Just over a decade ago, TV property expert George Clarke presented The Great British Property Scandal, a series that highlighted the scourge of hundreds of thousands of long-running, vacant, crumbling and dilapidated homes across the UK’s cities and towns.
Government data shows that the UK currently has 238,306 homes in England classified as ‘long-term empty’, meaning they have been unoccupied for more than six months. An estimated 600,000 homes are now empty, exacerbating Britain’s ongoing housing crisis.
The TV show shocked viewers, but piqued the interest of real estate entrepreneurs Nick Kalms and Ben Radstone. They were genuinely concerned about the lack of a national strategy to address the problem and started doing something different. After careers in the real estate development and finance sectors, they saw an opportunity to change careers and launch YouSpotPropertythe customer-facing division of their company Hyjan.
Kalms had started his career with a number of brokers before calling on his extensive network of industry peers to go it alone. In 2008 he started his own real estate company Hyjan, which developed individual homes on a small scale. His first team consisted of Radstone, and in 2010 the pair became business partners.
In 2013, they devised an innovative way of identifying, acquiring and re-occupying empty, derelict and forgotten homes across the UK. They launched YouSpotProperty, which rewards members of the public for tips of eligible homes that fall in this state. Like a pothole, a derelict building can also be a nuisance to local residents, so the model also benefits local communities by cleaning up neighborhoods devastated by these properties.
A business dealing with vacant homes is inevitably fraught with stories of family drama, death, probate, and mental health, which Kalms and Radstone soon realized was often why they fell into this state. This forced them to retrain as real estate entrepreneurs.
“The reason why homes become empty or vacant is complex,” says Kalms. “It can be due to a delayed probate, which can take years, but in most cases it has to do with the poor mental health of the owners. We’ve had to acquire genealogy skills for tracing hard-to-find relatives, the sensitivity and care of social workers in navigating the psychology of owners, and the know-how of quantitative surveyors to determine whether a property needs renewal.”
Their initial database of empty and dilapidated properties was compiled from addresses they had noted as they passed the properties along the way. While their database was growing, it was nowhere near the pace they needed.
“We needed a way to be notified of properties we hadn’t seen ourselves,” says Radstone. “We were aware of a website called ‘FixMyStreet’ where a private company relied on the public to report problems on the streets where they lived which were sent to the council to be fixed. It gave us the idea to encourage the public to report vacant properties on the street to us.”
To date, the company has given away 6,857 £20 vouchers to people who reported a property, while 128 individuals have earned the ‘1% of the purchase price’ reward for a successful property purchase.
Since launching YouSpotProperty, the company has reported over 60,000 properties directly to them, with their purchase rate increasing year on year. The model is being rolled out to numerous towns and cities across the UK, with the potential for replication in cities around the world facing a housing shortage crisis. This year, Hyjan and YouSpotProperty expect a combined turnover of £21 million.
The entrepreneurs intervene where municipalities have failed to deal with houses that should be homes again. Traditional real estate agents generally hold back from marketing such properties due to the challenges of tracing owners, identifying why the properties are in such a neglected state, and the fact that members of the public have difficulty to obtain mortgages on properties requiring extensive renovation.
With the UK continuing to miss its target of 300,000 new homes a year, Kalms and Radstone have instead focused on the estimated 600,000 long-term vacant and dilapidated homes.
Adds Kalms: “We have interest in our model from abroad, particularly from the US. Each major city has its own unique set of housing challenges and nuanced ways of dealing with their vacant properties, but the fact remains that they are a need a sharp eye to help solve the issues why they end up in this condition. We have the track record and expertise to make a difference.”