Estate agent pleads not guilty to murder of wife

An estate agent has pleaded not guilty to a charge of murder.

David Clark, 49, of Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, is accused of killing his wife on New Year’s Day.

Melanie Clark, 44, was found dead after a suspected knife injury at a property in Bromsgrove on January 1.

The case will now proceed to trial and is scheduled to last two weeks, beginning on June 4 at Worcester Crown Court, according to the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald.

Clark worked at estate agent Sheldon Bosley Knight, based in Stratford-upon-Avon.

He is believed to have worked there in 2013 before leaving in 2016 and rejoining the company last year.

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Countrywide’s own broker slashes earnings forecast for UK’s biggest estate agent with ‘messy’ times ahead

Countrywide’s in-house broker has slashed its forecast for the amount of earnings the group is expected to make in the coming two years, while another analyst has placed its forecast under review.

The news came after Countrywide yesterday revealed thumping losses for last year, which sent the firm’s share price sinking 16% in early trading before it recovered to close just 1.57% down at 87.5p.

Countrywide announced that it made a loss after tax of £208m in 2017, compared with a profit of £17.5m the year before.

Its earnings fell 23% last year, while profit in its sales and lettings division plummeted 45%.

But analysts expect more pain to come.

Anthony Codling and Sam Cullen, of Countrywide’s own in-house broker Jefferies, said they were cutting estimates for earnings by 24% and 22% this year and next year respectively.

Jefferies now expects earnings before interest, taxation, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) in 2018 to be £55m on revenue of £670.1m, down from its previous estimate of £72.1m.

In 2019, it estimates EBITDA of £61.8m on revenue of £687.3m, down from £79.7m.

In their note, the analysts predicted a “messy” few months as Countrywide put new plans into place, having recognised the need to go “back to basics” and dispense with Alison Platt’s much-denigrated retail strategy.

Nonetheless, Jefferies highlighted the fact that the same syndicate of six banks that had been there since Countrywide’s IPO in 2013 were still backing the business, having amended their lending terms only last month.

Jefferies said: “For the overwhelming majority of customers, buying or selling a home is a huge financial and emotional investment, each transaction is unique and Countrywide has found that service is highly valued.

“Centralisation robs entrepreneurial branch managers of the ability to maximise revenues and tailor service to individuals’ needs.

“High frequency lettings and low frequency sales are best catered by specialist teams rather than generalists.

“Trying to nail the hybrid offering is like trying to hit a moving target.

“The hybrid model needs to be proven before one should try to emulate it.”

The broker continued with a “hold” rating for Countrywide, with a target price of 85p (from 125p).

Meanwhile, analysts Peel Hunt also predicted a “long road to recovery” for Countrywide.

Examining the results yesterday, it said: “The significantly weaker sales pipeline for 2018 implies a downgrade of up to 25% on our FY18 EBITDA forecast of £74m.

“While a recovery plan is being put into place, the impending 2019 lettings fee ban leaves the group facing problems for at least the next two years.”

Peel Hunt added that its target price and forecasts were now under review.

Debts of £0.5m owed by failed Hunters franchisee including unpaid bills to staff

Hunters’ Norfolk franchisee Kudos Residential, which ceased trading last month, went out of business owing more than £500,000, it has been revealed.

But it looks as though only £2,400 will be available to creditors, including the firm’s own staff and local suppliers.

A total of 21 employees of the business were left out of pocket to the tune of £17,000, while trade suppliers were owed nearly £63,600.

A statement of affairs from liquidators shows that a total of 21 employees were owed money.

Of the £17,000 owed to staff, just under £4,000 was arrears of wages and holiday pay, which will be treated preferentially.

The remaining £13,260, which is made up of redundancy pay and payment in lieu of notice, will not be treated preferentially.

The firm also owed £200,000 to HMRC and £220,000 in directors’ loans.

However, the firm’s liquidators Price Bailey estimate that only £2,400 worth of assets will be available for the creditors, from the sale of equipment.

That leaves an estimated total deficiency of £548,444.

Among the company’s individual creditors, a Norwich-based printing company, Eco Digital Print, was owed £31,771.

NatWest Bank is due £25,000 and Countrywide Signs in Norwich is £11,764 out of pocket.

Stuart Morton, an insolvency practitioner with accountancy firm Price Bailey, which is overseeing the liquidation of Kudos Residential, said: “We have already realised amounts far in excess of the figures shown in the statement of affairs and we have advised creditors that it may be possible to pay a small dividend to preferential unsecured creditors (claims for arrears of wages and unpaid holiday pay) in due course.

“Each employee, irrespective of whether a preferential dividend is paid in due course, has been invited to submit a claim for any redundancy pay, wages, holiday pay and pay in lieu of notice.

