By Zoe Thomas (@JournoZo)

After 10 years in business, Matt, Steve and Sophie from Eastbourne’s independent estate agent Home Sweet Home reveal how embracing technology and staying grounded has helped them succeed where many failed

“Steve and I worked together for about three years before we set up on our own,” co-founder Matt tells me over a cup of tea at their smart but modest office along Eastbourne’s ‘up and coming’ South Street. “We felt it was the right time to do it. People at the time told us we were opening up in the seventh year of a 10 year growth cycle, so we knew we’d get on the back end of it but we didn’t know how long that was going to last.”

“Nobody can ever predict that –” Matt’s business partner Steve adds. “Is there ever a good time?”

Despite taking a leap, it seems the risk has paid off – I’ve been invited here today because the team is celebrating its 10th birthday in business – a significant milestone for a small independent estate agent that opened in a triple dip recession at the cusp of the Internet revolution, on a road hidden away from the main property area of the town.

Where most other businesses have struggled to survive the last decade, I’m interested to know how Home Sweet Home has not only survived the challenges of the modern age – but succeeded regardless.

Today the business is split 50/50 between sales and lettings, but when Home Sweet Home first started out, it was entirely sales.

“Then Matt had the brainwave of doing lettings,” Steve continues. “When the recession eventually came along and the sales market got very difficult, we already had a lettings business that was established by two or three years, so that helped us weather the storm. 99% of the agents that now do lettings jumped on because they had to, while we did it because we wanted to.”

“There were 12 lettings agents when we first started out,” Steve adds. “Now there’s over 40 in a 10 mile radius, so competition is tough.”

Steve, who has worked as an estate agent in Eastbourne for 20 years, tells me that when the recession struck in 2008, the rental market was one of the few sectors to blossom. First time buyers found it increasingly difficult to get a mortgage as banks required larger deposits – often up to 20-25% of the property’s value, in order to secure a loan. Home owners looking to sell up struggled to find anyone who could afford to buy, so many turned to letting as an alternative.

“We had the capital there to venture into lettings so when we look back now we realise what a good decision that was.”

Steve says: “There is such a good cross over with vendors and landlords. If people were having trouble selling and decided to let their homes instead, we helped to keep a tenant happy inside the four walls, and then when the time to sell again and the owners were fed up of letting, we could sell it instead.

“We had the capital there to venture into lettings so when we look back now we realise what a good decision that was. It was the best decision we ever made. To this day I don’t think we would have survived had we not have made that decision. We would have struggled with the sales market on its own.”

When they first started, Matt and Steve decided to keep things small. They put their money into building the business up slowly and, as Steve puts it, they ‘kept their sensible hats on’.

Matt says: “I think a lot of people, when they do set up a business, and I’ve been in business before, they find it quite easy to take their money out quickly. When we first set up we didn’t take a lot out of the business, we just wanted to make sure the company was sound.”

Steve agrees, adding: “The office is a comfortable size, we didn’t go into Cornfield road and pay a rent that was three times as much. South Street was a sensible place to be and it still is to be honest. Managing the expense of running an estate agency is massive.”

A few years into their business, Matt and Steve employed Sophie as their Senior Negotiator. It’s clear to see the trio share a great rapport, within their team but also with their customers. As the interview takes place, a client enters the shop and Sophie has them laughing within minutes.

Steve picks up on this, saying: “We’re not robotic. Estate agents are often that smarmy type, not well liked. but if you are a good estate agent, and that’s what Sophie is – that’s worth its weight in gold.”

This friendly, personal approach lies at the very heart of Home Sweet Home – a name which in itself generates feelings of warmth and cosiness.

Matt tells me that he and Steve worked for a number of years together for a bigger company before launching Home Sweet Home. Like many entrepreneurs, they had seen other people conduct business the wrong way, and they wanted to rectify this.

“We don’t force services down people’s throats. I know some agents have to, because of their own red tape, but for us it’s about people and property. Helping someone move, helping someone find their dream home.”

“When I joined I spent a lot of time speaking to people on the telephone and sometimes spent longer than I should have done,” Matt says. “My boss would come in randomly, I’d be talking to someone on the phone and he would wait for me to come off. He would get so fed up with me on the phone he would stand there and tell me to wind it up . What he failed to realise was that through the whole term of that business being open, I had the most sales.

“Spending time with people, and not rushing around a property, wanting to listen to what clients were after on the telephone, that got me more sales. They were happy because they got service.

“We don’t force services down people’s throats. I know some agents have to, because of their own red tape, but for us it’s about people and property. Helping someone move, helping someone find their dream home.”

For Matt, Steve and Sophie, an estate agent’s job is to help people find homes, to reach personal mile-stones and make important life decisions.

