The Property Franchise Group, of which Martin & Co is one of five brands, had its national conference on January 23 2016. CEO Ian Wilson had some comments about the industry, some of which we share here.
We explained to investors that online agents will struggle to make progress in a market with low transaction volumes. There is no clever technical innovation going on, it's just re-selling advertising space on Rightmove to the public. We also do not believe that the British public is persuaded to pay its estate agency fees upfront, without any guarantee of a successful sale.
Our target for 2015 was to have 40,000 managed properties on our books. We beat this target significantly, ending the year with 45,000. The target this year is to add a further a 5,000 properties to the Group, with a mix of organic growth and acquisitions.
The majority of our franchisees have been the franchise for five years or more. This means that loans have been paid off, experience and knowledge have grown, and the business owners are well placed to use their funds and market knowledge to make acquisitions.
We have passed comment on the 3pc Stamp Duty levy enough, so we'll focus on other things!
The other key housing policy is help for first-time buyers. In 2013 and 2014 the number of FTBs certainly picked up, but they dropped again last year. Why? Because FTBs are simply over-stretched. The average first-time buyer now earns £50,000 a year - the national average is half that, so you can wipe out roughly half the working population being able to afford a sustainable mortgage. The average deposit is now £33,000 and the average FTB home costs £90,000, up from £177,000 in 2007.
Therefore, if the government's barely-obscured plan to get buy-to-let landlords to sell their stock ends up working, unfortunately first-time buyers simply don't have the means of purchasing that stock. In other words, we believe investors are best-placed to purchase that leftover stock.
There are three things landlords worry about, and we have responses to all of them.
Stamp Duty - We completed a survey of 1,500 landlords. Surprisingly, the majority of landlords said they are untroubled by the prospect of higher interest rates in the future - they are confident that they can cover the extra costs by simply having a long-term investment.
Reduced Tax Relief - Our market analysts, Dataloft, ran some numbers. If, as predicted, rents rise at 4pc per annum the effect of the tax changes on rental income will be neutral; landlords will have just as much money in their pockets.
Interest rates - They've been talked about for a long time but the UK has yet to commit to an interest rate increase. There are plenty of fixed-rate mortgages available to buy-to-let lenders, so there is some security for investors.
As an aside, the government may be encouraging institutional investment - that is, investment by private companies. The tax breaks for companies are still in place for companies, and company landlords with portfolios of more than 15 properties do not pay the 3pc stamp duty.