The Nicola Lee Approach
WE'RE A FAMILY AFFAIR
Q: Tell me about your new Barbican estate agency?
It is called Nicola Lee Limited. It’s a new Barbican estate agency which I have set up with my sister, Lindsay.
Q: How long have you personally been involved as a Barbican estate agent?
Since about 1997. So I have over 20 years' experience as a Barbican estate agent. But my Barbican connection goes back much further than that, to when I was seven. I went to Bousfield Primary School in Chelsea, which was designed by Chamberlin Powell & Bon. There are bits of the Golden Lane Estate which still remind me of my school days!
Q: How about Lindsay?
Lindsay has worked with me for over 5 years as a Barbican estate agent on the letting and management side of the business. We are a family of four sisters. Lindsay and I, who were the youngest, used to be called the Irish twins because there are only 11 months between us. I’m not sure what’s particularly Irish about it, but it’s an old saying.
Lindsay has also connections with Chamberlin Powell & Bon: she went to the same primary school as I. Her daughter studied at a college at Cambridge designed by Chamberlin Powell & Bon and has a property in the Barbican estate.
Q: What are your plans for the new Barbican estate agency?
We are really excited to bring our expertise and connections to the Barbican with Nicola Lee Ltd. It is a thrilling start to the new decade and we're delighted with the support and encouragement we have received from Barbican residents who have bought and let flats through us over the years.
OUR APPROACH TO SELLING BARBICAN FLATS
Q: How do you set a price for a Barbican flat?
You need information about other Barbican sales. But you also need gut instinct. You need to know how the market is that very second, by day-in day-out talking to buyers and sellers in the Barbican. You get that kind of instinct after years of working in the Barbican market.
Q: Does a seller even need an agent? Couldn’t they get a valuation then sell their Barbican flat themselves?
I’ll give you an example of a Barbican flat where the flat owner actually used our valuation to try to sell it privately. It was in John Trundle Court. Lots of people visited the flat. After a few weeks, she came back and instructed me. I rang people I knew were potential buyers. I even rang some of the same people who had already visited the flat. I asked them what they didn't like and I highlighted the various benefits, in many cases they replied with: ‘We didn’t think of that’. I ended up selling it for more money than we’d estimated. The problem was that buyers just couldn’t see past the owner's approach to selling as a non-professional.
Breton House was another case in point. The owner decided to try to sell his flat privately, but he was buying his new flat also in the Barbican through me, so I knew how his sale was going day by day. He was unable to sell it himself and eventually, he asked me to sell it. I found a buyer and we got him a price he was delighted with.
Q: But there must be problem features in a Barbican flat sometimes. How do you get round them?
If there’s something awful in a Barbican flat, there’s no point glossing over it. I’ll give you an example. One seller put a fake Georgian fireplace in their living room. I joked with buyers about cooking crumpets. We all laughed about it. It made other things I told them about the flat credible.
You need to be moral in business: I have lines I would never cross. Intimate knowledge is the most important thing in selling flats, and certainly in the Barbican estate. That is why buyers trust me. You need someone to enthuse, but be impartial. The fact is that there are no problems in finding lots of good things to say about Barbican flats.
Q: What about specific ‘Barbican’ features?
I certainly never knock Barbican features: I love them.
Q: Are some flats in the Barbican estate harder to sell than others?
This is less so; for example, lower tower flats in the Barbican estate used to be harder to sell. It’s changed now due to the shortage of large, three- or four-bedroom flats on the Barbican estate. A few years ago it really mattered. North- and east-facing flats used to be less popular, because the view wasn’t considered all that great. But now, with The Shard and The Gherkin, this makes the view one of the big attractions.
Q: What about Barbican flats with inconvenient layouts?
I’ll give you the example of a Ben Jonson duplex. Right at the top is a bedroom, but the bathroom toilet is two floors down. Buyers may see that as a problem. I would suggest adding a bathroom/shower room in the top floor as I have seen this done in other flats of the same type and it works very well. The bedroom is a lovely square room with a barrel-vault ceiling, permissions would need to be sought.
So people aren’t put off by the fact that a flat doesn’t perfectly suit their needs. A negotiator sent round by an agency to more or less stand with the buyers, isn’t going to be able to do that.
Q: Do you have any suggestions about how residents could improve their Barbican flat for selling?
It’s more about suggesting to buyers what they could do with a Barbican flat once they’ve bought it. Take the penthouses in Mountjoy House. I think it would be great to partially take down the wall between the living area and the kitchen, to open up the area between them. It would make it much more open and completely transform the area. Contemporary lifestyles mean people like open plan kitchens etc. Open spaces can be key. That’s certainly the case in the Barbican estate.
With 4-bedroom Barbican tower flats, I nearly always suggest taking the fourth bedroom wall down, which creates a larger living area and less of a passageway when entering the flat. It is a relatively easy process but permissions still need to be sought.
Q: You seem to have some strong views on selling?
After more than 20 years of selling and letting properties in the Barbican I know which features attract the buyers. It's often about how to present things.
Q: Do you like the Barbican personally?
I still love it, even after more than 20 years. I love when someone tells me something new and interesting about the Barbican estate. For instance, I discovered there’s a wall behind Frobisher Crescent which has all different kinds of trial surfaces from when Chamberlin Powell & Bon were building the Barbican, but it is something you can only see if an engineer lets you in.
Q: Does your being keen on the Barbican help with selling?
Absolutely. Knowledge and enthusiasm are key when selling in the Barbican. I’m convinced when I sold in Frobisher Court that made all the difference to selling the flats there. Another agency with a good reputation was also on board but they didn’t have the knowledge or enthusiasm regarding the Barbican and it showed in the sales figures.