NORTHERN IRELAND. The Local Investor

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1 NORTHERN IRELAND Northern Ireland has had a very interesting 10 to 15 years in property. Since the peace, the region has seen economic and commercial growth and a vast amount of inward investment. This had a knock-on effect on the property market, which escalated rapidly prior to the financial crash, in effect creating a bubble of its own within the bigger bubble that was the UK property market. The crash, which still reverberates through many of our portfolios, was as catastrophic here as the rise was meteoric, wiping thousands millions in some cases off investors equity almostovernight. As it is difficult to cover such a large area, we are focussing on the capital of Belfast and districts nearby. The 14th largest city in the UK, Belfast city itself has a population of around 286,000, with over 640,000 in the larger urban zone a significant proportion of the 1.8 million or so who live in the province. Northern Ireland, and Belfast in particular, has an industrial history; long associated with linen manufacture, tobacco production and ship-building, many of these industries are alive and well today. Two local investors speak very candidly about their experiences of the last few years, and about the opportunities they see in Northern Ireland right now. The Local Investor Discussion Panel Ant Lyons YPN editor Jayne Owen YPN writer Ian Jackson Portfolio landlord based in Belfast, with properties in Northern Ireland, northern England and Scotland. Chris Selwood Based in Ballymena, active investor and landlord with properties in Northern Ireland and England, lettings and estate agent, owner of Mid Antrim Properties, and co-host of the Belfast Property Meet. Your Property Network 66 December

2 Ant: Give us a brief potted history about your experience in property and Northern Ireland. Ian: I bought my first property to rent out in I was 20, and it all went from there. I stayed in employment for another 10 years then started my own business, which I sold to British Telecom 25 years later. I carried on buying 2 or 3 properties a year here and after selling the business, took on the A Quick Sale (AQS) franchise for Northern Ireland, Manchester and the Highlands of Scotland. As people will know, were good years during that time I bought over 350 properties and sold around 100. I have a portfolio of around 140 properties today, with a sizeable portion in Northern Ireland. Chris: I started investing in property in Northern Ireland in 2005 because I was in the Merchant Navy and didn t want to be away from home and my young daughter so much. Property prices were on the way up and it was quite easy to get your hands on money for buy-to-let (BTL) properties. I had equity in my own property, and when I bought the first BTL, within a few months there was enough equity in it to pull out some cash and buy the second. So it went on for the first couple of years. It was very easy I bought 13 properties in about 2 years with no real strategy, just taking out equity and buying the next. Case Study 1: IAN Kings Road Lead via AQS, 2007 Valuation Feb 07: 170,000 Purchase price: 115,000 Offers March 07, none completed: 27th March: 165,000 27th March: 163,000 29th March: 160,000 Property brought into portfolio. Re-let Aug 13: 400 pm Nearby comparable on current market: 49,500 After the crash, it became more difficult so I did what I should have done at the beginning got an education. I went on a Rich Dad seminar then did some property training in London with the company now called Tigrent, where I learned how to buy property in different ways. Since then, I have bought another properties, mainly through joint ventures (JVs) with others. I also started my own lettings agency, which eventually developed into an estate agency for selling properties that I had refurbished.towards the end 2011, Stuart Nicholls and I started the Belfast Property Meet; the next meeting will be our second birthday. Ant: Have properties really tumbled in value? Ian: Yes. We had great opportunity through the support of other countries after the peace; when that was established the market grew extremely quickly. House prices were quite solid at the time but escalated substantially over 3 years until we were almost in line with London property in the early 2000 s. When the crash hit, property took a nose dive. In , a 3-bedroom semi-detached house in Belfast would sell for 170,000; through AQS we would have tried to buy that at 25% or more below market value (BMV), so might have paid 110, ,000 and put it into stock. But even then, rents were not enough to cover the costs historically rents were quite low. That type of property in the same street today is selling for 50,000. Ant: We have seen property come down by a third or even a half in some areas, but this is almost certainly the first time we have seen those dramatic reductions. Chris: Some say property prices have fallen by 55-60%. I would say probably a bit more, although prices seem to have increased slightly in the last 12 months. We have a deal lined up to purchase a 3-bedroom terraced house with a garage; it needs a bit of work, but we have agreed to buy it for 30,000. Those properties would have been going for 140, ,000 at the height of the market. Ant: Ian, you were buying very aggressively at that point. Was your strategy to increase net equity as everything was going up in value? 2 Your Property Network 66 December 2013

