Whether you are looking to buy or sell a property, an experienced and knowledgeable estate agent who can help navigate the market and find the best deal is a crucial part of the process, saving time, money, and taking a lot of stress out of one of the most important transactions most people will ever carry out.
Having a partner who knows the nuances of the local area and is able to negotiate on your behalf with the confidence of a professional can make all the difference, especially in an ever-changing environment that can be daunting to those unfamiliar with the market and regulatory developments seen over the last years in the Maltese real estate sector.
The local property market is dominated by large companies that work very differently to those in places like the United States or Canada, leading Real Agents Founder Justin Camilleri to sense a gap in the market, while the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting shift in workplace dynamics served to create the perfect conditions to launch a new concept that promises to upend established practices by offering clients added value.
Mr Camilleri explains that his real estate career began in 2014, spending five years as an agent before transitioning to a managerial role. It was in this position that he became exposed to the way agents in other countries conduct business, speaking to realtors from around the world during conferences abroad.
“In places like North America, agents are very different, and when deciding to set off on my own, it was this different way of working that I aspired to bring to Maltese shores,” he says.
That difference can be boiled down to a meticulously professional approach that allows each agent unparalleled freedom to negotiate independently, without the to-and-fro with head office that characterises so many local deals.
Key to the approach of Real Agents – launched in 2020 – is a refusal to compromise on experience, with each agent’s long history in the sector empowering them to conduct the whole process – from A to Z – on their own.
For sellers, this translates into real benefits with considerable financial impacts. One such benefit is the realistic property valuations that a seasoned agent can provide, says Mr Camilleri. “There is a big difference between someone who just started working in the sector to someone who has been working the area for years. Our team is not there to tell sellers what they want to hear. We’re there to help them sell.”
Another area veteran agents are able to bring their experience to bear in is marketing, which is an increasingly costly task spanning multiple platforms, each with its own particular visual language.
“When meeting a new client, our agents are able to tell them what they can expect to get for it and how long it should take to find a buyer with extremely high accuracy. We can do this because each one of our agents knows the market and can leverage that knowledge for our clients through a personalised service that is consistent from agent to agent – something that large franchises simply cannot promise.”
At the core of Real Agents’ value offering is a very attractive commission structure reflecting both its team members’ know-how and the company’s low overheads, which it limits thanks to its focus on quality over quantity.
“Our clients know that the commission our agents take is not going to pay the rent, complementary staff wages, or other things that are unrelated to the key business of negotiating a sale.”
The setup has other advantages too, including a level of discretion that allows agents to make their own decisions when it comes to price, without needing to seek authorisation from their superiors. “This means that we can close deals faster, something our clients really appreciate.”
The company’s name therefore reflects its ethos – clients are not dealing with a company representative, but rather a real agent with the experience to find the right deal and the power to close it quickly.
Unsurprisingly, agents with years of experience under their belts have been interested in Mr Camilleri’s structure, with the team growing to nine agents without any attempts at recruitment. Now, the company wants to expand in a bid to enlarge its footprint in the local market. “Our first two years were about building a base, including a modern backend system. With that in place, we can turn our attention to finding the right additions to our team.”
That said, he is emphatic that the company has no ambitions of becoming the largest agency on the islands. “It’s about offering a level of service that goes beyond the norm, beyond what clients expect. Thanks to the way we operate, our agents have the tools necessary to offer a more streamlined, efficient experience.”
The population surge Malta experienced over the last years led to a hot real estate market, with many trying their hand at selling property in a bid to get rich quick. The Wild West-like nature of the industry instigated widespread criticism of an amateurish approach that did little to really serve clients, while heightened awareness of the potential for financial crime further cemented the need for an element of professionalisation to come into play.
All this culminated in the launch of licences for realtors, something Mr Camilleri believes is a “very positive” development – albeit one that remains unfinished, with little by way of enforcement. “So far, we have a virtual licence number, but we are still waiting for the official documents. In future, it is important that these changes do not remain on paper, otherwise the impact will be limited. What we need is to know that our licence really means something, and for that we need to see real efforts to stop those operating without one, such as by having notaries ask for it while drawing up contracts.”
The long-term result, Mr Camilleri hopes, is that the sector sheds the stigma it carries among those who have been put off by the influx of people who see the role as one of a simple middleman who does not bring additional value to the transaction. “This will take years, but the signs are all pointing to an increasingly regulated system where realtors have certain responsibilities, making for better agents operating in a system where everything works how it is supposed to.”
The less-than-stellar reputation of the larger players only became clear to Mr Camilleri once he struck off on his own, with the people he thought would warn him against taking on such a risky endeavour instead expressing a sense of relief.
“The most common reaction our team gets from clients, once they are informed that we are operating in a different setup, is ‘Thank God!’. It’s not what I expected, to be honest. The stigma runs deeper than you realise when you are in it. Our team members actually get more business now that we are working independently, because clients know they will not be receiving dozens of phone calls from other agents of the same company.”
Of course, agents are only one part of the real estate market. Sellers and buyers are the ones whose needs have to be met – and Mr Camilleri has advice for both.
“In term of the properties themselves, one thing we see far too often is a development that does not go that extra mile to give it that touch of flair. Whether it is because developers want to cut costs or architects and designers do not think of them, the standard of finishings often leaves something to be desired.”
He explains that many buyers with a budget of around €350-400,000 are left underwhelmed when they see new builds lacking smart design, good insulation and an element of future-proofing. “Things like including fast-charging points in garages, smart intercoms with good video quality, and even solar panels, really make a difference,” he says. “Too many buyers spend a lot of time looking at what the market has to offer and are left unimpressed. Sure, they eventually end up buying the best option, but they know they could get more – if only it existed.”
As for buyers, Mr Camilleri has one top tip: “Strike while the iron is hot. Don’t rush, but don’t dawdle.” He recounts the experience of one client who opted to sit out the steep increase in prices seen between in 2014 and 2016. “For the same budget, instead of a maisonette with a yard, they got an apartment without a yard or even a balcony. That’s the risk you run when you spend too long thinking about it – the opportunity only lasts for a brief time, and is gone in a flash.”
Although the COVID-19 pandemic did bring a level of price stability unseen in years, he still warns potential buyers against overthinking, pointing to the rising price of materials as a particular concern.
“The price you find a property at today might not be the same price you find it at in three months’ time. I have had clients who sit on it for too long, only to lose out on a property they had become attached to. After that, the search only gets harder, as they keep looking to find a deal that is just as good, and three months quickly turn into a year. The psychological impact of missing out on a good deal can be a heavy one.”
Of course, recognising a good deal is easier with experienced partners by your side, and Mr Camilleri insists that each Real Agent focuses on a particular area. “When you work your area, you build up a reflexive understanding of property values in the surroundings. And that’s how it should be. Again, this ties into our focus on quality over quantity – it’s something I insist on with each new addition to our team. I work the North, and if you want a property in the South, I will pass you on to my colleague, not try to do it myself just to get the commission.”
He concludes: “It’s about valuing time – your own and that of your clients. It is better to have a network of specialists, each with a comprehensive understanding of a particular niche, than a mass of generalists.”
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