Scotsman Homes: Meet the hush-hush househunter

Kirsty McLuckie talks to Barbara Armstrong about her discreet property service for discerning clients

Barbara Armstrong is owner of Edinburgh Property Finders

Barbara Armstrong owns and runs Edinburgh Property Finders, a business which helps house buyers and sellers who prefer not to use the more traditional estate agency route. Her clients tend to have a very specific wishlist, need help with negotiating, or come from far afield and need some guidance on the logistics of buying and selling in Scotland.

How does it work?

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I offer a bespoke service to either a buyer or a seller.

Insider view

There are a number of reasons they might not want to go down the traditional estate agent route; they may want to remain anonymous or they may have their eye on a property that isn’t for sale and prefer a third party to make an approach.

Buyers can come to me with a list of exactly what they are looking for, and I know of people who may be interested in selling, or I can make an approach to a property owner on their behalf.

How did you get started?

It was based on my own experience. While it can be a natural thing to go to an estate agent, I found my own property through word of mouth.

It was 20 years ago and I was working for a firm of solicitors, so I had the training in negotiating and contracts and saw a gap in the market for a more discreet service, so set up my business.

The very first client I had was a celebrity and it was important for them not to be identified.

I found a property and negotiated a deal before the seller knew who the buyer was, and that set the scene for the way the business has progressed. Some clients prefer to remain anonymous.

Most of the time I act for the buyer. I take a retainer from them and go through the anti-money laundering paperwork and appoint a solicitor before starting the property search.

Fees are then paid when a property is bought.

I can also work for the seller. The classic example was being asked to an 11-bedroomed mansion in St Andrews with the intention of finding the owners a property to downsize to, but they also asked for help in selling their existing house.

I mostly work in Edinburgh, the Lothians and Fife, but I have found properties in London and Manchester for clients using the same model – finding properties off-market.

We look everywhere and if something is on the open market we will negotiate a deal if it is suitable, but it is casting the net wider to properties that aren’t for sale.

What is your typical day like?

I check emails in the morning and then the rest of the day will be viewing properties and meeting clients, although that has obviously been curtailed during the pandemic.

I can approach people and ask if they want to sell their house. I don’t knock on doors but we will send correspondence.

Again, that keeps the process anonymous as I am the point of contact. The house owner can ignore the letter if they aren’t willing to sell, or they can respond.

A lot of it is making sure that the communication is correctly worded so you don’t look like you are trying to drum up business, but have a serious enquiry from a client ready to purchase.

An approach from me means that if a would-be buyer wants to ask a neighbour or an acquaintance if they would consider selling, then it can be done with no awkwardness even if the answer is no, because the owner doesn’t know who is asking.

If a homeowner is open to the idea, we first discuss whether they prefer me to deal directly [with them] or through their legal representative.

We then agree who should commission home reports and valuations, and negotiate a price that is acceptable to both parties.

People assume that I must go to a lot of social events to network, but actually I don’t – because of the discreet nature of the business I’d rather other people talked about me and passed on my contact details.

I don’t advertise and it can be awkward if you meet someone socially that you have acted for – they often don’t know whether to say hello or not.

I’m not antisocial, but I don’t mix it with business.

What is your favourite type of property?

I came into property from a business background, and while most people think it must be lovely to look round nice houses for a living, I’m actually much more interested in getting a good deal for my clients.

What was the first property you bought or sold for a client? A detached house in the Grange [Edinburgh].

What are the typical requests that clients make? Generally in Edinburgh it’s family houses near private schools, such as Fettes and Watson’s, so Inverleith, Trinity, Morningside or the Grange. Or it is smart houses or apartments in the New Town.

Outside Edinburgh it tends to be East Lothian such as North Berwick or along the coast, but once it was a castle in Fife.

Where do you live? I’ve stayed in the same apartment in North Edinburgh for 20 years – obviously the right choice.

How is the market in 2021?

I’m finding that I’m busy and the market is buoyant. But Edinburgh is small and there is a limited supply of some types of houses.

I’ve definitely bought for good prices, but two properties in the last week were purchased on or below the home report value and there are properties sticking on the market, so it feels relatively normal.

What is interesting is that none of my clients at the moment are wanting to move because of the pandemic, it is just what they would have been doing anyway.

People need to move for all sorts of reasons – outside forces sometimes don’t have that much of an effect.

Life file

Born and raised Chesterfield, Derbyshire.

Education Grammar school followed by Wadham College, Oxford, reading Zoology.

Family Married to a recently retired physics teacher with two sons, Ivan, 25, who works in Japan and Elliot, 21, who is working and studying in Leeds.

CV First job was as a ties, socks and underwear buying assistant for the Burton Group. Spent 14 years in buying management roles with Burton, Next and Mothercare, followed by a self-owned ladies sportswear business in Nottingham. After moving to Edinburgh, established an estate agency for a legal firm before going it alone. Currently, the owner of Edinburgh Property Finders.

First home A one-bedroom ground-floor flat in Linlithgow, owned by husband before marriage.

Plans for retirement None

Personal motto Be yourself and always be honest.

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