Legislate meets Zoe Conning of Amana Lettings

How to launch a letting agency during the pandemic

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In this episode, Legislate meets Zoe Conning, Managing Director of Amana Lettings. Zoe explains how the business was launched 2 months before the start of the pandemic and how they've built a hybrid letting agency in Cheshire with the ambition to grow across the UK thanks to digital automation.

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Charles Brecque: Welcome to the Legislate podcast, a place to learn about the latest insights and trends in property technology, business, and contracts. Today, we have a fantastic guest, Zoe Conning a property wizard and managing director of Amana lettings. Zoe, welcome to the show. Would you like to introduce yourself?

How Zoe Conning got into property

Zoe Conning: yeah. So I'm Zoe, Zoe Conning as you said, Managing Director of Amana lettings. I've been in property for about, gosh, eight years now.

Zoe Conning: I started off as a student; I accidentally started doing a few bits for my landlord, because it meant I could get cheaper rent as a student and who doesn't want that and I ended up falling in love with property a little bit more than the degree.

Charles Brecque: So did you drop out then and go full-time into property?

Zoe Conning: I did. Yeah.

What's been your favourite moment so far?

Charles Brecque: . So you've been in property now for this time. What's been your favourite moment so far?

Zoe Conning: I would probably say, weirdly, the pandemic in a really bizarre way. So we started the business in 2019, we had only really run a business about two months before we went into lockdown. I think.

Zoe Conning: We were just like, oh my God, what on earth does this mean for the business? It's either going to do really well or really not. And I was just completely thrown into the deep end, the unknown. I had just started a new business in property, and it was either a case that people are going to want to move to bigger places or people are going to want to downsize.

Zoe Conning: And I think at the time we ended up with about two HMO's full of divorced men which was really bizarre. We had a few nurses and doctors because in the height of the pandemic they didn’t want to go home to potentially harm their families so were looking for a room to rent with an en suite. So it worked out quite well for us. And I think it really helped with our marketing strategy and really helped us coming out of the lockdown and out of pandemic to sort of position ourselves in the market of what service we could offer really.

Charles Brecque: That's fantastic. And when you say you position yourselves from a marketing perspective, is that specifically towards nurses and doctors, or is it just how you manage properties?

Zoe Conning: Yeah bit of both, really. These are the tenants that we are going to advertise for. It really helped us get in there with some local employees. Like, we're very lucky to have a Bentley factory by us and have got a massive factory by us and they were hiring throughout the pandemic to keep up with demand. It helps us in that respect. It also helped us get a really great relationship with the local council because obviously people's income was affected. So we helped them, people that were on universal credit; helping people in the homeless team that just needed a place to stay. And it helped us look at the properties we were in on that would be great for a HMO and we could market that property specifically for people that work in this area of Crewe and it, yeah, it just really helps with that really.

Charles Brecque: Great. And how many properties do you now have in your portfolio?

Zoe Conning: So we're up to 160 units at the moment. So it's a range of one to two bedroom apartments. We've got 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 bedroom houses. And then I think the biggest one we've got is a nine bed HMO. A nice array of different properties.

What do you wish you had known before getting started?

Charles Brecque: And, you said that your favourite moment so far ironically has been a pandemic. But I guess, before launching the business what would you wish you had known before starting it?

Zoe Conning: I think I wish I had cared more about networking. I think when we first started, I used to find it a bit of a waste of my time. I'd go to these events and spend three or four hours there. I'd do a little 30 second slot about what the business is and why you should use us to manage your property and then you'd get a nice breakfast out of it. And that'd be it.

Zoe Conning: The cliche saying of your network is your net worth. I don't think I realised that for quite a few months. And again, the pandemic helped because a lot of networking events then became online. Networking pretty much all over the UK, if not the world and you just meet people and talk to people who you didn't know were going to need you for what. It could just be queries of “I've got a nightmare tenant that I can't evict because of all the legislation changes that happened in the last two years" to actually, "yes, I've got a property in Crewe and I need management for it". So I think probably networking- I wish I'd known how important that was going to be. There's a couple of local networking groups. I'm a part of, and they account for almost 60% of our business now, which is great. And I just think, maybe if I'd learned four or five, six months earlier, where would the business be now?