3 Ian: The plan was to build a portfolio that could keep me for the next years, but investing in Manchester and Scotland as well, I knew what was going on in all the markets. Northern Ireland property was rising, but I sold a lot that I bought. For example, I paid 120,000 for a 3-bedroom bungalow in a really good area in Belfast that would not have worked as a rental, so put it back on the residential sales market right away. The sale fell out of bed twice but went up by 60,000 between the 2 sales. That gives you an idea how buoyant the market was before the crash. Ant: As rents were low, did you have a mixed portfolio across different areas in order to create equity in some areas and generate cash flow in others? Ian: Yes. We kept properties where we believed we could get good capital growth, but knew we would need to subsidise the rent by buying and selling to generate cash to plug the deficit. We were doing that successfully but when the crash came, we had 18 properties for sale on the residential market. One was a good rentable property, but the others were all detached properties in good areas that we had to adopt into the portfolio and manage through. Ant: About that managing through process when the market crashed, people with smaller portfolios saw values decline but benefited from lower interest rates. On a larger scale, what was the impact on you and your portfolio with such a dramatic reduction in capital values? Ian: It has taken me 2 years and the help of people in the financial industry to still be holding the keys. It has been a very sobering journey. I had the help of someone in Halifax who came to my rescue and negotiated with the lender. It was not an easy time. Ant: Presumably the rent was still being paid, so was the lender trying to take possession because of the reduction in equity? Ian: This was a private lender, a mutual society in Northern Ireland, who went into administration so we ended up negotiating with the administrator. properties that had a certain amount of monthly cash flow; if the interest rates on the others went back up, these would compensate. The properties in negative equity were originally cash flowing when rates were around 5%, so they generate a lot more now. If interest rates go back up to 5%, I believe property prices will follow so they might be back out of negative equity. I will also have more capital growth in the other half of the portfolio, so it balances itself out. I m looking forward to the future and intend to buy a lot more properties. Ant: Capital values have soared in London, and we are now hearing that things have changed over the last 6 months in different regions. What is happening there right now? Ian: We have been in free fall up until the last couple of months, but I think our market is now starting to recover. In February, I remortgaged a property that I bought a few years ago; it was downvalued by 15,000, and I was only looking for a valuation of 60,000. I bought a property at auction a few Case Study 2: IAN Silverstream Drive Bought at auction in London, closed within 7 days. Purchase price: 30,000 Full refurbishment: 12,000 On open market for: 55,000, not sold Property now being brought into portfolio. Revaluation: 53,000 Rent: 425 pm Ant: You could never have foreseen these problems and this was a million miles from your profitable portfolio and trading experience. I guess your reality changed overnight Ian: 2.3 million came off the capital value of my portfolio and disintegrated into nothing. Ant: Chris, with a smaller portfolio, but still a lot of property by most people s standards, what was the impact on you? Did you have pressure from lenders? Chris: No. I had 2 or 3 properties in negative equity, but interest rates tumbled as a result of the crash. I had one property in the North East with a Cheltenham & Gloucester mortgage costing me 5p pm. It was a 3-bedroom house and the rent at the time was around 475 pm. Although my capital dropped, monthly cash flow increased to the extent that I gave up my job. I decided to build a more balanced portfolio, buying Your Property Network 66 December