“The amounts they are owed will be paid by the Redundancy Payments Service, subject to statutory limits.

“We will continue to assist the former employees, at this difficult time, to ensure that their claims are processed as quickly as possible so that they can receive payment quickly.”

Kudos Residential’s demise resulted in the loss of 21 jobs last month, when eight of its nine branches closed.

The Hellesdon branch is currently being run by William H Brown staff to help landlords and tenants move their contracts over.

Yesterday, Hunters declined to comment.

Challenger house price index aims to become the new market authority for agents and others

A new monthly report that claims to offer a more up-to-date, more accurate and more comprehensive view of the housing market in England and Wales than those provided by the likes of Nationwide, RICS and Rightmove has launched.

Residential property investment firm London Central Portfolio has teamed up with Acadata to address what it calls “a number of conspicuous issues” with existing industry data.

LCP’s chief executive Naomi Heaton said: “Samples offered by high-end estate agents tend to be small and non-representative.

“Nationwide’s house price index represents just 12% of the market, excludes cash purchases and is based on mortgage approvals, not actual sales.

“Rightmove use asking prices data only, while RICS’ residential market survey is largely qualitative.

“Land Registry’s own published full report is based on a restricted sample, excludes new builds and has a longer time lag.”

She added: “Looking to overcome these problems and provide a single reliable residential index, our new report, based on every single sale transacted through Land Registry, will provide a much more accurate and in-depth analysis on how the market as a whole, including the controversial luxury and new build sectors, have really fared in prime central London, Greater London, England and Wales.”

The new index revealed that house prices in England and Wales recorded their third successive monthly price fall (at -1.4%) in December last year, resulting in the largest quarterly price fall since February 2009 (at -4.7%).

According to its data, the average house price in England and Wales is £284,855.

Not including London, the average house price in England and Wales is £250,797.

Meanwhile, LCP estimates that annual transactions fell 2.3% last year to 902,100, which is 29% below that prior to the global financial crisis.

On a quarterly basis, transactions in the final quarter of 2017 were down 3.8% to 236,899, it calculates.

Heaton said: “With prices and transactions both beginning to fall, there is a serious need to address the affordability issues within the sector and support the building of more low-cost housing outside London.”

LCP’s data showed that the market in Greater London was slowing, with transactions continuing to decrease.

They were down 7% over the quarter to 23,200 and 10% over the year to 93,381.

Average prices in Greater London fell below £600,000 for the first time since 2016 (£598,558), following a fall of 3.8% in the final quarter of last year.

Meanwhile, prices in prime central London stabilised during the same period, according to LCP.

Nonetheless, transactions were “significantly” down (by 9.5%) across the year to 4,183, which is the lowest number of annual sales on record and a 34% drop since 2013.

The new-build sector shows subdued activity in prime central London, with transactions down 13.4% and quarterly prices down 5%.

In England and Wales, the most recent figures for new-builds, which date from June 2017 (unlike overall monthly, quarterly and annual results, for which there is a two-month time lag, new build results lag by two quarters), showed that the price differential between new and old stock has reached nearly 30%.

New-builds in England and Wales are now 65% more expensive on average (£345,118) than they were in December 2006, compared to 38% more for old stock.

Heaton said that foreign investors who have bought new build property in London, Manchester and Birmingham were in many cases struggling to let them out for the rental yields they needed to achieve, and laid part of the blame on agents.

She said: “I am staggered by the fibs that are told to these foreign investors.”

Citing the example of a recent development in London, she said that the reputable firm of agents selling the units were quoting estimated gross rental returns of 4.3%.

In reality, investors would be “doing really well” to achieve 3.5% she said, and that rental estimates quoted by agents to foreign investors on new build properties were often “unattainable”.

How high street agents view their strengths and weaknesses compared to onliners

Here is the third and final part of the recent research, conducted through EYE, on high street firms’ attitudes towards their online competitors.

The survey was carried out by independent researcher Mark Notari and was a follow-up to one he did two years ago as part of a thesis for a Masters degree.

The last part of the survey examines how high street agents view their performance in relation to the disruptive influence of onliners, and where they feel some of their advantages and disadvantages lie.

The new survey shows that high street agents still view having a local presence as one of their strengths, as well as having better market knowledge.

However, there appeared to be slightly less conviction that offering a broad range of services is something that marks high street businesses out from their online competitors.

Surprise bounce lifts Foxtons share price over 10% despite gloomy results

Foxtons saw its shares jump more than 10% in value yesterday, in a surprise bounce.

The share price closed at 81.8p, up 10.8%.

The rise came despite several sell ratings from brokers.

Peel Hunt reiterated its sell rating on Friday and downgraded its target price to 55p from 60p.

It also predicted that Foxtons’ EBITDA would drop a further 45% over the next two years, having previously forecast that it would remain flat.

