"We're trying to level the playing field again"

CEO of one-stop property portal on 'democratising' data

"We're trying to level the playing field again"

Back in 2007, just about anyone who had any serious cash at least thought about buying a house. Not so Ben Davis (pictured) who, as an investment analyst, was convinced something was amiss.

“I came under a lot of pressure from everybody to buy a house in 2007,” he said. “But to me, prices were absolutely nuts and it would have been stupid to buy at that point in time.”

Instead, he made a shrewd move and bought a block of flats in Berlin “because they weren’t experiencing the same price bubble we had here”.

The rest, as they say, is history. The financial crisis that subsequently unfolded left people reeling. Many became ‘mortgage prisoners’ as the amount they had borrowed was greater than the value of their property, and it wasn’t long before the phrase ‘negative equity’ entered the vernacular.

When Davis finally decided to buy his first house in the UK it was in 2011, when prices had pretty much reached bottom.

It was that foresight that led him to launch a property portal in 2018. “I felt that the big property portals weren’t serving either side of the market very well,” he said.

Read more: Mortgage Guarantee Scheme fails to boost first-time buyers

He noted how estate agents “were literally going out of business” because they were paying high monthly subscription charges and only getting buyer and tenant leads in return. As for consumers, he felt they were effectively being ignored because of outdated, email-based tech.

“We thought we could do better than this,” he said, reasoning that by simply providing a free service for estate agents he could trounce the opposition from the starting blocks.

As the CEO of PropertyHeads Group, he now controls three websites - the eponymous portal, which is a consumer-focused social network site fashioned along the lines of Facebook and LinkedIn that targets people who are mostly looking to find a new home or build a property portfolio.

Then there’s the valuations site MousePrice – acquired 18 months ago - and MousePrice Pro, which is the data business end of MousePrice, mostly used by estate agents, surveyors and mortgage brokers as a research tool, which Davis claims “is the most powerful UK property search available”, citing the 40 filters that can identify up to 300 attributes on any UK property.

Much of that is down to an automated valuation model which the group acquired with MousePrice, which has since been re-engineered and also allows remote valuations.

The result is that some 8,000 estate agents have now registered properties with the group. “Now it’s about getting all the registered users we have across the three websites on PropertyHeads using it as it should be. We’ve got about 2.5 million, mostly UK homeowning registered users that we’re increasingly getting engagement from,” he noted.

Read more: Will the Help to Build scheme solve the UK housing crisis?

Talk of the current housing market with mortgage professionals invariably leads to wider conversations about the underlying problems affecting the sector, such as the lack of stock, and fears - at least for first-time buyers - that house prices have spiralled out of control.

Davis revealed that more properties were now coming on the market – a sign of a downturn? “We’re not seeing prices decline yet, although we are seeing a levelling off,” he said, suggesting that there may be “some small nominal” declines, but nothing even closely resembling what happened in 2007.

Regarding the government’s efforts to help first-time buyers and kick start the home building revolution many feel is needed, he was largely dismissive.

He was previously critical of the government’s Mortgage Guarantee Scheme, which offered incentives to lenders by backing 95% LTV mortgages (so far it has failed to work as intended, judging by the low take up).

Since then, there have been stamp duty holidays, which have been more successful, and new controversial right-to-buy proposals, neither of which address the core issues, in his estimation.

“By providing more credit to potential buyers all you’re doing is pushing up prices to the benefit of the people that already own those assets. What they should be doing is building more homes and relaxing planning regulations - that’s what’s going to help younger people get on the property ladder,” he said.

“Unfortunately, the days when people moved up the property ladder as their wages increased are largely over, that’s why seeing a lot of people stuck in one- and two-bedroom flats with young families.”

He speaks from experience. Growing up in Essex in the 1980s, he lived through the City’s Big Bang era of deregulation, which paved the way for London to become the world’s leading financial centre. The ‘reset’ also re-shaped attitudes not just in the city but in working-class suburbs.

“We were allowed to have the more glamorous roles in the city and lots of people were making money. I guess that rubbed off on me as an impressionable kid, but I’ve always had an interest in property.”

Certainly, property ‘ran’ in the family. His father was a builder, and even before he went to school, Davis used to join him on building sites. As for his mother, she was a planning officer in a local council.

He recalled living in “slightly crappy houses” that were in various stages of renovation, the memory of which left such an indelible mark that “helping everyone to make smarter property choices” became the tagline for PropertyHeads.

“I don’t think the same opportunities are always available to everyone in UK residential property, but by opening up communication lines and by connecting people and businesses, I think we can go some way to helping people make smarter decisions - we’re trying to democratise things; make data available to everybody and just level the playing field again,” he said.