Shaftesbury High Street estate agency, Gilyard Scarth, has closed. The company has shut its Gillingham and Sherborne offices too, but for many Shaftesbury people, Richard Keenlyside was the face of the business.
Although he retired a year ago, Richard has remained a director of the company. He tells Keri Jones of ThisIsAlfred why the business has ceased trading and shares some of his memories of selling Shaftesbury area homes.
It’s a sad week for Richard Keenlyside. He expects that the closure of Gilyard Scarth will affect him deeply. Retired estate agent Richard doubts whether he’ll be able to walk past the empty High Street shop front, where he spent 23 years of his career.
“I’ve thought about this a lot actually. I feel sick about the whole thing. I won’t be able to get inside any more. My brilliant staff won’t be there. It will be horrible. I will definitely have to walk to the other side of the street for quite a long time,” said Richard.
He joined the business soon after its launch. “John Scarth set up the company, in probably 1990 or 1991, and that was in Sherborne. Then John and David Wheeler, who were partners in the business, wanted to open in Shaftesbury and very kindly asked me to open it for them. I jumped at it. I opened the office in 1995.”
Richard soon became immersed in local life. “I got involved very much with the Chamber of Trade, with things like the Christmas lights. But not going up ladders!” said Richard. He also volunteered at Shaftesbury Abbey. “The town provided me with a living and I felt it was my duty and my desire to give something back.”
Because Richard wanted Gilyard Scarth to become integrated into Shaftesbury life, the closure of the business will be felt throughout the community. Richard’s team has supported many events and activities, both in cash and in kind. “The Fringe was a big thing. We were involved right at the start,” said Richard. Gilyard Scarth were sponsors of the event, which is now England’s third largest performance festival. The company’s office was used for performances. It was going to be a 2019 Fringe venue, too.
“The ramifications of a decision to close something isn’t just shutting the door. It’s the stuff we do around the town, the sponsorships, the assistance,” said Richard. “The Christmas trees for the town were kept in the back of our office. They were delivered and then distributed from there. That’s going to stop. It’s extraordinary how many things it affects, but the most important thing is our very loyal staff who have been with us for a long time. We’re very lucky to have them.”
So on to the difficult question. Why did the directors decide to end their operation? “Such a monumental decision is never a snap decision. But in a market and a marketplace which changes so rapidly, it was a decision which we ‘ummed and ahhed’ about very seriously. It wasn’t a very long time coming. We are talking a couple of months or so in the thought process,” said Richard.
There are seven other estate agents remaining in the town. So why is Richard’s company closing? “That is a very difficult one,” he said. “You’ve got the corporate agents who have backing, presumably. I think Gilyard Scarth was in that dangerously difficult field of not being big but not being a one-man band either. You don’t get the benefit of economies of scale. A sole trader has got much more control over their costs and expenditure. We were in that very difficult ‘three office’ size.”
Richard says that the age of the company’s directors was a factor, too. “We are more at the end of our careers than at the beginning and I think that probably had an effect as well,” he said.
Competition has come from other agents and new ways of offering home buying and selling. “A lot of people will say, ‘Oh, the competition’s changed. It’s much more competitive than it was when I started thirty years ago’. I’m not totally sure that’s right,” Richard confided. “I think agents were still as competitive then as they are now in terms of getting the job. I think where it has changed is that there are many more competitors for the same pie. There’s been quite a lot more development here, so you could argue that there are more chimney pots but the competition has expanded. You’ve also got the internet agents and then you’ve got this hybrid of ‘hub agents’ which I don’t think many people have quite grasped yet. The internet agents have changed the fee structure and the expectations of clients regarding the sort of fees they’re going to pay. If you’re in a slowish market, with slow transactions, and then your fees are going down and you’re competing for the job, then the price of the house tends to go possibly too high. It’s not a great economic model.”
Richard is concerned that new, fixed-price selling models may not offer the best customer service. “It does really worrying me that the most valuable asset that the majority of people have is now going to be touted around for someone to market it for very little fees,” said Richard. “You do pay for what you get. Even though Gilyard Scarth is closing, there is still a very strong argument and a case for a very professional, locally based, local knowledge, traditional agent who will certainly charge more than the internet. But for that, you will get so much greater service and I would hope, a better result.”
