Coffee with… Laura Mearns, Northwood Lettings
Eric Farquharson chats to Laura about her rental business and grappling with the challenges it brings.
I have often mentioned in previous issues my adoration for the way Aberdeen folk tackle tough times and show their true grit and determination to succeed. My coffee guest is a fine example of such a person.
I’m chatting with Laura Mearns, managing director of Northwood Lettings Aberdeen, a familiar name in the local property scene, accompanied by a snoozing bundle at her side – James, who was born last year and is Laura’s third child. He is also the reason most other coffee drinkers have gone weak at the knees. Before we even begin to chat, I’m struck with awe at the way she is able to juggle a successful career and motherhood with apparent ease.
So how did it all begin?
Laura explains: “My husband Steven and I are both chartered accountants, and always had the desire to own and run our own business. We had been renting out our own properties in Aberdeen via a local letting agent and, to be honest, the service was truly appalling.
“Back in 2008 the country was in the grip of a major worldwide economic recession, but Aberdeen seemed to be in its own bubble and had a reputation for bucking the national trend. Steven and I thought there was a need for a new unique property leasing offering in Aberdeen so Northwood was born.
“Many people thought we were crazy, but we felt the franchise route was the right way to go for us, giving us the necessary backing to open our first business, as well as the opportunity to bring our unique guaranteed rent service to the Aberdeen market.
“Since opening our doors in 2008, we haven’t looked back. By 2010, I had two boys, William and Robert, so quickly learned to balance the business with family life. In 2013, Steven left the day-to-day running of the business to pursue other business interests, so I took over the reins as Managing Director and Steven continues his role as Chairman overseeing the Northwood operation.
“This is a good time to mention my colleague, Mathew Pullinger, who joined Northwood when we opened our doors in 2008, has worked his way through the ranks and is now the Operations Director. He is a stalwart and a huge asset to the company running the day-to-day operation.
“Much of our success is due to our unique offer to landlords. We guarantee a fixed rental income which is paid every month, even if the property is empty. You get paid even if the rent is late or isn’t paid at all. We fulfil regular property inspections and maintenance management.
"In short, we become your tenant and take away the stress involved in letting out a property leaving landlords to get on with their busy lives. We also provide traditional management services in addition to our guaranteed rent offer.
“Then in 2016, as we all know, things went bad! The oil crisis hit everyone in the city, and we saw a significant decrease in rental values across Aberdeen, as well as a significant increase in the time taken to let a property. Landlords were hit hard but, as two thirds of our landlords had a guaranteed rent contract, they felt no or little impact. Subsequently they renewed their contracts at market rates and they stuck with us as they trusted us during this turbulent period.”
Laura continues: “Now, in addition to the oil crisis, we have seen significant changes in leasing legislation. On 1 December 2017, the private residential tenancy rules were enforced bringing an end to fixed-term rentals, and landlords can no longer evict tenants using the no-fault ground. Rent increases can only be made once a year now, and all landlord and tenant disputes will be heard in a new specialist tribunal.
“We are also experiencing significant change in how letting agents operate as, from 31 January 2018, all letting agents have to register and adhere to a strict code of practice. Matt and I were among the first to achieve the LETWELL qualification, a professional development programme delivered via a partnership between Landlord Accreditation Scotland (LAS) and CIH Scotland.
“The programme has been created specifically for Scottish letting professionals and keeps us up to date with regulation of letting agents and training requirements for specific staff within agencies. We achieved our qualification in March 2017, and all our staff are working towards completing this. So, you can see we are ahead of the game and professionally equipped to service our clients.”
I’m getting a real understanding of how Northwood operates, so it was a good time to ask Laura what other elements make Northwood so unique and successful.
Laura expands: “Clearly the previously mentioned guaranteed rent is a huge factor, but none of this would be possible without the dedication of our staff. We have a much higher percentage of staff for our portfolio numbers than most agencies and we have a very close relationship with our landlords. Our aim is to be the letting agent of choice in the North East, ensuring we provide first-class customer service. It doesn’t come easy, but it is through sheer hard work and attention to detail we have achieved what we have."
“And what of the future?” I ask.
Laura replies: “2017 was an exciting year for Northwood, with the acquisition of the Bain Property Agency portfolio in November and Cox & Co Aberdeen in December. As the rental market experienced a huge shift in rental values following the oil crisis and, in addition, significant legislative changes were being faced, it was an opportunity for us to consolidate with other agents during this period. This growth is really exciting for Northwood. However, it's important to highlight that, although we have grown the portfolio, we continue to be a small, family-run, local business ensuring our landlords and tenants receive a personal service.
“In 2018, we will concentrate on the consolidation of our portfolio of properties. We expect a small amount of growth; however, our focus is on servicing our complete portfolio to the highest of standards. For me, the focus is to continue to juggle motherhood and business, as well as completing three 10ks for our local charities, nominated by the Northwood team.”
As if on cue, little James starts to stir and Laura switches from businesswoman to mum, an art she has clearly mastered, and another obvious reason Northwood will continue to succeed.