That note came after the estate agent last week announced that it was cutting its dividend by over half with pre-tax profits down by 65% to £6.5m.

Initially, the shares nosedived to finish the week at 78.3p.

However, the share price is now sitting just below the level it was at last Tuesday prior to the results announcement (83.3p).

Most listed estate agents, letting agents and portals saw modest increases in their share prices yesterday.

Only Purplebricks fell, with its share price down 4.4% to close at 397p.

Agent Provocateur: Has the time come to rethink Home Information Packs?

Home Information Packs were first proposed back in 2004 and started gracing us with their presence in late 2007 – which was great timing obviously, given the impending housing crash.

I was a vocal opponent at the time, even if the thinking behind HIPs had merit.

The introduction was botched, adding cost upfront – which agents often ended up having to shoulder – and their usefulness was watered down.

Political will seemed to ebb away and eventually after a lacklustre career they were binned in May 2010 when the Coalition arrived.

As recently as April Fools’ Day 2016 one of the recent plethora of housing ministers suggested they should come back, and although there’s been chat nothing seems to have come out of the woodwork – yet.

Frankly, when agents face challenging times, moving costs are high and politicians are somewhat distracted, it’ll take a brave minister to think about it now.

Completely by coincidence I’ve been involved in no fewer than three discussion groups considering questions posed by the newly named Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government.

It is looking at ways to improve the home buying process from the point of view of those paying for or using services, i.e. buyers, sellers, landlords and tenants.

This includes how technology might help, how redress/regulation can be tightened/simplified and how the legal process can be strengthened to avoid unnecessary cost implications from gazumping and gazundering.

It seems to me that both the above can be largely answered by looking at some of the companies that now produce seemingly absurdly cheap solutions for agents requiring information about properties on which they are doing appraisals, stuff that’ll set them apart from competitors.

I’ve been staggered by how cheaply companies like Sprift and One Dome can produce data that would have filled a HIP.

Detail available at the click of a button can now include such niceties as tree preservation orders and a simple owner’s manual telling you who has done what to a property and when.

The usual legal bumf is a doddle.

One of the main issues in the past was cost, but no longer, and solicitors I’ve spoken to, and let’s face it if you’re going to speed the process up we know where the acceleration needs to come from, are somewhat puzzled as to why these companies haven’t been marketing to them?

I reckon there are answers out there but perhaps there are too many vested interests in the way to allow them to be seen?

London estate agent strengthens its hand with joint venture deal

London-based estate agent Dexters has strengthened its presence in the east of the capital after striking a deal with Stirling Ackroyd New Homes.

A joint venture between the two companies means that Stirling Ackroyd New Homes will trade as Dexters New Homes.

The partnership, which comes just days after Dexters acquired another London agent — Benham & Reeves — will cover east London, including Shoreditch, Clerkenwell, Hackney and Peckham.

It will combine Stirling Ackroyd New Homes’ knowledge of new homes in the east London market with the Dexters sales network and has been billed as a partnership, rather than an acquisition.

Stirling Ackroyd New Homes, which is a separate business to the Stirling Ackroyd estate agency, will continue to be run by Andrew Bridges and Nick Davies, alongside head of new homes sales Stephen Porter.

Bridges acquired majority control of Stirling Ackroyd New Homes in September 2017, following the death of Stirling Ackroyd founder James Goff.

The company deals in the sale of new build apartments in the capital, selling both off-plan and completed new build stock.

It also has a residential development team dealing with land opportunities ranging from brownfield sites to industrial buildings.

Goff founded Stirling Ackroyd in 1986 and by the time of his death, HMRC had lodged a petition get get the firm wound up.

That was later withdrawn and last year the rest of the Stirling Ackroyd business was sold to Nick Dunning Associates.

It trades as Stirling Ackroyd but is operated by TRSL Limited, of which Dunning is a director.

Bridges, managing director of Stirling Ackroyd New Homes, said: “This partnership will boost both companies, because it taps into the fundamentals of the capital’s property market.

“London needs a new wave of development for jobs, regeneration and growth – just as Londoners need support to find their perfect home.”

“In particular, London is shifting its centre of gravity eastwards.

“Growth for the entire capital is increasingly boosted by developers supplying much-needed new homes in places where there is greatest demand.

“Working with Dexters, we will be able to combine our long-standing expertise in these exciting sub-markets with the largest independent sales force and network of property experts in London.”

Andy Shepherd, CEO of Dexters, added: “New homes are a critical ingredient for London’s future success and are a vital part of our strategy as a business.

“To match accelerating demand from both buyers and prospective tenants, a healthy supply of new properties entering the market is fundamental.”

“This partnership will give our customers access to an even greater choice of properties and locations by adding to our existing new homes sales portfolio.

