Insider view: Kirstie Allsopp and Phil Spencer on the Scottish residential market

For 21 years, Kirstie Allsopp and Phil Spencer have been advising the nation on how to buy a home, on Channel 4’s Location Location Location.

Phil and Kirstie  photographed by Neale Haynes.
Phil and Kirstie photographed by Neale Haynes.

You might think the star couple have seen everything over two decades of rising and falling housing markets but the new series, which begins airing next Wednesday, has its own challenges in the pandemic era.

Kirstie explains: “You really don’t want to complain or whinge about it in any way, and I was thrilled to be back on the road, but we couldn’t travel together, we couldn’t go into pubs or have a coffee or a meal.

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“And it is really important that we get to talk to people about their plans – what they want for the future, how the affordability factor will change, how they see their lives going, how secure their jobs are.

One of Kirsty Allsopp’s Scottish boltholes – her sister’s place in Barnwell on Jura, The Orwell House, home to George Orwell while he wrote his classic 1984

“And that has been the worst thing about doing the series during Covid. If you can’t sit with someone and discuss these things, you have no ability to really drill down into their circumstances, so we can give them the right advice.”

It is this consultancy role that the presenters take very seriously. Kirstie adds: “We are meant to stop mistakes happening and we get very panicked if we think we are lacking some key point of information which may not give us the whole picture.”

But the problem goes beyond making the TV programme. Kirstie and Phil agree that lockdowns and restrictions on socialising have meant that normal conversations, during which buyers can thrash out exactly what they are looking for and garner advice from friends and family, simply didn’t happen for many. And they are concerned that this, coupled with a frenetic market where properties are sold so quickly, means mistakes can be made.

Phil adds: “The housing market has been intense. It was tough to find properties and it was tough to do deals.

“We give advice related to market conditions at the time, which definitely keeps the programme current – even though it’s been going for so long.

“But it was really challenging because across the series – North, South, East and West, top and bottom of the market – it was rapidly changing and it was tough to keep on with the correct advice in changing conditions.”

As the pragmatic advisor on price negotiations in the programme, Phil says that he understands buyers getting caught up in the energy of such a market. “There is a temptation to throw everything at something that is suitable. Mortgage rates are very reasonable, but it is a balance between getting a good mortgage now and having to buy in an intense market, or waiting until things calm down and you get more supply to choose from. But you may then have a worse mortgage deal down the line.”

What he isn’t predicting is substantial house price falls. He says: “You are seeing more down valuations, so obviously banks and surveyors are getting a little more touchy and the heat is coming out of the market.”

But the lack of supply, Phil believes, will keep prices high. “It is also happening in the rental market, as there is little supply there too, so people are getting stuck.

“Part of the problem is that owners will not put their house on the market because they know it will sell quickly and there is nothing to move to – either to buy or to rent.”

What the presenters can’t and don’t do, according to Kirstie, is ever tell buyers that a house isn’t worth what they want to bid. She expands: “If a house is priced at £100 but five people want to buy, it will sell for £110. But will it be worth that in four years when you come to sell? And that is the difficult thing.”

The best advice, they believe, is to be realistic about your present and future circumstances and talk to as many people as possible for advice. Phil says: “We meet a lot of young people who are fixed on buying something that suits their needs right now. And the best advice that we or family and friends can give is to make them face what the future might look like in a few years – just having the conversation is quite therapeutic and they can make the decision with more confidence.”

It is these kinds of discussions on the programme which they hope will prompt similar considerations. Phil comments: “I like to think that is why the programme has such longevity. It is a process which we go through and it isn’t easy, there’s emotion and stress, compromise and money and that is something that anyone who has been through will have empathy with.”

Both broadcasters spend a lot of time in Scotland – their production company is based in Glasgow – and they are well aware of the benefits and pitfalls of the buying system north of the Border.

Kirstie says: “Some people say I wish England could have the Scottish system, but I believe that it has its own issues too. The amount of money paid for home reports before you bid, and the offers-over system can be very difficult. I’ve worked all over Scotland and sometimes the home report value is what you bid, others it is 10 or 20 per cent over to have a chance. It is so difficult to gauge.”

Kirstie is also a frequent visitor to the Isle of Jura, where her sister lives in splendid isolation – and off-grid – at the Orwell House, Barnhill, to the north of the island.

And, she is a fan of Scottish architecture too. “I love when we are in Glasgow, I look at tenements in the West End and think how could we have known 150 years ago how to build such a brilliant example of how to house people?

“It is criminal that we had the architects and the knowledge to create ideal living for families in cities and it was ignored down south and in other parts of Scotland.

“The light, the way that air passes through the buildings, they are warm in winter and cool in summer, easy to clean, with shared outside space and we are building flats now that have to be air-conditioned and you have to live with the lights on all the time.”

Kirstie may have little truck with many modern flats, but on the programme, any personal remarks about a property the pair aren’t keen on have to be suppressed. She explains: “We have no show unless people let us look round their homes, and so we do have to be careful what we say. The most we allow ourselves is that [the property] is looking ‘a little tired’ or ‘a bit dated’.

The programme features people having difficulties finding the right house in their price range and some subjects have looked at multiple properties. Phil says: “It is proper reality television, in the way that actual reality TV sometimes isn’t – we genuinely follow the action, sometimes it goes well and sometimes it doesn’t.

“The casting process is key, people need to have the budget, be definitely wanting to buy and be realistic.”

The first couple in the new series had already viewed 60 houses and Phil says: “People who get to that point tend to have got themselves in a pickle – they have changed areas or budgets halfway through the search and are no longer able to compare like with like. They’ve gone property blind and it is difficult to lead them out of it.

“But equally it can be challenging when people have seen nothing as they can’t make a decision if they haven’t compared properties.”

Kirstie adds: “What is frustrating is when people give us a budget because they think we can find something for less than anyone else. And then we can’t and miraculously six months later we find that they’ve bought something with the extra £100,000 that they kept back.

“You could say the programme is a victim of its own success, as people think Kirstie and I are magicians, but we aren’t,” says Phil. “We can only work with what is there and a value is a value.”

Over their more than two decades on the job, the pair calculate that they have seen hundreds of houses and the buyer’s budgets have added up to millions of pounds of property.

And prices have changed a lot. Kirstie recalls one of the challenges in the first series was to buy a five-bedroomed farmhouse with an acre of land, an hour outside Edinburgh for a couple moving out of the city. “Their budget was £250,000 [with] plenty of properties around that range, which is laughable now.”

You may think that viewing so many properties would tempt the presenters to move often too, but Phil argues this isn’t the case. “It’s about making a long-term decision. Get it right and don’t move again for a long time. I hate moving, it is deeply unsettling and expensive.”

Both have teenage children and Kirstie admits: “If I tried to move them I’d get shot, so we are staying put.”