LONDON — In trying times for the U.K. real estate market, a growing number of Londoners are opting for novel means of buying and selling their properties, with WhatsApp emerging as a new home for luxury listings.
Off-market home sales surged in the British capital in the final three months of 2022, according to U.K. estate agents Hamptons International, accounting for more than one-in-five (22.3%) transactions — its highest percentage on record.
The uptick coincides with a period of turmoil for the U.K. property market, during which lenders pulled hundreds of residential mortgage deals and new homebuyer enquiries plunged following then Prime Minister Liz Truss’ chaotic “mini-budget.”
Hamptons senior analyst, David Fell, said that led some vendors to “test the water” discretely without leaving a “digital footprint” and potentially hurting future sale prospects.
“Sellers have been increasingly looking to test pricing quietly without leaving a digital footprint, particularly if they chose to take their home off the market with a view to trying again in 6 or 12 months’ time,” he said.
But the figure also marks a continued rise in private property sales in recent years.
Private property sales have almost tripled in London since 2018, when they made up just 8.8% of annual transactions versus 21.2% in 2022, according to the agency. Private sales have also risen nationwide over the period, though to a lesser extent.
Private prime real estate sales lead the charge
London’s luxury real estate market, in particular, has led the off-market trend.
Private sales of ?1 million-plus ($1.2 million) homes accounted for almost one-third (32%) of the capital’s total prime real estate transactions in the final quarter of 2022, and 29% over the year, according to Hamptons.
Savills estate agents noted that the “anonymity” of such transactions is especially valued by buyers and sellers of properties in the ?20 million-plus range — both in London and the surrounding counties.
“In the last quarter of 2022 in the home counties we did see the overwhelming majority of ?20m+ sales being conducted off-market,” Crispin Holborow, country director of The Private Office at Savills, told CNBC via email.
James Myers, director of London-based prime real estate agency Oliver James, told CNBC an increasing number of high-end private transactions are also being conducted via messaging tools like WhatsApp.
“WhatsApp has been an enormous advantage to estate agents in recent years,” Myers said. “With more people using WhatsApp, it’s proven to be a much easier method for estate agents to contact clients, customers etc.”
In particular, Myers noted that additional functions available within the WhatsApp Business app have made it easier to share properties with multiple would-be buyers while still keeping the listing discrete.
The app’s “Catalogs” feature, for instance, which was launched in late-2019, acts as a brochure for businesses to showcase photographs of various products. Previously, businesses had to send product photos one at a time and repeatedly provide information.
“With the added benefit of the new tools … it [has] allowed estate agents to promote their properties via the brochure section, which, as a result, has helped to showcase property to a wider audience and aid the sale of property,” said Myers.
When contacted by CNBC, Meta, Whatsapp’s parent company, said “people want to do business the same way they chat with their friends and family.”
However, while the off-market trend is set to continue into 2024, Hamptons’ Fell said that many sellers may also use private listings as a way to judge buyer appetite before going on to list on the open market.
“We’ll also likely see more sellers start life off-market before deciding to market their home more widely if reaction from ‘black book’ buyers was favorable but they still weren’t quite able to secure a sale,” he said.