“Births, deaths, marriage, people moving home, people leaving or changing jobs, it all causes people to move and we’re here to help hopefully,” Matt says.

“It satisfying knowing you’ve dealt with someone from the minute they’ve called up, and we’ve been on a viewing, to the point where we’re actually handing the keys over to them, giving them a bottle of sparkling wine for them to sit down on their first night and enjoy their new home,” he finishes.

With the Internet revolution well and truly in motion, service is something many face-to-face businesses are having to capitalise on. The Internet may offer speed and convenience, ideal for food or clothes shopping, but when it comes to buying a house, most people still require something a little more personal. This means that although the way people search for new homes has changed massively, the estate agent service itself has yet to be killed off by the Internet.

Instead of trawling through towns picking up stacks of property magazines and brochures, house hunters can now browse properties from anywhere – their beds, kitchens, on the train, or even at work if they’re feeling rebellious. Search websites like RightMove, Zoopla and PrimeLocation offer house hunters a convenient way to filter their searches and look at properties from a number of estate agents. Instead of calling estate agents for help finding a property, they now call them with a specific property in mind.

Matt and Steve haven’t let the Internet revolution phase them. In fact, they have used these new tools to their advantage.

“We’ve definitely embraced the Internet revolution and we got on board with Right Move fairly early on,” Matt tells me. “We had our own website from day one but within 6-8 months we were also on RightMove.”

In fact, Home Sweet Home was the first agent in Eastbourne to have a Facebook page and today they use it to communicate with their clients – not just to advertise properties, but to share interesting links and promote local events.

“I think we were also the first agent for sales and lettings to have a RightMove microsite too,” Steve adds. “This is like a full-blown website within RightMove itself.”

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Matt says: “Although we might deal with our clients online, we then meet them in person and show them around the property. Some online agents don’t offer that personal service. That sort of thing will always appeal to a few penny pincher types, but ultimately it will come and go.

“There are people who come back to us because it’s us. They want to walk through our door – they don’t just want to send an email. We use the Internet the best we can, we use all the facilities that we can afford to use, but that doesn’t stop us dealing with people face to face.”

“Everyone’s online, so if you’ve got bad photos and bad wording and you’re making a hash of what you’re doing, being on RightMove’s no good – you’ve got to make the property stand out from the crowd to make your agency stand out from the crowd. We’re definitely good at that.”

He continues: “Our statistics have proven we probably get more hits than any other estate agents in town because we’ve got a bigger set of details to read.

“Steve produces all the details on properties. Not only do they get handed out to clients as soon as they come into the office, a whole set of details also goes onto the web portals. So our competitive edge is, when we take a job on, we put a decent set of details together that people are actually going to read. Sometimes you can look in the paper or online and there will just be one or two lines of blurb.”

Steve adds: “Everyone’s online, so if you’ve got bad photos and bad wording and you’re making a hash of what you’re doing, being on RightMove’s no good – you’ve got to make the property stand out from the crowd to make your agency stand out from the crowd. We’re definitely good at that.

“We’ve heard stories of agents taking several weeks to get details prepared, whereas we often get it turned around in the same day, back through their door in the same day, straight online immediately, up to a really high standard too.”

A combination of personal service, utilisation of technology and sensible decisions has led to Home Sweet Home’s success – a success they now want to spread with the potential of franchising the business.

“We would have to have a pilot office first before we sell those offices on, so if we did do a franchise, we would have to be looking for someone who was prepared to run alongside and have that pilot office for us to be able to prove that the franchise would work,” Steve says.

They both agree that the local property market is looking up – “Eastbourne holds its own as a little niche bubble,” Steve says. “It is a popular town, nice and clean. You can still get to London and Brighton. People do retire here. But for sales and lettings, I still see it bubbling along quite nicely. I think lettings will become more and more a way that some people will have to live due to affordability constraints, the mortgage market and so on.”

“We’re definitely looking to grow the business and get more market share next year, with an additional member of staff. We’ve grown to a level that that’s needed. We’re not being daft about it but we are looking to grow.”

Matt adds: “I think there’s massive room for improvement. The redevelopment of the town centre will, in the next 10 years, with bigger shops coming to the town and certainly being very close to the railway station – if they ever do anything with the railway station.

“At the moment Eastbourne’s really restricted on the roads. It’s so gridlocked, it’s difficult to get in and out. As soon as the travel links are improved, it’s waiting to explode, like Brighton.”

Steve continues: “We’re definitely looking to grow the business and get more market share next year, with an additional member of staff. We’ve grown to a level that that’s needed. We’re not being daft about it but we are looking to grow.”

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