Leading buy-to-let landlord and self-styled investment guru Mark Homer is smarting when Dealmakerz spoke to him.
He had, a few days before, been cast in an unflattering light by a national newspaper covering the looming by-election on his home turf, Peterborough.
After agreeing to help out with a profile of the area and showing a reporter around the city’s housing stock, much of which he owns or helps manage, Homer realised too late he had been ambushed, painted into a grim story of how buy-to-let is changing communities within the city.
“You sort of expect it with The Guardian but the whole thing was a bit sly,” he says.
Peterborough is populated in part by immigrant agricultural labourers who work in the surrounding countryside, and many former family homes hoovered up by Homer’s company Progressive Properties, and landlords like him, have rendered parts of it into dormitories for these transient communities.
Homer and his business partner Robert Moore have helped pioneer the aggressive and nakedly commercial approach to buy-to-let that has enabled this change in both Peterborough and many other towns and cities across the UK.
Whether you agree with it or not, the trend has nevertheless turned the pair into one of the UK’s most successful buy-to-let business operators, running a portfolio of over 500 properties.
They also run regular seminars around the UK for wannabe landlords with punchy titles such as ‘No Money Down’ and ‘Beginners’ Property Secrets’ which are packed out by notebook-clutching couples.
Prices start at a couple of hundred pounds and rise to £1,000 or more for the full packages and are sometimes attended by celebrities such as Frank Bruno, James Caan, Bob Geldof and Alan Sugar which, Norton admits, are either paid to turn up or have an interest in property investment.
Photos on the company’s events website show packed stadiums and meeting rooms, and reports on social media following the events suggest an almost religious atmosphere as devotees of property investment are whipped into a frenzy by presenters.
“You’re trying to get energy and motivation and if [you whip them up] you get them more engaged and drive a lot more sales – I know it’s not very English and it’s not how I would personally design a seminar, but if you want to sell that’s what you have to do,” says Homer.
The events also offer investment mentoring packages (or product as he calls them) which can cost up to £20,000.
These claim to help wannabe landlords get their portfolios off the ground including advice, help sourcing properties and refurbishing them, mortgages and strategies to get the best rental yields.
“We have several minor celebrities who we mentor now too,” he says.
The pair also run their own lettings business in Peterborough which rents out the properties via the major portals and manages both the 850 tenants on Homer’s behalf and also for the investors who the seminars persuade to invest via Progressive.
It’s a clever, vertically integrated business but not a new idea – outfits with the same ‘make your fortune from property’ message linked to asset management structures have frequently come and gone in recent decades.
And Progressive has both imitators and competitors today including those established by former footballers Robbie Fowler and Marcus Rashford.
But there are clouds gathering on the horizon for Progressive and the cohort of companies in this market.
The government’s aggressive tax clampdown on the private rented sector is having a detrimental effect on demand for Progressive’s courses, Homer admits.
“The seminars are very product dependent but it’s not as good as it was, although we’ve got a big one this weekend where we do have a lot of product, but it’s all about having the right courses at the right time,” he says.
“During bad economic times the courses have to be remodelled to fit the environment.”
Measures such as the ending of mortgage interest tax relief, reductions in the previously generous wear-and-tear allowances, the 3% extra Stamp Duty on buy-to-let investments and this week’s ban on most fees charged to tenants have all begun to eat away at landlord confidence.
“There are definitely fewer buy-to-let landlords buying properties out there particularly traditional ones, but our cohort of investors are mainly concentrating on serviced accommodation which avoids that market and its problems,” he says.
“And the ones who are buying single lets or HMOs are setting up limited companies to get around the mortgage interest tax changes, and I’m converting quite a few commercial buildings into residential to get around the 3% extra Stamp Duty.
“Also, the fees ban is affecting our business because we have a standalone letting agency. I think most of our competitors are putting their fees up to landlords, which we’re not doing at the moment.”
Progressive Properties has also been branching out from its home territory of traditional buy-to-let; Homer says they’ve dabbled in Permitted Development conversions into residential in recent years but have exited the market as prices for former offices have risen.
“I’m also converting former retail into residential – including the old M&S shop in Peterborough, which we’re turning into 99 apartments, and we’re converting a former Poundland into high-end flats for professionals,” he says.
“Retail is dying and these spaces aren’t needed any more.”Mark Homer, Progressive Properties.
Although Progressive’s seminars business is nationwide, Homer is keen to keep the property investment and rental ones local to the Peterborough area including its neighbouring towns of Wellingborough and Corby.
“I think you need local knowledge if you’re going to buy and hold properties like we do,” says Homer.
Homer and Moore began the business in 2005 when the pre-financial crash property market was in full swing and the pair began buying up houses in Peterborough from distressed mortgage holders, backed by banks eager to promote buy-to-let mortgages.
“The yields were low but the capital values were increasing but then the post-financial crash recession came and we started to pick up the kind of houses we had bought for £120,000 for £70-80,000 so, because the rents were the same, the yields went up.
“People did think we were unusual – and kept asking us why we were buying so many properties,” says Homer.