From complaints about planning permission to the phenomenon of the six-figure one-bedroom flat, the UK has long had a love-hate relationship with property. So when one of the country's top property programme presenters is in town, it is worth listening to what he has to say. AP Group's resident writer Chris Morvan heard a refreshing viewpoint from Phil Spencer.
This article was first published in Business Active magazine.
Television viewers all over the British Isles are fascinated by 'property programmes' - shows that fuel our dreams of either upping sticks and going to live somewhere else, or at least trading up to something closer to our dream home. Among the top programmes is Channel Four's Location Location Location, presented by Phil Spencer and Kirstie Allsopp.
With property prices in London and other parts of the UK currently at such a level that buying a house is out of the question for many young couples - let alone singles hoping to do it on their own - we are acutely aware of what is happening in the housing market.
Spencer occasionally makes personal appearances for Barclays Wealth, talking to intermediaries about the state of the property market in the UK, and it was on just such an occasion that I grabbed a chunk of his precious time.
Unusually, this is a man who sympathises with the poor, embattled buyer.
The fact that estate agents delight in telling us that prices are still rising indicates whose side they are on.
As a reaction to that, before beginning his TV career, Spencer had set up a company - in which he is still actively involved - that looked at the property process from the buyer's point of view. But was that just an angle?
'It was something that concerned me - and still concerns me. I trained as a surveyor and it dawned on me that the way we buy and sell property in the UK is very biased, very one-sided. It's not the same in other market systems around the world. I don't think you could find another marketplace - particularly considering the price of the property - where all the help goes to one side of the deal. Estate agents in this country are in business to look after the seller. Buyers go into an estate agent's office in the mistaken belief that they are about to be helped and advised. While that might appear to be happening, it's not really. I thought that was very odd. It's the biggest purchase we make in our lives and it's not something we become very experienced at because we don't do it very often, yet we do it all on our own. So I set up a business 11 years ago to offer that service. There wasn't anybody else doing it at the time.'
Spencer contrasts the British way with that in the USA, where the realtor, whom he describes as highly respected and well qualified, brokers the deal and receives fees from both sides.
Each country has its own way of doing things, based on culture and tradition, so the prospective buyer should beware of finding a property online and deciding to steam ahead without knowing the possible pitfalls.
'My advice to people looking to buy in other parts of the world is "Get help". It's hard enough doing it in a country you know, but in a place where you may not know the language or the legal structure, you're opening yourself up to difficulties. You need professional tax, legal and property advice.'
Home for this globetrotter is London - largely for convenience, because his business is based there, as is the bulk of the television industry. He also has 'a tiny cottage in Kent', the county where he grew up, where he can escape at weekends. When your job involves living out of a suitcase, presumably the idea of popping over to France or flying to Spain for the weekend has less appeal than it does for the rest of us. Anyway, he is a country man at heart.
'London has been good to me and I've always seen it as a land of opportunity, but now that I'm not using it as I used to, it is an expensive place.'
The break into television came through a production company who wanted to make a programme about the thrills and spills of buying a property and realised that they had no idea what to expect. Knowing the unique approach of his company, they asked him to go in for half an hour and talk them through it. Kirstie Allsopp was running a similar business by then, 'but there weren't very many people doing it so I suppose they had no-one else to talk to but us, and eight years later we're still doing it and it's been a lot of fun.' And of course it hasn't done his business any harm either, providing free marketing.
It is time-consuming, though. They film nine days a month and Spencer is normally away from home from Tuesday to Thursday three weeks a month, which gives him three Mondays and Fridays and one full week in the office.
He is understandably proud of his TV career and seems momentarily taken aback to be asked when the programme is on - well, I'm sorry, but I don't watch that sort of thing and his name didn't even ring a bell when the PR company offered us an interview. Nice bloke, though, seems very genuine and you can see why he keeps the female viewers occupied while their partners feast their eyes on Ms Allsopp.
And when he has made his pile and decides to buy a place somewhere else, where is that going to be?
'Melbourne,' he answers without a nanosecond's hesitation. 'My wife's from there and I love it. That's a long way off, though.'