So is there currently a problem with the housing market in Shaftesbury? When the news about Gilyard Scarth’s closure broke last week, ThisIsAlfred spoke with Matt Boatwright of Bell Street estate agents, Boatwrights. Matt told us that he was, “Not as busy as he has been” and he said that, “People are sitting on their hands a bit.” But he also said that there remains a seasonal buying pattern here and January is expected to be quiet. Brexit uncertainty doesn’t help, either.
Richard Keenlyside told me that he couldn’t really offer a view because he has retired from day-to-day selling. “I’ve been out for a year. It’d be wrong for me to comment on it. I think we’re still living in the loveliest area, which is still very much in demand. I think if you have the right product, at the right price, then it will go,” he said.
So, does Richard think that there is still demand for all of these extra homes planned to be built around Shaftesbury and in Gillingham? “You’re going to find me wanting here,” said Richard, “because it has been a constant amazement to me as to who buys all these new houses. I have absolutely no idea,” he said. “If you walk down the High Street, you still see the same people. You don’t see many new faces.”
Richard explained that Gilyard Scarth tended not to deal with newer developments. “My impression is the buyers tend to come from out of the area and possibly work out of the area. The old cottages, or the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s houses would go to people possibly retiring from the Home Counties. The more modern ones would probably be people trading up.”
In the time Richard has been an agent in Shaftesbury, the market has changed. TV personalities like Kirstie and Phil and Sarah Beeny have fuelled our property obsession with prime-time television shows.
“Expectations of purchasers have increased significantly in the last five to ten years. They are expecting a lot more. The person who wants to buy something just to move into has expectations that are pretty high. It’s got to be right to move in. Even colour schemes will dictate whether they buy it or not, despite the fact it’s six pots of paints,” Richard said. “You go to the other end of the end of the spectrum and you will find that wrecks of cottages became incredibly appealing to people who would think that for £10.60 and a box of screws, they could fix it.”
There are plenty of theories on decorating to encourage a quick sale. Experts usually advise neutral colours. It has been suggested that you should bake bread because the smell will appeal to viewers. “I’ve never been a particular fan of that idea,” said Richard. “I think a tidy house, which is looking neat, is enough. If it’s got two bedrooms and the buyer wants two bedrooms and he wants it to look out over a field, chances are he might like it, if the price is right.”
I was keen to hear some of Richard’s stories from over two decades of helping vendors and homebuyers in the Shaftesbury area. He clearly remembers his first viewing, which led to his first sale. “It was in Hindon, to a weekender. I couldn’t even find Hindon. I had the keys and I couldn’t find the cottage. And, more embarrassing, the owner had a birthday party the previous night and I opened the door to these lovely buyers and the place was strewn with champagne bottle and glasses.” The couple who were viewing it went on to purchase the property.
Richard can’t recall any highly embarrassing moments, despite years of letting himself into properties with a set of keys. “There was nothing too horrendous. The people in bed were pretty shocked and therefore so was I. Luckily the viewer hadn’t turned up at that stage,” he laughed.
Richard says that it is important to remember that a good estate agent plays a vital role in a major life decision for the vendor and purchaser. And he has had some touching moments. “The ones which do hit my heart, and where you do feel as an estate agent you have actually achieved something more valuable than the commission, is when you’ve got someone who’s struggling financially or emotionally. They need to sell or buy and you actually help them achieve it. The thanks you get is worth a huge amount,” Richard said.
“We do tend to try and look after people,” he continued. “I remember selling a home for someone who was just about to have it repossessed. It was awful. The person was in dire straits financially, and we sold it. This person then brought me in a half bottle of whisky. I was so touched by that. In proportion to what this person had, that was a huge amount and that sticks in my mind. I still see that person around the town.”
Estate agents have come in for some criticism over the years. It’s testimony to Richard’s professionalism and friendly and cheerful nature that he hasn’t forgotten the stories and experiences of the people that he has helped since 1995.
He said he’s received many kind words since the news of the closure broke, as he’s walked around town. And he’s bound to receive more messages of support. Look out for him around town. He’ll probably be crossing over to the Lloyds Bank side of the High Street.