“For developers, our partnership provides the reassurance of reaching virtually all potential buyers and tenants in London.

“We currently have over 50,000 applicants registered looking for a property across London, for whom we arrange up to 45,000 viewing appointments a month.”

Sales progression costing more for high street agents as online firms fall down on the job, claim

Traditional agents are being increasingly forced to step in to ensure that chains don’t collapse where sellers have chosen online firms – and are having to take the hit on higher costs of sales progression.

A new report from a firm of solicitors that has conducted interviews with estate agents in its local area says that lack of support from online agents is driving up the cost of sales progression for high street agents.

Regional solicitors Rix & Kay, which covers Sussex and Kent, said that 98% of traditional estate agents agreed that the home buying process is more likely to collapse in the absence of experienced professionals.

The firm said that the most skilled and critical phase of the home buying and selling process was sales progression but that online agents who are paid upfront and not reliant on a sale completing to get paid had little motivation or incentive to support their clients.

Nonetheless, it also found that the public has little awareness of how critical sales progression is and that traditional agents needed to do “far more” to differentiate their services from online rivals if they want to avoid being selected on cost alone.

In the estimation of the agents Rix & Kay spoke to, a total of 84% thought that the public don’t truly understand the role of the traditional estate agent.

Meanwhile, 76% felt they were not doing enough to ensure the public is aware of the differences in service traditional businesses can offer.

The report also recommended that traditional agents consider alternative business models if they wanted to remain profitable.

It found that 70% of traditional estate agents agreed with this idea, whereas only 8% disagreed (with 22% neither agreeing nor disagreeing).

Rix & Kay added that better regulation of the home buying and selling process was “fundamental” to improve service quality, as well as the reputation and credibility of the industry.

Of the agents surveyed, 66% strongly agreed this was the case, with a further 28% simply agreeing.

Not a single agent disagreed with the idea.

And it urged agents to embrace technology to improve their service, and to learn from their online rivals in this respect.

Meanwhile, it warned agents that they urgently need to consider the impact of the proposed letting fees ban, expected in 2019, on the sustainability and profitability of their business.

Zoe Woodward, consultant at John Hoole estate agents based in Brighton, who participated in the survey said: “We’re caught. We prefer open communication and know that as soon as one of the links in the chain is not informed or keeping us informed, the chain is vulnerable.

“So do we refuse to have any communication with the part(s) of the chain that has paid an online agency? We don’t, because we want a successful completion at the end of the day and our professionalism doesn’t allow us to be slack.”

Tracey Wells, director at Home & Castle Estate Agents based in Polegate, East Sussex, added: “Online estate agents are not a direct threat to most traditional estate agents and it’s not market share that is our concern.

“What’s more worrying is the strain and additional pressure online agents are bringing to the home buying and selling process because they are not concerned about completing a successful sale and are not providing the support that clients need.

Unfortunately, traditional agents feel obliged to step in to try and support the whole process or run the risk of the chain collapsing.”

Scott Garner, head of business development at Rix & Kay and author of the report said: “During the last six months I’ve witnessed unrivalled passion for an industry which has suffered for decades from a tarnished reputation.

“The traditional agents I spoke to have been central to their communities for a long time and their primary concern is helping local people move home.

“The challenge for them is to be seen as a key advisor to the home buying and selling process and not an unnecessary expense. That challenge is now even harder as new entrants continue to de-value the profession and increase pressure on margins.”

Rix & Kay’s survey is small and regional, and so there are significant caveats. It spoke to 14 different estate agents who between them operate 127 offices in the south east for its research.

London estate agency chain adds another business to growing empire

London estate agency chain Dexters has added another business to its growing empire, after its acquisition of Benham & Reeves.

The deal for Benham & Reeves, which has has four offices in north London, in Hampstead, Highgate, West Hampstead and Dartmouth Park, is for an undisclosed sum.

The four offices will rebrand to Dexters “in due course”, the agent said.

It means Dexters’ network of branches numbers more than 60 sites, including 28 in central London.

Meanwhile, Benham and Reeves Residential Lettings, which has 16 offices in London and five overseas and has operated as a separate business for years, after a family feud and ensuing court case, has bought the rights to the Benham & Reeves name.

The business has the rights to use the Benham & Reeves name for sales in the future.

Benham & Reeves managing director Jon Hughes told EYE: “We’re absolutely delighted with this.

“It has never been an ideal situation for either of us Benham & Reeves or Benham and Reeves Residential Lettings so they have bought the name and they will in due course be able to do sales and lettings.

“The name has been split for decades now so it’s good news for everyone.”

Nearly two years ago, Dexters spent £18m on a rebranding exercise and a number of acquisitions.

As part of the process, it ditched the names of around 20 brands – including Brian Lack and Beaney Pearce.