The head of residential lettings at Robert Irving Burns on Marylebone’s charms, Brexit uncertainty and the need for bad agents to be weeded out

Interview: Ellie Costigan
Portrait: Orlando Gili

Tell us about your background.
I’ve been in property for about 20-odd years now. I originally worked part-time for a very small independent in Mayfair, doing sales admin and client accounting. Because my background is in sales, I picked up quite quickly that there was money to be made on the short-let side, so I set up a department. Eventually I went to work for KFH in Mayfair as lettings manager, which is where I did my ARLA training. I expanded the department there and we began doing lots of business in Marylebone. In 2007, I was poached to work for a Marylebone-based agent—there begins my proper Marylebone career. I joined Robert Irving Burns a couple of years ago.

How was it coming here from Mayfair?
Really exciting. When I first got here, Marylebone was an area that was underutilised, that was crying out for somebody to be a bit proactive. The prices were lower, but the properties were equally good. It’s changed ridiculously: The Howard de Walden Estate has turned it into a village—the place to be. I became a Marylebone girl.

How has the office developed since you joined RIB?
Though the office has been based in Fitzrovia for many years, it has a strong Marylebone background. But it had lost some of its share. That’s exactly what I like—helping to turn around businesses that have the potential to do more. The first thing I did was put a team in place. When I first came, it was just me and one negotiator—there was no dedicated property manager for residential lettings. I brought in a senior property manager and an administrator.

I then went to the clients we’d lost and asked them to give us another chance. I told them we’d got a new team and were bringing in new negotiators. We’ve now got four negotiators and a four-person property management team. We’ve had an amazing year and rebuilt the foundations. It needed a revamp, rethink, restructure. That has happened, and everybody’s happy.

What is the lettings market like right now?
It has been quite a slow market. The rents are down and they have been going down consistently since at least 2016. But because the market is a little bit less expensive here on the border than more central Marylebone, we have been able to keep things on an even keel. By coincidence, we’ve seen a mass exodus of people—not just in Marylebone, but all over. I think there’s a mixture of reasons for that: it’s the end of contracts for some, people might be buying, students’ courses have ended. It’s the end of a cycle. But I’m sure it’s also an indication of people being unsure what’s going to happen post-Brexit. We still have a huge number of international students every summer, but we’re not certain of the longevity of that. At the same time, there’s been a lot of stock on the market because sales have plummeted, which brings rental prices down but also means more activity. Because we are central, this is always going to be somewhere people want to live.

What sort of clients do you deal with?
The clients are anything from overseas investors, to local clients who have been dealing with RIB since the 1960s. We have a lot of existing commercial clients who have since got involved in residential. In terms of tenants, we have lots of students and people who have been relocated by their companies—weirdly enough I get more relocation agents coming here than when I was in central Marylebone.

What about properties?
There is a lot of what I call bread and butter stock, so studios, one-beds, two-beds—mid-level properties. Then we get some really cool properties in Fitzrovia and Soho—some really smart apartments—as well as houses in Marylebone and Regent’s Park. We also deal with whole buildings for rent, often mixed-use developments with both commercial and residential properties. We deal with a lot of new homes. 

How do you go about ensuring the quality of your properties?
There was a lot of what I would call ‘unhealthy’ properties when I joined—we don’t deal with them anymore. I will say to the client, I don’t think it’s rentable unless you do x, y, z. Clients need to be told when things are not acceptable. We explain what people are looking for now, and what the owners need to do to make their property competitive. We can help get quotations, help furnish the property, get designers round. It could be that they’ve not got it on at the right price or they’re used to getting rent increases each year, but actually that’s stopped now. Ultimately, we advise them to make their properties as desirable as possible within their budget.

In turn, we will do all the things we need to do: we’ve scrapped and re-shot old photographs, we never used to do floor plans for lettings, we do now. We’re investing, creating brochures, doing the advertising, calling other agents—all the things we need to do, in return for a client investing in their property.

You offer management services, among other things. What’s the benefit of that?
We are eight floors: we have a floor of residential and commercial property managers, commercial sales and lettings team, acquisitions and investments team, surveyors, residential sales and lettings. Ideally people give us their property to manage, so we can look after it properly, inspect it regularly. If anything comes up, we will deal with it. If they don’t give it to us to manage, it’s actually harder for the landlord. First, they often don’t understand that regulations keep changing, which means they’re at risk of not being fully compliant. If they get caught out, they will wish they had paid a property agent. There’s a lot of pushing for agents to be licensed, but one thing that would help is if it became a requirement that being a landlord is a full-time job. If not, it should be compulsory to give it to someone who will manage it.

That said, I think there are some shocking agents out there. That must be stopped. We’re ARLA members, of course, and when we go along to those meetings, we meet like-minded people who genuinely want to ensure they’ve not missed anything. But you come across some agents—usually outside the centre—who are absolutely appalling. You just know they’re not doing any of these things. They’re breaking the law, but their attitude is, well do you want this flat or not? There are 25 other people queuing up for it. That’s awful. There’s a lot of work to be done in our industry, for sure.

What is RIB’s plan going forward?
We’ve had to step back to go forward, but it’s been really nice to see changes being made so quickly. I’d like to get involved with some other sides of the industry: there are other markets we need to tap into, such as the private rental sector and developments. We’d like more offices, sure, but I’ve done that—and it has pros and cons. It’s paramount that we have a really strong, successful department that provides a good service first and foremost.