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An integral part of the company's success has been the ability to stay ahead of the curve by making the most of new technology. At the turn of the millennium their new estate agency was amongst the very first in the UK to appreciate the opportunities offered by the worldwide web. Launching with a unique and bespoke website www.cotswold-homes.com, visitors were offered a brilliant insight into the local marketplace well before Prime Location and Rightmove even existed, and by 2003 Cotswold Homes was already attracting a massive million hits per month from all over the world.
The website was soon embraced by other leading local independent businesses as an affordable showcase for their services, too. In 2009, Karen launched an accompanying glossy quarterly magazine to highlight the benefits and richness of life in the Cotswolds, freely distributed throughout thousands of North Cotswold homes and popular meeting places. Full of beautifully written articles about local attractions and the achievements of leading figures within the community, the publication provided a perfect showcase for their portfolio of prime properties to sale and let.
“When we held a Cotswold Homes exhibition with the Guild of Professional Estate Agents in Mayfair, we came to the attention of Fine & Country, an international marketing brand that had scores of industry accolades. We were delighted to be offered the exclusive licence for the North Cotswolds,” explains James, who heads up the Fine & Country department today.
“We always knew we could outsell all other agencies in the local marketplace and now we were demonstrably able to compete for business against established national agencies. By combining strength in the local marketplace with luxurious international branding, our exclusive licence for the North Cotswolds provided a wonderful range of glossy marketing packages, access to national newspaper advertising and PR, plus many other property portals and social media platforms, broadcasting our prime properties to a rich seam of second home and investment buyers from all over the world.”
Meanwhile, in 2009 Caroline Gee turned her energies to providing a dedicated Lettings department. With an experienced and professionally qualified team, as the leading choice for landlords in the North Cotswolds Caroline manages a regular list of over a hundred properties ranging from one-bedroom apartments to luxury period homes. “Lettings is a place of continuously shifting sands with serious consequences for landlords who fail to embrace new safety standards or financial requirements. As members of the Guild of Professional Estate Agents we receive invaluable assistance from a highly qualified expert on a wealth of new legislative changes - to have someone of such calibre on hand is a brilliant resource in our commitment to provide the best service to all our clients and customers."
Karen agrees that access to cutting edge technologies and professional expertise is the greatest value of networking with the Guild and Fine & Country. “Fine & Country has invested into brilliant new products and resources such as drone videography, whilst the development of an online valuation tool has provided a key benefit of our new property website within Cotswold Homes, ensuring we are always ready and able to meet the challenges and opportunities of modern day agency.”
"Very recently, cheap online agencies have acted rather like fools’ gold, seducing with slick promises of great results for a fraction of the fees commanded by traditional high street firms, but despite gaining some traction in modern suburban areas nothing of note in the North Cotswolds is successfully getting sold this way. Of course, the local market goes way beyond responding to the simple needs of bricks and mortar - finding a home here is not just about budget but fulfilling dreams of a good life. Nonetheless it is frustrating that the rigours of responsive, creative and proactive estate agency don’t matter to online agencies - they are simply determined to secure money upfront. Their greatest weakness, despite the ‘local’ tag that many pretend to offer, is that one man operating out of Stroud from a mobile phone and attempting to cover the whole of Gloucestershire is not really local in any true sense,” says Karen.
“Without the support and experience of great staff one cannot hope to stay on top of everything going on, whether researching the market for signs of improvement or strain, presenting sensible pricing strategies based on the subtleties of location, generating viewings or having the time and skills meanwhile to negotiate the highest possible price for each client, let alone manage the pitfalls and complexity of sales progression with a large pipeline of vulnerable transactions.”
James is unsettled by the wider impact upon the security of the property marketplace, given the emphasis upon cheap marketing tactics rather than investment into good service standards.
“Inexperience and greed ultimately make very poor bedfellows. In the late 80s, it was the banks that saw estate agency as a cheap buck and a useful springboard to selling financial services - remember Black Horse or the C & G, anyone? Within a couple of years these bank-owned agencies were all in deep trouble, incapable of meeting the challenges of a recession they had helped to escalate with their lack of proper industry experience. By 1994, the Nationwide was so deeply in debt it famously sold its three hundred branches to Countrywide for the nominal sum of a pound. I don’t see how national online agencies can possibly create a viable long term platform when their fees are simply diverted into huge national TV advertising campaigns rather than the provision of great service - meanwhile they report huge, unsustainable losses.
