'After a really difficult period for selling houses I knew all the risks of setting up on my own but it has paid off'
After the turbulence of the recession, one of Northern Ireland's best known property experts talks about how the worst may now be over for the province's housing market
For a man who says he was thrown into selling houses by his father, Simon Brien has come a long, long way. While the 52-year-old dreamed of a life sailing on the high seas — and still does — he was sent out into the big, bad world of estate agency at the tender age of 18.
Today, he runs one of Northern Ireland’s most successful estate agencies, selling around 100 homes each month. His team includes daughter Tiffany — who held the Miss Northern Ireland in 2012.
And he weathered one of the most turbulent crises in the property market ever to hit Northern Ireland, with prices falling by up to 60% in some locations after peaking in 2007.
Having worked for some of the best known estate agencies here — McQuitty Ross, Eric Cairns and BTW Shiells — Simon took the opportunity to establish his own agency in June 2014 during the sale of BTW Shiells to Lambert Smith Hampton.
It was a well-timed gamble in a housing market in the early stages of recovery. But it paid off.
His business, Simon Brien Residential, won the Estate Agency of the Year in the Belfast Telegraph Property Awards in 2015. It deals with private house resales, new houses, land transactions, rentals and mortgages.
The business has recently launched a major development of 123 homes — which are being built by English firm Neptune Group — in Ballyclare.
It’s also been signed up by Northern Ireland builder Fraser Houses to act as selling agents in two of its developments — 74 apartments at The Matic at Chichester Street in Belfast, and 1,000 new homes on a development known as Rivenwood, which are to be built on a 107-acre site at Newtownards over the next 12 years.
He says that his staff of 52 is still growing and house sale volume is up by 40%.
And, according to the latest Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency report, the value of a standard home is now just over £117,500 — up 6% on last year.
“I wasn’t that apprehensive going out on my own, as I knew every component of the business as the office structure and staff largely remained the same,” said Simon.
“And shortly after that the housing market began to improve and the availability of mortgages improved.”
His start into property was equally fortuitous.
“After school I was offered a place in the Irish sailing team and I went off and raced boats in Europe for a year then came back home and my father said it was time for me to get a real job and made sure I did,” said the Holywood businessman.
“I started in the estate agency business in Dowling Jackson-Stops in Chichester Street in Belfast.
“I was literally putting house brochures together, sticking the photographs in, doing the displays and doing viewings.
“I was chucked in at the deep end, as I was sent out to value houses in Newcastle and I barely knew how to get to Newcastle. I was completely green.”
He soon went to work with McQuitty Company in the Ballyhackamore office in east Belfast — which was less salubrious than his own head office today on the Lisburn Road in the city.
“It had an outside loo,” he said. “But I worked hard as a junior valuer and came up with some initiatives for around the Newtownards Roads and Albertbridge Road.”
In those early days, he also met his future wife Juanita, then working as a chartered surveyor for Martin, Caskey & Co estate agents.
Houses were being vested by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the young Simon wrote a letter and hand-delivered it to every home in the street, offering advice on how to get the best price. “There were hundreds of houses to be valued and these could have been from £400 to £6,000-£8,000, but I knew that I could push to get the best price for them.
“Some of them were very antiquated properties, but I met some really good, traditional Belfast people, some of whom traded up and came back to me years later for another house sale.” He found out later in his career as area director for McQuitty Ross (after it had been bought over by Royal Life Estates) that he preferred a more direct and friendly means of selling houses.
“I was at this big conference in the Lake District, with thousands of people from the company.
“It was all about role play and how to conduct yourself while out valuing a property, and I just thought, ‘get me out of here, that’s not how you work’,” he said.
“In Northern Ireland, people deal with people, not institutions. Whatever business you are in Northern Ireland, whether it’s cars or services, when you get a good relationship with somebody, you continue and build on from that. And I’ve built my business ethos on that.”
He was approached by Eric Cairns to join him in a new company in 2003. After helping to build up the Eric Cairns Partnership, the estate agency was integrated into BTW Shiells in 2007 — the year of the economic downturn.
“It was a difficult period after that, as you were just heading into the downturn. Few could have seen it coming or known it would be as severe, but from 2007-2013 it was really a question of rationalising the business, in terms of staff numbers and control of costs,” said Simon.
“Really, no land was being sold in that era, house sales were down. That was the most difficult period to have worked in the property market, because you had to make people redundant or make salary cuts just to keep the place going.”
Being adaptable was key, as the business branched out into rentals, management and professional services, instead of house sale volume alone.
But he said the market has turned the corner. “We are way past the point now where the market has bottomed out. The market is recovering and performing in the normal way. I think we will see growth at between 4-5% over the next five years.
“Buyers are much more methodical about buying, to make sure there is no element of risk to them. First-time buyers particularly want to first make sure that they can get a mortgage, as it’s not like it used to be when a multiple of income was applied.
“For those with an existing house, they normally ask us out first to value their home, so they know what additional mortgage they might have to take. It’s a very responsible process from where the pendulum was in 2005-2007, more responsible in lending and borrowing.
“And I think this will lead to a much more stable, long-term market.”
Simon and Juanita, who’s been a full-time mother in recent years, have three children — as well as Tiffany, there’s Jessica (24) and son Jack (19). And while he continues to work long hours, sailing remains his main leisure pursuit. “Sometimes I still act like I’m in my twenties when I’m on the boat. I still love sailing.”
'I enjoy reading the Belfast Telegraph on a Thursday'
Q. What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?
A. While our business is about property, more importantly it is about people as well.
Q. What advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A. Focus on integrity, housing and hard work.
Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?
A. Sailing expedition work.
Q. What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?
A. I spent four days skiing in Austria in March. I have no more plans for the next holiday, but maybe France in July.
Q. What are your hobbies/interests?
A. Competitive sailing.
Q. What is your favourite band/album or piece of music?
A. Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team? And have you ever played any sports yourself?
A. I enjoy rugby and I follow the Ulster Rugby team and golfer Rory McIlroy. Sailing and motor sports are the ones I participate in myself.
Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?
A. I enjoy reading the Belfast Telegraph on a Thursday — and The Sunday Times at the weekend.
Q. Any predictions for Northern Ireland’s property market over the next 10 years?
A. Property will remain a good investment, with a sustainable rate of growth of between 3 to 5%.