's off-market mansions & the rebirth of the trusted advisor

By PrimeResi Journal

One of the best-known super-prime brokers in PCL discusses the evolution of high-end estate agency, and some of the key HNW buyer trends at work in the golden postcodes...

One of the best-known super-prime brokers in London discusses the evolution of high-end estate agency, and some of the key HNW buyer trends at work in the golden postcodes…

You’ve sold some of the most important homes in Prime Central London since starting in the industry with Russell Simpson in 1997, from historic mansions to super-prime new-build apartments by the very best developers; what does it take for a property to really impress you these days?

There are always unique houses that impress and because they are unique its never one thing but in short it’s location, finish & style. A property on Hays Mews we sold recently would be a good example.

We have also noticed a movement towards lateral apartments in branded developments, offering an excellent combination of location, lateral space, porterage and parking.

McDowell recently sold a remarkable low-build property on Hays Mews, made up of three laterally converted properties

You’ve built a reputation as an expert in London’s ultra-prime addresses; how have these trophy locations changed since you started your career, and what would you say is London’s number one address/neighbourhood for HNWI buyers today?

When I first started in the business Notting Hill was pretty “fringe” but now it’s where the big money isn’t afraid to go. It is now a number one neighbourhood for a lot of the wealth, particularly for those after good family houses (most of which are now being traded off-market).

Do you have a particular favourite amongst all the properties you have sold, or an especially rewarding deal you can talk us through?

We sold a wonderful house called Wantage House in Ladbroke Road last year. Owned by Pamela Harlech since the 1950s, it was completely unique, and set within a third of an acre of gardens.

Wantage House on Ladbroke Road in Notting Hill

You set up McDowell Properties in 2001; how tough is the competition between agents and agencies in PCL, and how closely do you work together?

The competition is always there from anyone and everyone, so we are always having to prove ourselves as an agency and stay ahead of the game. The nature of estate agency is changing, and more agents have gone out on their own as business has contracted. It’s evolved in the sense that clients are increasingly employing one property person to look after their interests – much like a private art buyer. We are seeing the rebirth of the trusted advisor.

You subsequently acquired PCL agency Benthorp, and now work together with founder Harry Clifton; how did you first meet, and what do you both bring to the table in terms of expertise?

We met when a client of mine wanted to buy a house Benthorp were selling. I had been looking for someone for a while & was impressed by the way Harry negotiated in a very straightforward and uncomplicated way to deliver a positive result.

McDowell: ‘The nature of estate agency is changing’

You act on both the buying and selling side of the prime property market; do acquisition and sales briefs require very different mindsets, and how do you avoid conflicts of interest?

We were one of the first to do both and since then, nearly all the bigger agencies have followed suit. We have always believed that providing you are clear about the arrangement there are rarely any problems and so far we have been proved right.

How does the current downturn compare to other market cycles you have witnessed in your career? Do you have any predictions as to what might happen next?

The London market always reinvents itself with a new group or a new generation. This downturn is a mixed one but due to people having made huge amounts of money, the weak pound and interest rates being low, it is not as widespread as people think. A lot of buyers – those looking at a five-to-ten year hold – are seeing it as an opportunity, provided they can find the right property…

If you were in charge for the day, which single policy would you bring in to improve the way the UK property market functions?

Lower stamp duty.

You’ve advertised your services in a number of high-profile publications over the years; do print adverts still generate leads in this day and age, and what proportion of your new business comes via word of mouth?

I would think 75% of our business is by word of mouth, but print advertising helps to build a sustain and endorse our profile.

Many of your instructions are sold without ever hitting the market. What is your top tip for marketing a luxury property in a slow market, as now?

For us it’s keep away from websites and use your network. I would say the proportion of properties being sold off-market at the upper end has risen from around 10-15% to 30% in recent years. Your network is your net worth, as the Americans say!

How are your clients viewing London as a place to a) live and b) invest, given the current political situation?

They are still “lovers of London” who have the money to invest but now they tend to take a longer-term view. London isn’t going to go anywhere – and the perceived fear out there is very different to the reality.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Be honest and give the right advice. It always pays off never to be looking for the quick buck.

What would you personally buy tomorrow, given a super-prime sized budget?

A penthouse on Lowndes Square overlooking Hyde Park.

Lowndes Square in Knightsbridge