Paul and Hilary Cole acquired Personal Homefinders in 2003, but the couple’s first experience of lettings began much earlier, in 1985. Their daughter was heading to university in Plymouth. The university had not been her first choice, and there were no spaces left in the halls of residence. She had to find a room off campus, and her parents were shocked at how expensive the rents were. They soon discovered that buying a property in the area was a much more reasonable proposition.
“We ended up buying a three-bedroom flat in Plymouth, put our daughter in one room and rented the other two out to students, which covered the mortgage,” says Paul. “When our daughter graduated and moved away, we decided to give it to a letting agent”
Paul and Hilary soon discovered the dark side of lettings. The ‘cheap and cheerful’ ideology of the agents meant that there was little care of the property, and poor tenant evaluation. One tenant defaulted on the rent, and another trashed the property; Paul and Hilary ended up suing the agent.
The Coles believed other property owners must feel the same as them: “In our mind, for people who are able to rent out a property, it will be the most expensive investment they own. If that is true would you want it done as cheaply as possible, with the risk that you don’t get the rent, it doesn’t get well looked after or maintained?”
Hilary decided to start off from home. The business grew quickly, and they decided to open up an office. The success continued, and in 2002 they made the decision to expand and they bought Personal Homefinders in 2003.
“We chose Personal Homefinders because our research found they offered the full package to landlords – not just finding tenants – it was all about investment and managing their assets.”
Paul and Hilary became partners in the business. A number of clients were based abroad, and buying property was like investing in stocks and shares. These were ideal clients for the Coles; looking for a long-term investment and a full-service agent who could safely make the risk/reward calculations.
Deciding to sell
Personal Homefinders continued to grow, and in 2011, Paul and Hilary acquired another business – their largest rival in Winchester. At the time they were not looking to expand, and in fact, Paul already had a vague exit plan in mind, but they felt it was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up.
The couple had always said they would give the business 10 years, which would come to an end in 2013. Buying the new business in 2011 brought additional issues – the business expanded from two to three offices, which brought with it management issues – how could the two shareholders be in three places at once?