11 questions we ask every agent: Stratfords

Luke Thirkettle heads up the lettings division at Stratfords, based in Milton Keynes. He speaks about the logistics of running a family business, and why they chose to upgrade all their property management software to Alto. 

Can you tell us a bit about your agency – what areas do you cover and how long have you been operating?

Stratfords is a family run business – it’s my dad, my mum and myself. I run the lettings side, my dad does sales and my mum does accounts. 

We’ve been running for around 25 years, and in the last couple of years we’ve grown to a team of seven. But we remain a family business at heart. 

We predominantly cover Milton Keynes and Bletchley, plus all the surrounding villages. 

How and why did you get into estate agency?

It was always going to happen. 

When I came out of school, I wanted to do engineering but realistically I was always going to join the family business. I’d seen the family grow the agency over many years and I erred on the side of rentals because dad was doing sales. I’ve been here for 11 years now, straight from college. 

What would you say are the three biggest challenges your agency has faced over the past year?

On the rental side it’s been keeping in touch with people. Mainly communicating restrictions and keeping everyone up to date with what they need to know. 

The first period of working from home was a challenge too. By that point most of our tools were cloud-based, so it could have been worse. But just before lockdown we took on a new portfolio with a couple of new staff. So getting used to that and then having to transfer everything across to remote working was a challenge. 

The other challenge has been viewings, particularly on rentals with tenants not wanting to give access because of coronavirus, but landlords still wanting to keep properties occupied. Coordinating that and reassuring tenants that viewings were safe was tricky.

David Thirkettle Director at Stratfords

David Thirkettle, Director at Stratfords

In the first lockdown we did a few remote viewings and a lot of video tours, but we phased it out as quickly as we could. You can never replace walking through the front door and seeing the local area for yourself. 

How has your agency coped with such a busy property market?

Both sales and lettings have been crazy. 

The difficult part is simply trying to get the stock. We know that once we get it, it will sell. The other day we listed a property and it had ten viewings booked on the first day. 

And it’s the same for rentals too. We’ll put a property on our site in the morning and by midday we’ll have to take it off because it’s so busy. 

With rentals it’s cyclical. We get notice, we know when the tenancy will end, and although we get natural growth every now and then, it’s largely predictable. 

However on the sales side, when it’s sold you need another. And that’s a challenge when stocks are low.

How do you see the industry changing in the next few years? 

I can’t see anything drastic changing. 

Rents will probably go up a bit. Sales prices might continue to grow too. But I can’t see any reason why there will be any catastrophic changes, unless COVID-19 restrictions come back into place.

The local markets in Milton Keynes and Bletchey haven’t particularly changed either. We already had a good spread of independents including some larger ones and we know some big corporate groups are looking to expand their franchise portfolio in the area. But there hasn’t been a big influx of new agents in the area. 

It’s quite a saturated market, so you’d have to really bring something different to crack the Milton Keynes area. 

How long have you been using property management software and how has it changed the way you run your business? 

We’ve been using Alto’s property software for about a year for the property management side of things. And for around three years for sales, lettings and appointments. We upgraded to accounts and property management in October last year. 

Michelle Thirkettle Head of Accounts at Stratfords estate agency

Michelle Thirkettle, Head of Accounts at Stratfords 

The biggest advantage is the fact that the accounting is cloud-based, meaning the whole team can access it from anywhere which is incredibly handy.

Also, if a landlord sells a property through us, or if a sold property becomes a managed property, we have all the information ready to hand. Having all those details in one place is a real time-saver.

How does Alto compare to other software you’ve used? 

Compared to our previous system, Alto is undoubtedly a newer, fresher system and looks nicer to the eye. There are always new features being added and it’s constantly evolving. 

It’s great for new staff too. Trying to train someone on Alto is far easier than our previous software. It’s more intuitive and you can figure out where everything goes almost automatically. 

What’s your favourite Alto feature? 

On the accounts side, it’s the reconciliation process. The ability to click into any statement and see the contractor invoices attached is really useful. 

Before, we had to manually search for an invoice. In general, accounts is the biggest step forward for our business. 

PropertyFile is a nice feature too. Landlords like it, as it keeps them in the loop on what’s going on. 

What was your team’s initial reaction to the property management software?

There were certainly no complaints, everyone got up to speed quickly. 

We didn’t need formal training, we just showed our staff how to use it. The help guides are really useful if we need them. 

What made you choose Alto, and were there any business challenges or problems that encouraged you to make the change?

We didn’t look around, because we’d already used it so much on the sales side of things. 

We all knew that it made sense to combine and integrate everything into one property management system. We’ve never had any issues either, so we’ve never had a reason to look elsewhere.

What would be your top tip for other agents when choosing property management software?

Go cloud-based. We’d got to that point where all other software was cloud-based and we needed everything to be integrated. We’re now completely paperless, and I can access the software from home, the beach, send a contract, and do anything I want – anywhere, anytime.

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