4 months ago (see case study 2), did a full refurbishment, and it is on the market for 55,000. It hasn t sold yet so as it is coming up to 6 months, I thought I d remortgage it instead. It was valued 2 weeks ago at 53,000. That is the first positive valuation I have had since the crash. Case Study 3: CHRIS I think the market for outside investors is the best it has ever been now. You need to be sure you have the right guidance though and work with the right solicitors because we have a different law to the mainland UK. Also, we do not have Rightmove here. There are areas where you would not want to buy, and you need someone like Chris or myself who lives here to guide you. I think all properties are BMV now because the market is so depressed. That property valued at 53,000 is a 3-bedroom semi-detached house with 2 reception rooms you couldn t build it for that. Ant: Is it more feasible to buy, refurbish and remortgage to get money back out now than it was 12 months ago? Ian: You don t even need to do that. There is property on the open market, if you know where to go, which is ready to rent. You can still buy stuff to do up at auction but that takes up to 6 months. Going back to that one valued at 53,000, a 25% deposit would be around 13,000, it is in a good rentable area in Belfast and the rent would be pm. When you work out all the figures, the return on investment (ROI) would be around 18%. Chris: We bought a property recently for 55,000, spent around 5,000 including legal fees, and have now had a sale agreed at 72,500 a profit of around 12,500. There are still massive opportunities. I mentioned earlier a property for 30,000. The house next door is on the market for 67,500 so there is scope to spend 15,000 and still sell it on or refinance to get all my money back out. As a rental, it would bring in a positive cash flow of around 200 pm. 3-bed ex-local authority house in poor condition, owned by a distressed landlord. We agreed an assisted sale with the vendor where she would receive more than the market value after we had done the renovation. Open market value pre-works: 40,000 Cost of full renovation works: 15,000 Sale price: 72,000 Owner received after works and sale: 45,000 Profit: 12,000 Ant: Are you seeing more sold boards going up? Chris: Although I am primarily a letting agent, I do a few sales on properties that I fix up and sell on. In the last couple of weeks we have noticed a lot more first time buyer (FTB) viewings. We have sold 3 properties in just over a week and are seeing a lot of younger couples and FTBs coming into the market, and some new investors as well. There seems to be a bit of confidence. I think the Help to Buy scheme being brought forward a few months has had a bit of an impact. I m not sure whether it will be false economy in the long term, but it seems to have done the trick so far. Ant: Given the returns you can generate from buying solid family homes that cash flow well, are the best opportunities now in the single let model? What about Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs)? If you were starting now, where would you put your money? Ian: The population of Northern Ireland is only around 1.8 million, so the appetite for HMOs and multilets is very small apart from around the college areas. I am not saying there are no professional lets but there is plenty of vacant new-build property in the greater Belfast area. In some areas you can get a brand new 2-bedroom apartment on the water s edge for 500 pm. The real market of substance is single family homes. You won t ever go wrong with an ex-council property that is well built, has a good steady income, where families will come and stay. The problem with HMOs is keeping them full. That is a challenge and they need more babysitting than single family homes. I don t think FTBs have realised yet that the market has levelled out. There will be a window of around 6-9 months for investors because once FTBs come into this market, prices will shoot up quickly, especially at the 50,000+ level. There is a window of opportunity now if you have someone like Chris or myself to guide you on where you should and shouldn t buy, and who has the support systems in place to help make the deals happen. Ant: What about student HMOs? Student properties have retained their values in some areas while other properties have fallen in value. Is that true here? Chris: There are lots of students in the Holy Lands area in Belfast; prices are holding around 100,000 here while you could buy similar houses elsewhere for 40,000-50,000. We all know 4 Your Property Network 66 December 2013

5 you can buy one of these and turn it into an HMO for 20,000-25,000, but will the students move out to those areas? I ran a test ad on Gumtree recently for rooms slightly out of the city centre and away from the student area; I got quite a bit of response, so people are looking for rooms. I don t know whether it is a result of the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) with people under 35 only being given a room rate, but there is definitely a demand. Although some properties in and around the Holy Lands have held their price, there are bargains slightly away from the university. Also, the University of Ulster is moving from the outskirts of Belfast to a brand new campus in the city centre, so that will have an impact on areas that were not student areas previously. Ant: There are clearly areas where it might be wise not to invest but instead of looking at the no-go areas as we usually do, what are the areas where the smart money is going right now? Ian: Belfast is a good area for investing. We deal with a lot of housing benefit tenants. We have our own Housing Executive who set the rates, which are on a par with the UK. Landlords are paid directly once they have been approved, so we do not have to fight to get our money through, which is a big plus. We have to go in with the new tenant and be interviewed, but it works first time. People on housing benefits also have a high proportion of their rates paid as well we have the old rates system instead of council tax. Case Study 4: CHRIS, BELFAST 3-bed mid-terrace, vacant for several years, required full refurbishment. We agreed an assisted sale deal similar to case study 3 where we would pay more than the current market value after carrying out the works. Open market value current condition: 50,000 Cost of full renovation works: 18,750 Sale price: 85,500 Owner received after works and sale: 55,000 Profit: 11,750 In case studies 3 and 4, we covered marketing costs for selling each property, meaning that the owner only had to pay 750 legal fees. Also, the government and country is stable now: we are moving forward. The reason we were hit so hard is because after the peace, we got outside investment like nobody s business. The government did a great job in attracting overseas investment and we have a great affinity with the USA in particular. We also have a great workforce in this country people don t want everything, they just want a job. The future is very bright for us. Our housing took the sting, but we are in recovery and there is an excellent opportunity for investors over the next year or so while the market gets off its knees. Ant: Chris, are most of your tenants LHA or private working tenants? Chris: Probably 50/50. It doesn t seem to have changed that much, maybe a little in favour of housing benefit tenants. Where I invest in Ballymena, the unemployment rate is just over 4%, which is less than the Northern Ireland and UK averages. Ballymena is only about 25 minutes from Belfast: we have a lot of big manufacturers and employers, property prices are similar to Belfast, rents are just as good in some cases and rental demand has remained consistent. I am continuing to look at Ballymena and my focus over the next 6-12 months will be on buying, fixing up and selling on to FTBs to increase capital. Your Property Network 66 December

