My property person this week is Rupert Hunt, the founder of SpareRoom.co.uk and various other websites relating to flat sharing. Here is his story.
1. Please introduce yourself. Say a bit about yourself and your company
Hi, I’m Rupert Hunt and I’m the founder of SpareRoom.co.uk, the UK’s leading flatshare site with over 1.5 million registered users – our aim is to make finding your ideal flatshare, flatmate or lodger as easy and secure as possible.
2. How did you first become involved in property?
My background is in music but, while I was at university, I took a short course in web design and got hooked. After moving to London in 1997 I quickly realised that finding shared accommodation using local papers and cards in shop windows was really tricky and that there had to be a better way of doing it using the internet.
As an experiment I set up www.intoLondon.com and it quickly became busy – as a result I was able to quit my day job and set up SpareRoom.co.uk in 2004 as the national version of intoLondon. We now have offices in London and Cheshire (where I grew up) and a staff of around a dozen.
3. What do you think is your greatest achievement so far?
I’m tempted to say reaching to 1.5m registered users or getting to the point we’re at without any external funding but I think what I’m most proud of is our commitment to customer service and safety. We spend hundreds of hours every week talking to customers on the phone and by email and moderating ads to make sure no scams or spam spoil their experience. It’s not a single achievement but the accumulation of thousands of little everyday things that help us provide the best possible service we can.
4. Do you or your company have any exciting plans for the future?
We’re always looking at new ways of helping people find their new flatmate or room – that’s how we created Speed Flatmating, a new way of finding flatmates based on the people rather than the room. We have several new projects on the go, including our private rental site www.findaflat.com and a version of the site tailored to student lets – Student SpareRoom.
5. What do you think are the greatest problems facing the private rented sector today?
The private rented sector is a vital part of the UK’s housing market and will continue to be so if home ownership doesn’t become more affordable. I think there are two issues that need to be addressed to keep the sector strong and viable – the first is the need for clear, accessible information on HMOs to help landlords understand and comply with regulations as simply as possible.
The second is the urgent need to revise the Rent a Room Scheme threshold. The current limit of £4,250 was set by the last Conservative government in 1997 and wasn’t increased at all under the Labour government.
As a result the tax threshold, designed to encourage people to rent out their spare rooms and increase the supply of quality private rented accommodation, has been devalued to the point where over 60% of UK rooms have a rental value of more that the threshold (over 90% in London). This stops people from charging a fair market rate for their rooms and also has a knock on effect for landlords as they’re competing with underpriced rooms, falsely devaluing the market.
6. What do you think are the greatest opportunities?
I think that, in times of financial uncertainty and instability, renting properties by the room is a great way of increasing yield and minimising void periods. Renting by the room isn’t for everyone as it can be more work than renting out a whole property but it’s definitely worth investigating. Check out our Multiletters newsletter for more on letting multiple properties and renting by the room.
7. We have a new government. What would you like them to do for the private rented sector?
As mentioned above we’d like to see clear HMO regulation and local authority departments who understand it so landlords can get a simple answer to their questions rather than the confusion and uncertainty that prevails at the moment. Secondly we’d like to see the Rent a Room Scheme threshold raised to £9,000 to encourage people to take in lodgers. For more information, and to add your support for the campaign to that of Shelter, The National Landlords’ Association and Sarah Beeny, go to www.spareroom.co.uk/raisetheroof.
8. Do you use social media (blogs, twitter, LinkedIn etc)? What place do you think it has in the future of the property industry?
We do – Twitter is the one we use most often. For us it hasn’t particularly helped us attract new users but it’s allowed us to be involved in the conversations that go on and hear what users are saying about us, which is invaluable. What it’s been particularly great for is meeting new people involved in the property world. As an example we’ve developed a great working relationship with Sarah Beeny’s private sales and lettings site Tepilo.com, almost entirely through Twitter.
9. What is the most important lesson you have learned during your time in property?
However much we get hung up on property prices, rentals vs buying and mortgage availability, it’s vital to remember that every property (however it’s owned or paid for and whoever you share it with) is a home. Property is great but people are more important.
10. What advice would you have to someone thinking of entering the property industry today?
In terms of investing we wouldn’t dream of offering anyone advice as we don’t consider ourselves experts. In any conversation about property, whoever it’s with, the other person will know something you don’t so my advice is to listen as much as you talk.
Many thanks for that Rupert, and well done with the Raise the Roof campaign.