"When vendors entrust their most precious asset to an online site that acts as a glorified auto-trader, based on the assumption that the hardest thing is to find a buyer and that estate agency is money for old rope, things can and will go drastically wrong,” he warns. "The nitty-gritty of sales is not the introduction of interest but the ability to see that transaction through to a successful exchange of contracts, and without considerable investment into the experienced staff this element requires, failure is just around the corner. We have encountered applicants who truly believe they are in a good position with an online agency, only for us to discover that their chain is far from solid and often simply doesn’t exist, either because a buyer’s situation has been misrepresented or the finance to complete on a transaction is not secure.
“Moving house is the third most stressful experience after a family death or divorce and a failed transaction affects clients’ lives at the most fundamental level. These difficulties ripple out and begin to affect everyone’s chances of a secure sale. When vendors choose bargain basement sites they risk undervaluing their most valuable asset from start to finish, not simply in terms of the service but importantly how their property is received and ultimately therefore the price they achieve - if ever a vendor was susceptible to a cheap deal, then for sure buyers will find them on a site that bases itself on this very premise. Such vendors are making themselves vulnerable in every sense, at every turn."
Karen Harrison acknowledges that the challenges of online agency must be met head on, not with fear for the future but with a viable answer. “The North Cotswold property marketplace deserves the very best from an online portal – something bespoke and personal, something friendly and knowledgeable, experienced and professional, designed to protect vendors from start to finish. We have always gained instructions on the basis of outstanding results and superlative service standards - whilst we do need to stay ahead of the curve to remain number one in our chosen marketplace, great results are not achieved by resorting to the bottom line.
“We won’t embrace a cheap, no-frills, one-size-fits-all approach to the skill of property sales because our properties are uniquely placed in the market and come with inherent high value attached, with benefits that can’t just be boiled down to price and the number of bedrooms, as one might manage to do with modern suburban estates. We sell individual and period homes in wonderful locations here in the North Cotswolds – such inherent quality should never be proffered with a few tacky photographs or a wonky ‘For Sale’ board; nor should vulnerable clients be left to flounder in a sea of potential mishaps and sharks.
“As a quick and easy means of information the worldwide web is a brilliant resource but it remains a very inadequate and unrefined sales tool unless one can interpret that information in a meaningful way - that’s incredibly hard to do with a national website. We have to highlight the benefits of the North Cotswolds, its uniqueness and excellence of day-to-day life. Concentrating upon our mastery of the local marketplace in order to justify our value both online and on the high street, we embarked on the bespoke design of our new property website.
“We knew we must focus attention beyond the brochure onto the many benefits of life in the Cotswolds, placing properties in the wider context of their location and their likely attractions to a range of different types of buyer. As such we are delighted to launch our wonderful new concept, which we have designed from scratch to befit the best of independent local agency.
“Set within our Cotswold Homes domain - a website used by residents and visitors from all over the world and therefore a valuable platform in its own right – our new online property website is able to provide the wisdom, experience, personal service and professional warmth that clients and customers can expect to find in our high street offices, curated and condensed into online form.
“Our central feature is a fascinating interactive map containing an extensive archive of beautifully written editorial and stunning photography, where we have made full use of our accumulated knowledge to provide a proper insight into various aspects of day-to-day life in the North Cotswolds. Our properties are located amongst a wealth of important information about our stunning villages, our local attractions, forthcoming events and popular amenities. We illuminate the benefits and achievements of our community whether that is to celebrate a local sporting hero or to provide a highlight on places of historic interest, we reveal fascinating insights into rural enterprise and give information on the provision of outstanding local schools and clubs, health and leisure facilities… the list goes on and on.
“For a more detailed insight, we have designed searchable sections curated according to the typical criteria that a buyer might be looking to fulfil. Whether finding an ideal home for Family Life, searching for A Place in the Country or securing Your First Home, whether investing into Bricks And Mortar or Retiring to the Cotswolds, we offer a handpicked selection of suitable properties supported by invaluable advice on related issues from our panel of local industry experts.From mortgage matters to the responsibilities of maintaining a period property or the advantages of using a second home as a holiday let, this online platform is of enormous value both for the idly curious and the seriously motivated.
“As a single resource containing everything one could want or need to know about the North Cotswolds, this is Harrison James & Hardie Fine & Country North Cotswolds packaged up and delivered twenty four seven – specialists in the local marketplace, both online and on the high street.”
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