Zoe Conning: And another thing is probably to just invest in yourself as well. Your business is your baby and if you’re not one hundred percent, your business can't be, and I don't think enough people know that, especially with Instagram and Facebook, people are always posting cars and the nice holidays that they go on and, the 5:00 AM grafters club and stuff like that, but it's not sustainable, for me anyway. When I first started, I did that and I was up at five o'clock in the morning. I'd be going to the gym. I'd be in the office at seven. Yeah. Working, 12, 13 hours a day, six, if not seven days a week and you just burn out. And I went to a networking event, a property, one, which I shall not name. And there was a guest speaker and I asked him this question. I said: "Everyone on Instagram is working these 12, 13, 14 hour days, six to seven days a week. They can do it. And I can't, why can't I, what am I doing? I'm scared I'm going to burn out." And he was like "if you burn out, you're not passionate enough about what you do". And  that is the worst piece of advice that anyone has ever given me. I was just like, how dare you. I was just like, I need to figure out what works for me. What is going to be sustainable long-term because, yeah I was getting up at five o'clock in the morning and replying to emails. But then a couple of weeks later when I was burnt out or I was too tired or maybe I wanted to take a holiday, the landlords and the tenants were still expecting that reply at five o'clock in the morning. And it's just not sustainable at all. So you don't need to join a 5:00 AM club. You just need to figure out a routine that works for you. And there's no set routine that everyone has to do. It just has to be sustainable. And you have to set expectations to your clients, whether they're landlords, investors, or tenants, contractors. Just that, these are the hours I'm going to be working, and this is when you can get a reply. So yeah, I'd say networking and finding a routine that works for you.

Charles Brecque: That's very interesting and networking is one of those things where it's always difficult to start somewhere. How did you go about, starting, were there certain places that you looked to find networking groups or did they come to you?

Zoe Conning: So in the last couple of jobs that I did, I worked in IT and as a business trainer. Both of those businesses went to breakfast type network meetings. And weirdly the day we started, I had a message on LinkedIn from this lady who just started a local networking group, and I thought not another one. So I was like, no, it's fine. I'm really sorry. I'm really busy. I just want to focus on growing the business. So maybe I'll come in a few months, which ironically, was what the networking group was supposed to be for to grow the business. I eventually joined this networking group. And a lot of them, you go to a couple and you just pay for your breakfast and that's it. There's no hard push to join. And the first one I went to, I think the reason I liked this one more than the others was because they were like, oh, it's not just all about getting referrals and passing businesses. We offer business training. We offer training for you to do a business plan. We do budget training, we do sales training, and that's all included in your yearly membership. And I was like that's exactly what I need. It was effectively getting a mentor as well as networking. So I was like, oh, this is brilliant. So that sort of made me choose that one. And another reason I liked it wasn't specifically a property networking event. It was just more about local business and where we'd positioned ourselves in the market at the time to work with local businesses to help house their employees and employers. We really wanted to embrace our presence in the local community. So we thought it doesn't really matter what business we're working with, which made us lean more towards a non-property specific networking event.

Charles Brecque: That's interesting. And so the lesson here is to look for networking groups, which are aligned with where you want to grow as an individual, but also from a business perspective.

Zoe Conning: Yeah, another thing that we found was a lot of landlords and investors were in different areas of the UK. For example, we've got quite a lot that are in London, so we'll do a lot of networking events in London, in Kent.

Charles Brecque: So what is your vision for Amana Lettings, where do you see the business in three to five years?

Zoe Conning: I think it’s just natural growth, which is always nice. I think we're just mainly looking at different areas of the UK. We're predominantly in Cheshire, we've got properties in Crewe, Nantwich, Sandbach and Middlewood, but we're slowly branching out to the Stoke and Stafford area. But I think what's been different about ours, and again, something that I have the pandemic to thank for, is because we weren't able to go out to the properties, alot of what we do is the virtual and hybrid. We haven't got offices, we're in the process of looking at the moment, but a lot of what we do can all be done online. Our tenants, for example, they've all got QR codes in their properties. They scan them, they get a nice little welcome pack. That's got all the information in about wifi, where they can report maintenance. If we need any meter readings, they can submit them on that. If they've got an inspection. They can book it all online through Calendly, and that'll send the link over to our team and book in with our Lettings manager and it will book it in with our calendar set up a nice Zoom link, it's all very automated.

Zoe Conning: And the more we did that, we thought actually, we as a letting agent, don't necessarily need to be at the property. The only time we really have to go is if it's a face-to-face viewing. We always send a video tour first because sometimes, we all know pictures get edited a little bit and sometimes the rooms can look a bit bigger than they are. So we like to do a video tour so that it's not wasting our time traveling to the property. Equally not wasting their time because sometimes we get people traveling 30, 40 minutes to view a property. So if we can send the video first, that's great. So we'll meet them at the property. We'll do the viewing, and then after that, there's a key box at the property. So cleaners and contractors can access it. Inspections, we can all do via video link or the documents are sent online, anything to do with tenancy agreements and that sort of thing. So we went well, really, we could actually manage property anywhere in the UK. All we have to do is make sure we're organized with viewings. Even if it’s in Cardiff, if we can plan one day where we go and do all of these physical viewings and get pictures and dress the property and videos and all that sort of thing. And we can be organized with that. Then we could do this everywhere and package up as this product and CRM that landlords can use themselves and, make sure that they're getting the gas safeties and the electrical safeties when they're due and that all the maintenance is being taken care of as soon as possible, because that seemed to be one of the biggest headaches at the previous company I worked for.

