The high point of 2012 is more to do with sport than real estate, for most property auctioneers. In a market where buyer confidence is king, everyone is hoping for a boost in the summer, as the London Games provides a mini boom.
Strettons celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2011. Philip Waterfield of Strettons says there is little positive sentiment for 2012 and "we are sure to face similar trading conditions as 2011. The only positive respite is perhaps the Olympic Games and the Queen's diamond jubilee celebrations."
Felix Rigg of Jones Lang LaSalle predicts a year of two halves. "It's going to start pretty miserable," he says. "Then we are going to get the Olympics, then for all sorts of reasons the second half will be better. Energy costs are coming down, inflation may start to come down and all of this may be perceived to be better than the news we have been receiving recently. The eurozone situation has been very much in people's minds. We're pummelled by that all the time."
Paul Stevens, auctioneer at Athawes, welcomes anything that could dampen the gloom. "There's the Queen's diamond jubilee, which will lift the spirits in the country and hopefully boost confidence in the property market," he says. And the Olympics should raise confidence in areas around the Olympic venues. "I would like to think 2012 will be a year of progress rather than stagnation. Last year was hard going. I wonder whether 2012 will end up being a mixed picture, however."
Andrew Binstock, of Auction House London, believes 2012 will be much the same as 2011. "I don't think there is going to be a wild change in the property market," he says. "Interest rates will stay as they are. The Olympics will be the highlight of this year.
"For us, it's always about volume. As an auctioneer, you don't mind if a flat is worth £80,000 or £90,000 as long as both buyer and vendor agree on the price. In 2011, buyers and sellers were in the same place. In 2012, there are a lot of vendors who are sitting quietly, holding on to property and hoping it will pick up in a year or two, rather than trade their vacant stock."
Ground rents sold well at Barnett Ross's December sale and among them was proof you can pick up a property for just just a few £100s. The Queen Victoria Public House in Walton, Liverpool, pays a ground rent of £7.75 a year. It is a corner pub, plus a garden and flat, let to Trust Inns, for 999 years from 1950. The freehold sold for £500.
Barnett Ross's Jonathan Ross speaks for many in the auctions world when he says: "The sentiment at the moment is that we are in for a tough 2012". Like all auctioneers, however, he remains upbeat. "There are a lot of interested buyers who are keen to see what is coming up. They have cash, but they are looking for safer investments. The banks are still being very difficult when it comes to lending.
"Going back to 2011, it was very mixed year, when some of the auctions went extremely well. Levels of interest increased, then we went to December and it was as if everyone had gone on holiday. Getting in lots suddenly proved very difficult. Starting this year, we are already busier, although I think we have to work a lot harder to extract lots from different sources. We might expect to find a lot more receivership property coming on to the market."
Strettons's Philip Waterfield says: "It would be hard for any property auction house to disagree that market conditions in 2011 were among the most difficult since the market crash four years ago. During 2011, the London and M25 market remained largely insulated from the worst of the falls in activity. However, there was pressure on prices and, according to Essential Information Group (EiG), the average cost of a residential property sold at auction dropped from £126,700 in 2010 to £119,400 in 2011. Falls were steeper in the commercial sector, reducing from an average of £252,423 to £228,733."
Jones Lang LaSalle's new auctions department, formed after its acquisition of King Sturge, sold eight of 21 properties offered on the day in its December 2011 sale. Among highlights was 47 Fulham Broadway, a five-storey mid-terrace shop with four flats. It went for £580,000. The flats have been sold off on long leases.
Jones Lang LaSalle's former auction department left en masse to set up Acuitus, whose final commercial property auction of the year raised just under £18 million as buyers targeted regional investments and receivership lots. Richard Auterac, Acuitus auctioneer, comments: "Investments in London have been predominantly at the top of buyers' lists, but at this auction there was also demand for substantial investments in major UK cities including Liverpool, Southampton and Newcastle. Buyers are more receptive to a variety of opportunities than received wisdom might indicate.
"Bidding was also competitive on the receivership lots. Among these was the outstanding sale of the day: the ground rent investment in the Travelodge Hotel in Harlow, which sold for £1.875 million, a yield of 3.5 per cent."
Continued strong demand for assets in London and the South-East was demonstrated by the £1.25 million sale of a Wembley pub at £200,000 above its guide price and the sale on behalf of receivers of a freehold shop let to Ladbrokes on Chatham High Street, bought for £772,000 at a yield of 6.7 per cent and almost 25 per cent above its guide price.
Robin Cripp, Andrews & Robertson's auctioneer, also found buyers looking further afield. He says: "A most notable change in buying trends at our final auction of 2011 was the upbeat demand for keenly priced properties in locations beyond the capital.
"Throughout the year, property with London postcodes has dominated buyers' lists, but at this auction there was also demand for homes and commercial stock in locations around the UK, including Norfolk, Tyne and Wear, Lancashire, County Antrim, West Midlands and Ayrshire, for an average price of around £60,000 that made good returns in rental yields.
"Clearly buyers are receptive to tapping into the potential of a wider spectrum of opportunity than they have been for some time. It also tells us that if stock is priced correctly, it will sell."
Evidence of demand for assets in London and the South-East included the £570,000 sale of a vacant freehold four-storey house in Camberwell, SE5, offered with a guide of £475,000 plus on behalf of Southwark council.
A freehold former shop in London's Spitalfields, arranged as a three-floor house and guided at £525,000 plus, was knocked down at £552,000.
