May 30, 2019 | By Louise Squire
Jul 28, 2017
There is pretty much no one on the planet who will say that buying or selling a house is a fun process. Most would describe it as brutal, painful or just plan boring. Then there are the estate agents (if you are in the UK) or real estate agents (if you are in the US) who suffer from the serious stigma around their roles. So, when we stumbled across The Modern House at WGSN, it intrigued us. The Modern House does not look like your traditional estate agents, yes, it’s about buying and selling homes, but the process seems a little more beautiful than say scrolling through pages and pages on Rightmove.co.uk or Streeteasy.com. The site’s founders come from a design background and the listings on the site look like something out of a glossy magazine. Plus, the high quality social media images make you wish you could click-to-buy the houses asap.
We caught up with Matt Gibberd to talk about how he and his co-founder Albert Hill, turned a love of interiors, art and architecture into a new type of estate agency, one that makes you fall in love with property (even if you hate the purchase process).
How did you come up with the idea for the Modern House?
So my business partner Albert Hill came up with the idea for the agency. He was working at Wallpaper Magazine at the time and he went over to the States to research a real estate agency there that was only specialising in the mid-century modern stuff and case study houses, he thought it was a really interesting concept. He was living in the countryside in Hampshire at the time, so when he came back, he went out driving to look at the modern houses in the area. He found these amazing places, and then checked out the listings: the sales descriptions were horrible, the quality of the photography was bad, and there was no knowledge of the house, or the architect. So he thought this was an opportunity to apply a more design conscious approach to the industry.
Do you remember your very first listing?
Yes just before this, I was working at the World of Interiors magazine at the time, and I came on board and we started the company back in 2005 out of Albert’s room, with one phone line. We went to see a guy with a house in south east London, it was one of a small number of grade 2 listed modernist residential buildings built in the 30s, and we said take a chance on us. I think he was surprised that we were able to engage with him on a design level, and talk about the property in depth. We said to him, we’ll get this house published everywhere using our press contacts, and he let us list it.
How does The Modern House do things differently to the traditional ‘buy and sell’ house model?
We use editorial photography for our listings, we are very careful about the image selection and post production, we market these houses in the best possible light. Also, we apply our journalistic background, doing a lot of research, so a lot of the modernist houses listed with us have a history section on the site talking about the architecture, much like you might see in the art or auction houses. Hiring is key too, we have 16 people in the company now and only one of the 16 comes from an estate agency background, which is a huge positive for us. Our team have come from magazines, one worked at Twitter, others worked in the art world. They are very intelligent people and they are able to relate to our clients on an intellectual level and offer empathy during what can be a rather fraught process. We started afresh because we didn’t come from a pre-existing estate agency with industry preconceptions, we’ve just done it how we want it to be done.
What role does the Internet play in your business?
We are an Internet-driven company so we spend a lot of time on SEO and making sure that the website looks good, because that is our shop window. The traditional model for an estate agency is to open a shop front on the high street and try to take on as many houses in that area that you possibly can. What we’ve done is turn that idea on its head and say it’s not really about the area so much, people come to us because they want to be inspired by their homes. Also, you can’t filter by quality on those generic listings websites, they work very well if you know exactly where you want to live, but they don’t work at all if you are much more flexible on the location requirements and you want an exciting, design-led house. And, as a society we’ve started to work from home more too, so the design of our homes matter. That said, we feel that the human touch is important too. Through our data we’ve proven that a property is more likely to sell if the viewing is carried out by the seller, rather than by an agent. And so we encourage our buyers and sellers to meet each other, we go against the grain.
And how do you utilise social media?
Social media is all about brand awareness and recognition of quality, and Instagram is particularly strong for us. I think the image of the company is so massively important and so we try to keep the standards very high and create the audience engagement. This way we’ve found that we sell houses and apartments to people who weren’t necessarily looking to buy but they are spurred onto making a purchase by the quality of the brand and our filter, they trust our judgment.
How has the business evolved since you started back in 2005?
When we started The Modern House, we concentrated on the absolute best, one-off Modernist houses, often listed houses, because a) they are great calling cards and they are very press worthy and b) it was easier to segment the market in that way. We put together a comprehensive database of modern houses in the UK and that formed the base of how we started. But over the last 4-5 years we’ve had so much demand from our buyers that we’ve started to sell a broader range of stock, like factory conversions and Victorian houses, which have been adapted in a design led way. So, what started out as a specific slice of the market has become specific but in a different way, which is just everything is filtered for quality but it’s less regimented in terms of the era of the houses. Quality is the most important thing for us, there’s an aesthetic judgement there, a filter. Often we have to turn down work, which is always really hard for any business but we view the company and our website as a magazine in many ways, because that’s our background. We think to ourselves, will our audience like this? Does it fit with what we do? etc. And, by doing that we have an amazing brand loyalty.
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