I’ve never worked out why anyone would want to buy an outfit over the internet without first seeing it in the flesh and trying it on. I know my wife does it all the time — although the constant piles of parcels by the door, full of stuff waiting to be sent back whence it came, pays testament to drawbacks of buying things sight unseen. Then again, a suit or a dress is only a suit or a dress. I would rather buy clothes online than I would a five-storey townhouse.
But maybe I’m a bit of an old stick-in-the-mud. There are some buyers, it seems, who are only too happy to buy blind. According to buying agent London Central Portfolio, 22 per cent of purchases they have handled in the capital this year have been made by overseas investors who haven’t actually set foot in the properties they are buying.
I know it hasn’t been easy travelling around the country, let alone the world, this year. Even so, the very idea of buying a property unseen makes me shudder. It reminds me of all the properties I saw when I was house-hunting, where the reality didn’t quite live up to the expectation — and I certainly wasn’t paying £10 million.
There was the house converted, I was told by the estate agent, from an old horsehair factory. It sounded delightfully rural and Victorian — until I got there and realised that the horsehair factory hadn’t entirely gone away. The rest of it was still there: a sea of asbestos-roofed sheds attached to the bit I was supposed to be buying. Then there was the farmhouse that turned out to be a porn factory; the cottage where the only way to get upstairs was to squeeze through an 18 inch gap between wall and bannisters; and the house where the owner had sought to cope with a hole in the roof by stuffing an old mattress in the loft to soak up the rainwater.
True, it’s a bit easier to go house-hunting online now that it used to be. Estate agents offer ‘fly-through’ videos and floorplans, and you can generally spot things like the next door metal-bashing works via Google Street View. But even so, the point of going to see a property is to sniff out the things that estate agents probably don’t want to present in their gorgeous videos. And online videos and Google Street View don’t (yet) offer aural or olfactory functions. They don’t pick up Meatloaf-loving neighbours or pig farms.
Overseas investors evidently see UK property a little differently from those of us who just want somewhere to live. They see London houses as commodities, to be traded like shares and bonds. Truth be told, I can’t say I bothered looking around Taylor Wimpey’s HQ when I bought the company’s shares, or even examined its houses — so should we be surprised that property investors aren’t that concerned about the colour of the kitchen tiles when they load up on London homes? They are really just taking a punt on the property market — and want to take quick advantage of any Covid dip without the bother of having to fly over from Hong Kong. And of course, it is possible to commission an independent valuation from a surveyor who knows a lot more about property values than you do.
There is nothing new about committing to buying a property before seeing it. During the long years of boom thousands of flats were sold ‘off-plan’ — i.e. before they were built. All buyers had were a set of drawings, computer-generated images — and the chance to see a hole in the ground where the apartment block, hopefully, would one day stand. It didn’t always work out; there are plenty of tales of flats which didn’t quite match up to the agreed dimensions, or where the quality was a long way short of what the buyer had been led to expect.
Yet still I remember the tale told to me many years ago of a Far Eastern investor who bought a flat over the telephone, on the strength of descriptions and photographs. The one thing he hadn’t asked the agent, it turned out, was whether the property had any windows. It did have one, but it didn’t look to the outside world, only into a narrow lightwell.
During lockdown mark two property viewings are permitted — although they are only supposed to last 15 minutes and no more than two people are allowed in at a time. In the spring, however, viewing properties was forbidden. Property sales were still progressed, although many contracts had clauses saying they were dependent on the buyer finally getting to take a peek at the property as soon as it was allowed. According to Ed Mead, founding director of Viewber, which arranges viewings and fly-through videos for estate agents, four out of five sales fell through.
At least Asos lets you send your trousers back if they turn out not to fit. You can’t return a house you’ve just bought because you don’t like looking at the power station that didn’t quite show up in the fly-through video. In our weird, remote-controlled post-Covid world, there are still a few things which are best done face to face.