Success rates at the December 8 auction at London's Grand Connaught Rooms, WC2, closed at 74 per cent, slightly above the national average. Post-sale demand pushed figures to £9 million and Mr Cripp believes this "would rise to over £10 million and 80 per cent within days".
Allsop's Duncan Moir says 2012 is likely to show an increase in volumes of distressed stock coming to the market. "Whether that proves to be a good thing remains to be seen," he says. "It's going to be helpful having a large volume coming through, as long as it is at a price the market is prepared to pay."
Allsop held seven residential sales in 2011, offering more than 200 properties and realising nearly £300 million. It achieved 87 per cent success for the year (industry average is 73 per cent).
"Each sale offered a different blend of stock and range of values," says auctioneer Gary Murphy. "Each was an important reflection of market activity and sentiment at that time. Despite the challenges posed by economic instability, the Allsop auction rooms remained busy, with competitive bidding driving strong prices. Our end-of-year sale was one of the most buoyant rooms we have witnessed since the peak."
Allsop's December residential auction was a bumper nine-hour event at The Park Lane Hotel ballroom, with more than 2,000 bidders. Of the 275 residential and mixed-use lots on offer, 229 were sold for a total value exceeding £41.2 million. The 84 per cent success was a boost for market confidence.The mix of stock was broad and ranged in value from £1,250 to £1.91 million. Seven lots sold for £1 million or more.
Of the lots that sold above reserve, 24.3 per cent was the average excess achieved. Remote bidding was considerably up. Among properties sold was 41 Christchurch Hill, NW3. A freehold end-of-terrace building, it includes a self-contained maisonette and six studio units. Sold for the administrator of a property company, the maisonette is subject to a regulated tenancy, four of the studio units are on assured shorthold tenancies and two studio units are vacant. Guided at £750,000-£800,000, it sold for £1.15 million.
"Bidding was very brisk on most lots right from the start," says Mr Murphy. Bids were frequently advanced in large leaps as less bullish buyers were quickly left behind. It was a great auctioneering experience."
Mark Tanton, managing director of Countrywide Property Auctions, looks to a "growing number" of first-time buyers and home-movers considering the auction market as a way to purchase or sell. "We expect this to continue in 2012, as more sellers are looking for a quick sale, while buyers are looking to purchase realistically priced properties," he says. "We are seeing greater demand from private vendors looking to sell their properties through auction - many see it as an opportunity to showcase their properties to a wider breadth of potential buyers. One of the main attractions for sellers is the speed of sale - the drop of the gavel signals an exchange of contracts and sales complete in just 20 working days."
Oliver Childs of Lambert Smith Hampton moved from Savills at the start of the year; the rest of the team came from Colliers CRE a little earlier. "While we would like to have big catalogues and high-value stock, there is limited stock available," he says. "So we would rather put together a catalogue of saleable lots, which will allow us to maintain success rates to give confidence to the market."
Lambert Smith Hampton has five auctions planned for London in 2012. Its next catalogue contains 29 lots, valued in the region of £6 million to £7 million. "Our expectation is that auctions will be a lot bigger, going forward," says Mr Childs. "Our October auction, for example, had more than 70 lots.We have been selling for a number of banks, both on the occupational side and for their distressed stock, as well as for LPA receivers. However, we are still not seeing that many properties coming through from receivers, though we expect that to change this year. Cornwall County Council, NHS Wales and Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council are clients."
As for 2012, "Will the market improve for typical secondary stock improve? Will funding improve?" asks Mr Childs. "Both of those are no. Will this be the year when these clients are in a position to offload stock at a level which the market will buy it? Yes, I think so."
Most auctioneers have a jaundiced view of retail property. "The high street is going to continue to suffer this year," says Mr Ross. "Rents have to be controlled carefully, tenants have got to have their hands held and all co-operation needs to go to them if they are going to survive. Landlords are seeing they can't afford to let a tenant go just to protect other local assets.
"I expect yields will shift further in the first half of this year. You are well into double-digit yields for many types of poor or average secondary or tertiary stock. We are guiding at 10 and 11 per cent. Vendors' expectations are certainly softening. Values can be 20 or 30 per cent down on 2007."
Mr Binstock agrees, especially for empty property. "Secondary commercial vacant property is as undesirable as it can get," he says.
Mr Moir points to an increasing feeling of reality creeping into the banks' property managers, "which is encouraging". He adds: "I think we are seeing a glimmer of light in the banking sector to lend to the property sector, too. The downside is that we have got more pain to come on the high street, which is always difficult for the property market. We have an overhang in the office sector, but 2012 will show quite a lot of opportunities to the well-funded and cash-rich investor to pick up some interesting opportunities."
Allsop made four profitable forays to Ireland in 2011. In partnership with Dublin-based property consultancy Space, it achieved 92 per cent success at Ireland's largest-ever property auction in December. It offered 108 properties to a packed room. Half way through the sale, 1,600 bidders had attended and 31 properties received remote overseas bids. The total amount raised was 11.4 million euros (around £9.5 million).
Mr Murphy says: "In 2011 we have sold 51 million euros' worth (£42.5 million) of property and clearly established that there is a market in Ireland when properties are priced sensibly and the open market establishes true value in a transparent environment."
Highest price achieved on the day was 630,000 euros (£525,000). Lot 109, Dublin 4, a commercial building containing two restaurants, was offered with a maximum reserve of 485,000 euros (£400,000). A detached, four-bedroom lakeside house with access to tennis courts and a marina, in County Cavan, with a maximum reserve of 50,000 euros (£41,000), sold for 131,000 euros (£109,000).