Estate agent Norman Brown is celebrating 50 years in business serving the Dales. Sharon Dale reports.
Growing up on a farm in Swaledale then serving his community as an estate agent for the past 50 years has left Norman Brown ideally placed to chronicle radical changes in the property market.
The most obvious is prices. Half a century ago in 1967 he was selling cottages in Swaledale for £2,000. The same properties are now fetching £200,000. Back then, many of the villages were inhabited by the farming community and there were a handful of holiday cottages. Now, second homes have proliferated. In Langthwaite in Arkengarthdale, only about 35 per cent are occupied full-time, while Reeth and Leyburn have become hotspots for retirees from outside the area.
“Going back 60 years there were lots of little farms in the Dales and a family could make a living from 30 or 40 cows. Cheap imported milk put a stop to that,” says Norman,77. “A lot has changed. The old Dales people have died off along with the strong dialect. A lot of them spoke almost like Vikings as the Vikings came to this area and left their mark. Phrases like ‘How ist a gaan?’ meaning ‘how are you’ were common but you don’t hear them much now.”
The use of property portals such as Rightmove is another major change, as is the struggle that first-time buyers now face. “In the early 1970s you could get a 95 per cent mortgage and if you were a couple you could borrow three times one person’s salary plus one times the other person’s salary,” says Norman, who spent a year at Askham Bryan agricultural college before starting work as a trainee chartered auctioneer and estate agent. “My father was a farmer but he wanted to be an auctioneer and never got the chance so the next best thing was to get me to do it,” he laughs.
After seven years gaining experience at three different agencies, he set up his own in Richmond at the age of 27. “I was a one-man band and even went to night school to learn how to type. I had a Polaroid camera to take photos with and I’d stick a picture of the house on the particulars. After 18 months I was earning enough to employ a secretary and the business progressed from there.”
He expanded into Leyburn in 1976 and Bedale in 1985 and has pursued various side projects that showcase his entrepreneurial spirit. One of the latest was turning salerooms in Richmond into holiday lets. He has also remained staunchly independent though he had tempting offers in 1988
“The Abbey National and the Northern Rock Building Society wanted to buy the business but I declined as I liked my independence. I also decided not to expand too rapidly or too much as that’s when you lose control of quality,” he says, adding that the key to success in estate agency is “to be outward looking and get on with people.”
His biggest annoyance now is “cowboys” with no experience or qualifications setting up as estate agents, although he doesn’t see online agents as a threat. “They don’t have the back-up services needed to push a sale through and they don’t do accompanied viewings, which in the Dales can be a 40-mile round trip 15 times to show people round one property.”
At the moment business is ticking along nicely as the Norman F. Brown heartlands are perennially popular and set to become more so. The property market in the Richmond area, says Norman, should experience an uplift when the upgrading work to the A1 Leeming to Barton finally completes at the end of this year and a designer outlet village at Scotch Corner is built. Bedale is also becoming much more desirable since the new bypass, which offers much easier access on to the A1. Norman F. Brown’s Bedale head of office Philip Mills says: “Prices here are at least 10 per cent cheaper than in Harrogate and Ripon, which is attracting buyers.”
The holiday property market has been slightly affected by the three per cent stamp duty for extra homes but demand will never die, according to Norman,who keeps an eye on the accounts and leaves the day-to-day running to his son, James. This leaves time for salmon fishing and his own holiday home in Northumberland. “I am officially retired,” he says. “But I enjoy it going into the office and it keeps me going.”