Zoe Conning: It was just a tenant's word, reporting maintenance as soon as it happened. So it just got worse and worse and then it'd be more expensive for the landlords to fix. So we try and make it as easy as possible for them to report or otherwise tenants just won't.

Charles Brecque: When you say that you want to make it easy for the tenants to report maintenance. At least one thing that we noticed with tenancy agreements is tenants are often scared to report because it's not clear in the tenancy agreement that it's one of their responsibilities. Is that something that you can relate to?

Zoe Conning: Yeah, I think it's a mixture of, it's not clear on the tenancy agreement because it's in the tenancy agreement instead of a separate document, it sometimes gets missed because they're looking at, who they need to speak to if they want to decorate. And if they can have pets when and where they need to pay the rent.

Zoe Conning: And equally, I think there's almost a fear of 'Oh, no I've accidentally broken something or there's something in my property that needs maintenance, I don't want to be charged for it'.

What are the key contracts you interact with the most?

Charles Brecque: I understand. And since we've talked about tenancy agreements, is this the contract you create the most, or are there other documents that you create and generate as part of your business?

Zoe Conning: Yeah, it's a mix of obviously the tenancy agreement and then the terms of businesses that we send out to our landlords and investors that work with those But, along with the tenancy agreement, as there's so much else that needs to go with it, you've got your house rent document, what reference checks you've performed a gas, electrical, EPC, HMO license, sometimes fire risk assessments, emergency light, and testing.

Zoe Conning: The list is just endless and it's, ever-changing. Documents get updated, like the, how to rent documents, for example, will get updated. As well as that, with the QR codes that we've got in the property for the reporting system, we'll send that out. We'll send a welcome letter out a separate document on this is how you pay your rent, just so that.

Zoe Conning: There's no confusion and nothing mixed in with the tenancy agreement that the tenant's just going to go, oh, I'm so excited to move in click sign there, sign that and not really read and understand that. Especially, with HMO's, in our area at the minute, they're not charging council tax per room, which is something that may change.

Zoe Conning: So we want to cover our backs and our landlord. But if that is something that happens. With what bills are included, we have recently had a new landlord at one of the HMO's have stayed with us for management, which is great, but We had a call from the tenant to the other day to say their internet was down.

Zoe Conning: So when we phoned the company they were like, oh yeah, the new landlord canceled it. So I spoke to the new landlord and he was like it's not really a utility, is it? And I was like, no, but you're going to have seven very unhappy tenants if they can't watch Netflix or work from home.

Zoe Conning: And actually. You should have probably spoken with us first because they have signed a contract that says we will be paying all these bills that include your broadband. So you're going to have to set that all up.

Charles Brecque: Interesting. And key thing is getting tenants to read their agreements. That's one thing that at Legislate, we definitely try to do. And we offer different views of the contract. We offer, terms as a set of questions and answers, which are essentially the key terms, which will say, for example, that internet is included, but we also offer the, the classical texts, PDF view that we're used to seeing.

Charles Brecque: And we definitely noticed that it increases engagement and reduces questions and also reduces breaches of contracts. And when you were creating your contracts whether it's with a landlord or with an HMO tenant, are there any common objections that raised from that contract that you were sending to them?

Zoe Conning: I don't think so. There's, obviously, a couple if they've got a mortgage or not on the property. But that tends to be, it really.

Charles Brecque: Okay. And in terms of the mortgage, is it because it needs to be specified in the agreement that people will ask about it?

Zoe Conning: Yeah. A lot of the time it tends to be, if, for example, it covers from both ends, if the landlord, for whatever reason stops paying the mortgage and the house is repossessed. And if they get it refinanced, sometimes a lot of the refinance companies ask for that to be put in as well.

If you were being sent a contract to sign today, what would impress you?

Charles Brecque: I am conscious of your time. So I'm going to ask the closing question that we ask all our guests. If you were to sign a contract today what would impress you?

Zoe Conning: I think for me it was probably the speed of it and how much I had to do. I think one thing that I really like about your system is you set up a unit and go, this is how much the rent is. This is who the landlord is. And you only have to do that once. Whereas with other platforms and platforms that we've previously used it's  every single time that you use it that you have to keep updating the same bits of information.

Zoe Conning: So I'd probably just say ease of input and information and reminders. I think automatic reminders of people signing documents are a nightmare.

Charles Brecque: Yeah, we definitely want to, with intelligent automation, because you don't want to automate, in a way which eliminates flexibility, we're trying to make that as smooth as possible and as fast as possible. Thank you very much Zoe for being on the podcast.

Charles Brecque: Best of luck with growing a business and thank you for being on the show!

Zoe Conning: Thank you for having me!

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