Benham & Reeves hires Singapore property veterans, ups the ante in London residential sales

/ EdgeProp Singapore
November 8, 2019 11:00 AM SGT
Benham & Reeves will be launching Asquith House at West End Gate, London. The weekend launch will be held
Benham & Reeves, one of the leading independent London real estate agencies, was founded in 1958. Two brothers, Alan and Cyril Brown, acquired Benham & Reeves Estate Agency in 1968 and then ran the business until 1976, when they decided to split the company into two. Benham and Reeves, which specialised in residential sales, was headed by Alan Brown; while Cyril Brown focused on lettings under Benham & Reeves Residential Lettings.
As a result of the split in business lines 40 years ago, Benham & Reeves Residential Lettings could not broker residential sales in London under the brand, while Benham & Reeves was not allowed to handle leasing transactions using the brand, explains managing director Anita Mehra.
She had joined the accounts department of Benham & Reeves Residential Lettings in the late 1970s. She quickly learnt the ropes of the real estate business and by 1998, she had become the managing director of the firm, and bought over the business.
Mehra: Rental demand is so strong that for every property that comes onto the market, there are 17 applicants (Photo: Benham & Reeves)

Growth in international business

Mehra has since grown Benham Reeves Residential Lettings into one of the biggest independent lettings firms in London. Today, the firm has 17 offices across London and five overseas offices in China, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia and Singapore.
The first international office opened in Hong Kong in 1996, followed by an office in Singapore two years later. Benham & Reeves Residential Lettings opened an office in Shanghai to handle clients in Greater China in mid-2017. An office in Kuala Lumpur was also established several years ago to handle its international clients in Malaysia. The office in India opened in the spring of 2019. In the pipeline is an office in the Middle East and another in Africa, adds Mehra.
About 1½ years ago, Mehra had the opportunity to take over the Benham & Reeves brand in its entirety. As such, the firm now has the licence to handle both lettings and residential sales in London. “All the different businesses are now handled under Benham & Reeves as one company,” says Mehra.
Brexit or no Brexit, London will remain a global hub for the arts, culture, education, and increasingly, for startups and fintech (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)

Hiring property veterans to lead sales

In April this year, international property veteran Doris Tan joined Benham & Reeves as regional director in Singapore, focusing on growing the sales business. Tan had been regional director with property group Strawberry Star since 2017. Prior to that, she was head of international residential project sales at JLL. This was after the firm she founded in 1999, DST International, was acquired by JLL in 2011 when the latter acquired UK property consulting firm King Sturge. DST International had been marketing UK properties in Singapore for King Sturge over the years.
Tan had known Benham & Reeves for two decades – ever since she started DST International. “Benham & Reeves have been our lettings associates from the start, and I’ve known Anita personally since then,” relates Tan. Joining her at Benham & Reeves are Victor Chia and Serene Yeap, who had been part of her team at Strawberry Star.
Meanwhile, the residential lettings business in Singapore is headed by Lynne Geeves, who has been with Benham & Reeves Residential Lettings since 2002. Today, there are six staff at Benham & Reeves’ office in Singapore.
Besides Singapore, Benham & Reeves wants to grow its London residential sales business in other international markets where it already has a presence, notably in China, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and India, notes Mehra.
Among the recent hires is Carmen Ching, the former head of international properties at Colliers International, Singapore. She joined Benham & Reeves as the regional director of Greater China. Ching was with Colliers International for eight years until 2018, when the firm decided to close the international properties business in Singapore.
The Oval Village development will create a new London community benefitting from 100,000 sq ft of commercial space, an on-site Tesco Superstore, and residents-only leisure facilities (Photo: Berkeley Homes)

Turnkey solutions

In order to provide turnkey solutions for its international property clients, who are typically individual investors, Mehra also started a business focusing on home furnishing, called InStyle Direct, 15 years ago. “We not only help our clients to furnish and rent out their residential units in London, but also help them with their tax affairs,” adds Mehra.
This is because the UK government has introduced a series of changes in the tax regime since 2014, which included a tiered system with higher stamp duty for more expensive homes. There is also a surcharge for second-home buyers.
Likewise, the Singapore government rolled out several rounds of property cooling measures, especially in 2011 to 2013, when additional buyer’s and seller’s stamp duties were introduced and hiked. At the end of June 2013, the total debt servicing ratio (TDSR) loan framework was imposed. “That made a lot of difference for Singaporean buyers,” notes Mehra. This is because the TDSR limit of 60% included borrowings for both local and overseas property investments as well as credit card and other unsecured debt.
Appetite for UK property among Singaporeans investors has slowed since then, notes Mehra. Buying interest among Hong Kongers has remained strong, especially in recent months, with the ongoing protests. New markets have emerged in recent years, for instance, property investors from Greater China. Buying interest from the Middle East has likewise continued, she adds.
Berkeley Homes' Oval Village is a regeneration scheme on a 2-ha site located at the former Gasworks next to the Oval cricket ground (Photo: Berkeley Homes)