6 I might keep some in my portfolio and refinance, but I want to build up pots of cash. Ant: Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently? Ian: I think that s called wisdom! I have made mistakes and learned from them; you can t push water back. Even if I had taken 10 years retirement after selling the business, now would be a great time to go into property. But we have come on a journey. Mine has been a bit longer than Chris s, but we have that education now. Between us, we know this market back to front. We know what is going on the market and both work in it. Ant: Seeing such dramatic changes in the Northern Ireland market puts you both in a unique position to understand what is happening now. For people with cash to invest, what strategy do you think they should follow? Ian: It depends on what they want. There are opportunities to buy at auction because there are a lot of repossessed properties. Anyone who bought in the last 10 years is in negative equity. For example, my son bought a house in Dundonald, a very good area, for 270, ,000; it was valued last week at 125,000. He only got married 6 years ago, but is ok and able to pay the mortgage. The finance companies are endeavouring to release repossessed properties at a pace that does not devalue the current market. You can buy these with cash and get some capital benefit. They are all wrecked one that I bought was left in an absolute mess. Normally we have 28 days to close after buying at auction, but we were able to close in 7 working days so I was able to start the week after buying. Chris and I both have contacts to make things happen quickly; we have a structure for people who want to buy, fix up and sell on or a structure for armchair investors with cash who want an 18% return on a managed property. There are lease option opportunities for bigger properties, and I also look at commercial markets as well. Some vacant offices can be converted to HMOs. These types of properties are not selling because the market is so volatile. CONTACT DETAILS Chris mobile , or visit for details about the event. Ian mobile , visit YPN Says... Many of us who have been investing in property for over 10 years suffered to some extent from the fall in property prices, but it is unlikely that we experienced effects quite as catastrophic as those endured by investors in Northern Ireland. It seems, though, that things are about to change at last. While it can be quite difficult to get a good deal in some areas that we have looked at now that the market is showing signs of upward movement, both Ian and Chris believe that there is a window of opportunity to invest in the region right now. The numbers look attractive, but local knowledge in this area is absolutely crucial. It is essential to buy in the right area, and get the right tenants for that area something that Ian has learned from 25 years of property experience. Buying here without knowledge would be very high risk. Talk to someone on the ground, who knows the market inside out. Strategies, like HMOs for example, that work well in some areas on the mainland might not do so well in Northern Ireland where there is a much lower population density, so you need someone with market experience to guide you on what will work best. Chris: I agree. There are myths about property investing. Some think it s risky; anything can be risky, but less so with the benefit of education. People believe it s hard work, but it s not as hard as having to work for someone else for the next 40 years. It is enjoyable, it is a journey. I definitely think people should get an education. I believe you have to work harder on yourself than you do in your job to succeed in life. That leads me to a little plug for our 1-day workshop for Property Investing Made Easy! The details are on I recommend seeking advice from people who have been investing in property for a long time. Ian and I have both made mistakes and learned from them, and we re still here after riding out a very bad downturn in the market. We are still investing and here to teach others too. Don t think about it too much: get started and learn as you go along it s like riding a bike, you get on, might fall off, then then get back on and keep going. NOW LISTEN IN FULL to our discussion on investing in Northern Ireland, using the QR code or the link below 6 Your Property Network 66 December 2013

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