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The Art of Property Hunting

Marc-Olivier Van Bellinghen, James Goffin and Julien Dessauny – the three managing partners behind Property Hunter.

They say that moving to a new home is (after marriage) the second most stressful thing we’ll ever do and trying to navigate the minefield that is property hunting can be a thankless task, at the best of times. In searching for a new home, many resort to simply traipsing around the streets of Brussels looking for à louer/te huur signs pinned to the front door of apartment blocks or on walls in supermarkets.

But hope is on the horizon–in the shape of a relatively new concept that seeks to take the strain out of house (and flat) hunting.

It’s called “property hunting” and the idea is that a potential buyer (or renter) recruits an agent as a property searcher.

Property hunters are not traditional estate agents, where you stand on the street in front of window displays of apartments and houses. Instead, they strive to deal with the different stages of the buying process: searching, visiting and selecting properties, and calculating the yield of an investment, as well as assisting clients in negotiating the right price before both parties sign on the dotted line.

Another big difference with estate agents is that “property hunters” are paid by the buyer, or prospective tenant, and not the seller of a property–as is the case with an estate agent to whom a seller usually pays what can often be a hefty commission.

One of those leading the way is the appropriately named Brussels-based company “Property Hunters,” which has been operating since April 2008.

So what is the current state of the Brussels (and Belgian) housing market? Is it, for example, subject to the same dizzying highs (and lows) of other property markets, such as in the UK?

Different traditions (and what are usually seen as prohibitive financial burdens) make the Belgian market rather different to somewhere like the UK. For example, in Belgium people move with far less frequency.

A 12.5 per cent registration tax imposed on property purchases on top of legal fees, plus a capital gains tax of 16.5 per cent on properties sold within five years are both seen as deterrents to short term investors.

Indeed, the total cost of buying and selling a home in Belgium is estimated to be around 20 per cent of the purchase price. Buying a new build is even more pricey as VAT is charged on properties less than two years old.

According to Property Hunter, there is nevertheless currently “huge” demand, particularly for tenancies in Brussels with (as ever) much of this driven by the sheer number of people working for the EU institutions and other international bodies.

“This certainly offers advantages for property owners,” says James Goffin, who is one of the managing partners at Property Hunter, along with Marc-Olivier Van Bellinghen and Julien Dessauny.

According to the 2015 Notary Barometer released by the Royal Federation of Belgian Notaries (KFBN), in Belgium last year, 6.4% more homes were sold than in 2014, the seventh year in a row that the number of property sales increased in the country.

The average is pulled upward in Wallonia, where the number of real estate transactions last year increased by more than 10%. But property sales also increased in Brussels (+4.8%) and across Belgium (+4.7%).

According to the KFBN, low interest rates are one of the main reasons behind the positive trend. “Low interest rates will convince many young people to take the step to buy a home, as well as middle-aged people looking for a profitable real estate investment,” explained spokesman Bart van Opstal.

 “The trend is also a result of our ageing population. Many older people sell their home and exchange it for an apartment or a form of assisted living.”

The average selling price for a home in Belgium last year remained stable compared to 2014, at €234,699 for a house (+0.1%) and €205,148 for an apartment (+1.9%).

In Brussels, what is clear is that there are wide variations in the popularity and property values in the 19 communes, with an average price of about €185,000 for a one-bedroom apartment in the city centre, which has become increasingly popular in recent years for young families and single expats.

In neighbouring Etterbeck a one-bedroom duplex flat can be rented for about €976 a month, while the average price of a one-bedroom apartment in Forest/Vorst is about €650. This used to offer excellent value for money but the commune’s popularity with French expats has pushed prices up.

In Uccle, meanwhile, where property prices are among the highest in the city, a four-bedroom house will set you back about €560,000. And if you really want to splash out, renting a five-bedroom house with swimming pool in Woluwe Saint Pierre will cost about €3,225 a month.

Whatever your budget, Property Hunter aims to take the strain out of finding your ideal home. It has a big address book of properties and impressive credentials to match, including being voted Best Property Finder of Belgium for four successive years by Property Awards.

Goffin explained how it all works: “Our hunters will pre-visit properties on behalf of a client and draw up a shortlist. This ensures that the customer sees only the finest properties on the market and often is the first to see that property before it is advertised.”

Property Hunter is different from an estate agent in that it does not have a portfolio of properties for sale or rent but rather seeks to “respond to the needs and desires” of the buyer/tenant/investor.

The company “prospects” the property market and works alongside some 700 professional partners–including notaries and, yes, estate agents–in a quest to match the specific needs of a customer with the best properties. Crucially, this is often done before a house or flat is advertised thereby giving the house hunter a head start.

Any of these partners can approach Property Hunter with details for their property-seeking clients.

Goffin says, “Ours is a large network so, yes, estate agents are very happy to cooperate and work with us because we can help sell their properties.”

On average, it visits 25 properties per month corresponding to the requirements of a customer. In that way, the client will only see the best, or most suitable, properties, thus saving time on trips to unsuitable properties.

“Thanks to our experience in the sector clients are well guided, avoid the usual problems and get a totally personalised service.”

This “made-to-measure service” for buyers or tenants is, he believes, its Unique Selling Point.

Its ten associates, or “hunters” to use the jargon, manage no more than three or four properties at any one time. The emphasis, it says, is on “quality, not quantity.”

Goffin adds, “We accompany clients all through the house/flat buying process and also help the buyers get a fair price for what they are purchasing. Our experience has taught us how to evaluate a property and negotiate the price. We want to ensure that a client avoids overpaying for a property. At the end of the day, the idea is to make sure that they get a good investment.”

The company, which has offices in Brugmann and Schuman, as well as a franchise in Luxembourg, can also handle all those other, often tedious, administrative steps linked to a flat or house move: registration at the local town hall, school enrolment for the children, organization of the national or international removal, etc. The service even extends to establishing contacts with ironing and cleaning service providers.

It also takes care of all paperwork, including end of rental inspections, verification of rental and distribution charges and other matters, including rental payments, annual rent review, validation of charges and lease renewals.

Goffin adds: “With our knowledge and professional experience we do our best to satisfy our client’s needs. Ours is a personalized service that helps and guides a property hunter, step by step, through the process of settling down in Brussels and the surrounding area.”

The figures, he believes, speak for themselves: more than 700 clients on its books and a “success rate” of nine out of ten of properties being bought in an average of just six weeks–a much shorter timeframe than usual.

So, if you are looking for that dream home–but do not have the time or resources to do the endless searching–using a “property hunter” might be for you. It certainly helps avoid getting lost in the property jungle.

Of course, an alternative, and one that is particularly popular in Belgium, is to simply buy a plot of land… and build a home of your own!

By Martin Banks