Strong rental demand

According to Mehra, Benham & Reeves manages about 3,000 rental units in London on behalf of its clients. “Rental demand is so strong that for every property that comes onto the market, there are 17 applicants,” she says. “We are constantly hungry for more inventory.”
Strong rental demand in London is partly due to the ongoing uncertainty over Brexit. “Property investors have become choosier,” notes Mehra. “They take their time to look for the right property. We help them work out their budget, how much borrowing they can obtain, and we give them choices based on their affordability. We’re more like a private banker or consultant.”
Tan, who was formerly a banker before becoming a London property consultant three decades ago, shares that perspective. And she believes it gives her an edge at Benham & Reeves. “I will be able to provide end-to-end services – from the purchase of a unit, to furnishing, letting, property management and resales,” she elaborates. “This is the only agency which can provide such services in-house. And that’s the reason I joined Benham & Reeves.”
Over the decades, Tan has also seen the profile of Singaporean investors changing. In the 1990s, it was mainly the ultra-high-net-worth individuals who were able to invest in overseas markets. “Over time, as Singaporeans became more affluent, a greater percentage of the population can now afford to invest in overseas property,” she adds.
With the Singapore cooling measures in place and the UK’s tax regime, appetite for London property among Singaporean investors has generally been for units priced below £1 million, notes Tan.
Prices at Asquith House start at £645,000 for a studio or Manhattan Apartment (Photo: Berkeley Homes)

West End Gate

The weekend of Nov 9-10 will see Benham & Reeves marketing in Singapore new phases of two residential projects by established UK developer, Berkeley Group, under its Berkeley Homes brand.
One of the projects is Asquith House at West End Gate in Zone 1 of London. The 18-storey, red-brick building is designed by renowned British architectural firm Squire and Partners, and is scheduled for completion in 2022. Asquith House will have a mix of one- to four-bedroom apartments.
The development comes with facilities such as a 20m swimming pool, a spa, sauna and steam room, as well as a gym with personal trainers. There is a 24-hour concierge service, a private dining room, business meeting rooms and a 24-seat private cinema. Prices at Asquith House start from £645,000 for a studio.
West End Gate is a popular project given its proximity to Edgeware Road station and Paddington station, which is also a station for the Crossrail, notes Benham & Reeves’ Tan. “Being located in the heart of Central London in Zone 1, it is also close to Hyde Park.”
According to Tan, the units offered for sale are those on high floors with views of Hyde Park, while those on the lower floors will enjoy the picturesque views of the landscaped garden within the development. She estimates gross rental yield to be in the 4% to 5% range.
The South Core of Phoenix Court is the latest phase at Oval Village to be launched, with prices starting from £510,000 (Photo: Berkeley Homes)

Second phase of Oval Village

The other development is the second phase of apartments at Berkeley Homes’ Oval Village, a regeneration of the historic Gasworks located next to the Oval cricket ground. The two-hectare site will be redeveloped into a new housing project with a total of 1,309 homes and a Zone 2 address.
The second phase of Oval Village will see 119 studios or Manhattan Apartments, one- to three-bedroom apartments at the South Core of Phoenix Court, offered for sale. Units will range from 422 to 1,089 sq ft, with prices starting at £510,000.
The residential block at Oval Village is a five-minute walk to the Vauxhall tube station. “You are paying Zone 2 prices for a property that’s located close to a Zone 1 tube station,” points out Tan. The project is scheduled for completion sometime in 2023/2024. “There are hardly any new build developments in this area, which is close to King’s College London and University of the Arts London.”
The two projects will be showcased at Berkeley Homes’ sales gallery at Marina Bay Financial Centre Tower 2.
“I believe uncertainty creates opportunity,” says Tan. “The rental market in London is buoyant, so it makes sense to purchase an investment property for rental yield. However, it’s important to buy well, especially when there are many choices.”
She adds: “Brexit or no Brexit, London will remain a global hub for the arts, culture, education, and increasingly, for startups and fintech.”