PCL agents join forces to launch boutique buying agency

By PrimeResi Journal

INTERVIEW: Well-known former sales agents Lucie Hirst and Delphine Colombo discuss their new venture, current market trends, and dream properties on Cadogan Square....

Following a well-trodden path, two of of Prime Central London’s top sales agents, Lucie Hirst and Delphine Colombo, have made the move over to the buying side.

Hirst, formerly of Knight Frank and Savills (and daughter of acquisitions guru Nathalie), and Colombo, who spent 12 years with Winkworth in Knightsbridge and Hamptons International in Sloane Square, have teamed up to operate as Colombo Hirst, sourcing prime properties for private clients across the capital.

We caught up recently to find out how they’ve managed the transition, and what they’re seeing from the front line of the capital’s prime resi market…

You both have backgrounds at big-name Prime and Central London estate agencies Winkworth, Hamptons, Knight Frank & Savills; how did you meet each other, and what made you decide to leave the corporate life behind to go it alone?

Delphine Colombo

We met about five years ago on adjacent spin bikes and quickly formed a close friendship. Working for complementary and prestigious agencies, within Chelsea and Knightsbridge, lead to us acting for clients together on a joint agency basis.

With a shared passion for property and an understanding for what discerning clients seek, we decided it was the right time to create something of our own.

Quite a few buying agents start out on the selling side; what advantages does that experience bring to the table in your opinion, and how have you found the transition?

The camp is slightly divided on this one, some people feel that a buying agent having experience in sales prevents them from truly being on the buyer’s side, but as a buying agent it’s sometimes equally as important to talk a client out of a sale. With over 20 years’ experience between us on the sales side we are able to advise our clients from a more informed standpoint knowing and understanding the process from every angle. It also means we have lots of strong relationships with London estate agents allowing us to know about properties before they come to the market.

The transition was an easy one with our vision of the company being completely aligned.  We received incredible support from our respective agencies and everyone else in the market.

You’ve clearly taken great effort to create a prestige-feeling brand identity for Colombo Hirst, but the Prime London buying agency sector is a notoriously crowded one; how are you planning to win business and stand out from the crowd?

In today’s uncertain market the demand for advice, when purchasing what is more often than not the biggest investment someone will make, is ever increasing. We offer our buyers the enhanced access, knowledge and experience that we believe will give them the edge to successfully acquire their dream properties. We are able to act for clients across all budgets which we really enjoy.  We have had a fantastic start and most of our clients come from recommendations. We have lots of ideas and plans for how we are going to grow Colombo Hirst, all in good time!

Are you actively targeting any particular buyer or tenant demographics (e.g. overseas investors; families; downsizers)?

Initially our business plan was to focus on Knightsbridge, Belgravia and Chelsea which, from our experience, is predominantly a mixture of overseas investors and downsizers but we have adapted to the needs of our clients. Our first acquisition was for a couple upsizing to a family home in Fulham and our second was an overseas investor wanting to buy something “quirky” in Islington. We currently have clients looking all over London and for a variety of reasons.

Lucie Hirst

Lucie, as the daughter of one of London’s most successful buying agents – former Prime Purchase chief Nathalie Hirst – what prompted the decision to start up your own operation, rather than joining the existing family business?

My mother has been incredibly supportive of me wanting to independently create my own niche in the market. It’s hugely advantageous occasionally having her insight but her business is at the very top end of the market and ours is more diverse across a wider range of budgets.

Will you also be helping clients with the sale of their properties, and do you have plans to expand beyond Prime London?

We will always only ever act for the purchaser or tenant and feel that the estate agents are best placed to sell or let a property. We are very conscious to avoid areas of potential conflict. For now, we are focusing on establishing ourselves in London and are much more familiar with properties with numbers rather than names!

How are you finding the sales market in PCL so far in 2018? What are you expecting for the rest of the year and into 2019?

Property prices in Prime Central London have decreased by at least 15% from the peak in December 2014 and are likely to remain flat for the rest of the year. A large proportion of property at the top end of the market is being sold below the guide price. It’s now an opportunity for well-informed buyers to purchase at a discount, with some property being on the market for quite some time. Lower prices will hopefully entice more buyers, injecting some confidence in the market. However, now and into 2019, we do expect our clients will be taking a long-term view when they buy.

There doesn’t seem to be any let-up in the uncertainties surrounding Brexit – even as Exit Day looms large; how high on the list of worries is Brexit for most of your clients, and what would be your advice for those concerned about buying in such uncertain times?

Brexit uncertainties have certainly impacted the property market negatively in terms of pricing and transaction volumes. This, together with the prospect of possible interest rate rises, will have further implications on house prices. In this environment sellers are holding onto assets for longer and buyers are taking longer to make decisions. As a result, properties on the market are taking longer to sell.  

We are seeing opportunities for well advised buyers to negotiate notable discounts as competition for buyers has weakened. Ultimately though our clients are taking longer term views on the market when buying. However, education, business, culture, quality of life and not to mention what a vibrant and exciting city London is to live in, will continue to attract people from all over the world as well as attracting foreign investment taking advantage of the weaker pound.

Are there any trends in terms of the kind of stock that’s proving particularly popular right now?

In this uncertain environment and with less competition out there buyers are able to be more selective. Compromised properties are either simply not transacting in this market or are seeing significant discounting. Those and the “best in class” properties are still in high demand.

Recent data suggests the lettings market is tipping back in favour of landlords in PCL; would you agree?

Whilst we are uncertain as to the effect leaving the EU will have on companies relocating their staff to and from the UK, those who would have been looking to buy are renting in the meantime. The increase in demand for renting property means landlords can be more selective about the tenancies they agree to. However, with low interest rates, some vendors are now in a position to sit and wait for conditions to improve before selling and are renting their properties out increasing rental supply. It remains equally uncertain on the rental side, compromised properties are seeing discounts but desirable properties are still renting.

New technologies are transforming the estate agency business; what risks and opportunities do shifts, such as the rise of online agencies, present for buying agents?

It would be a huge risk not involving property professionals, on either side of the transaction

Property purchasing has become more competitive. Now more than ever it would be unlikely that someone investing large sums of money would do so purely online. It would be a huge risk not involving property professionals, on either side of the transaction, with unique knowledge and experience. We believe that Colombo Hirst is very well placed in today’s market.

What and where would you both personally buy with a budget of £10m?

Lucie: Living in Ladbroke Grove I walk past my dream home every day. It would have to be a house in one of Notting Hill’s garden squares. I would love to buy something totally unmodernised and design every inch of it myself. So, I just need to find myself an interesting development opportunity with direct access onto a garden square and £10m and I’ll be good to go.

Delphine: A first and second floor flat on the north terrace of Cadogan Square. To me, this will always remain one of the most desirable locations in Prime Central London sitting between Chelsea and Knightsbridge offering high ceilings, grand sash windows, garden access (with tennis court), great local transport links and easy access to the best schools in London, all the while being just a stone’s throw from the vibrant Kings Road and the luxury retailers of Sloane Street.

Cadogan Square in Knightsbridge