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Mind your own (property) business

22 Feb, 2017


Mind your own (property) business

Deep within the Garden of England, the great old county of traditional English values and quaint chocolate box houses that is Kent, stand around a thousand residential properties all owned by one particular investor.

His name is Fergus Wilson and his singular approach to managing his property portfolio has earned him, within specialist press circles, the moniker of ‘the notorious landlord’.

It would be a grave understatement to suggest that Mr Wilson plays hardball when it comes to delivering an income from his investments.

Recently he sparked more outrage by issuing new lettings criteria for tenants. Prospective tenants who have children under the age of 18, who are single, who have pets, who smoke, who are on low income, who are on zero hours contracts or who are ‘battered wives’ are not welcome in Mr Wilson’s properties.

His list of exclusions also includes plumbers, though it’s unclear as to how this particular trade has managed to fall foul of Mr Wilson.

Most contentious, though, is the exclusion of those on housing benefits. Mr Wilson, who is not known for beating about the bush, is quoted as having said: ‘Not everyone on benefits is a problem, but all the problems are on benefits.’

Inevitably the stringent conditions upon which Mr Wilson will or will not accept tenants has drawn fire from a large number of people who seem to believe the investor is lacking in social conscience by eschewing those in greatest need or is actively pursuing a policy that is discriminatory. Criticism is not limited just to those who fall foul of the criteria, either – industry insiders have also been quick to condemn him.

Now, I don’t know Fergus Wilson personally and to be perfectly honest, I suspect my life is probably vastly richer for the fact. Certainly his approach to letting and his stance as a landlord is not one with which I feel in any way comfortable or would support. And I’ve no doubt that if he were ever moved to consider the issue, he would probably feel much the same about me.

But equally I think there is a fundamental fault in the arguments levied against him because, in the end, Fergus Wilson is a businessman and his priority is to ensure he drives the greatest revenue out of his investments while incurring the minimum possible cost.

Is that not, in the end, the simple ideal of all commerce?

I don’t know enough about the detail of Mr Wilson’s business to judge whether he is a good landlord or not. I do know that, in this instance, he hasn’t won many friends. But that isn’t because he’s a bad landlord – it’s because he doesn’t want to be a landlord to certain individuals.

And however unpalatable that might be to some (or even most) of us, it is nevertheless surely his right to choose who he wants as his customers.

Mr Wilson isn’t running a social enterprise. He isn’t running a charity. He’s running a commercial concern whose primary function is to return a profit and he has determined, rightly or wrongly, that he can reduce his costs (or, perhaps, losses) by turning away certain individuals. And by reducing his costs, he increases his margins.

It may sit uncomfortably with those of us who have a more benevolent approach to lettings, but it is an unarguable fact that many landlords go out of business because they don’t treat their property investment seriously enough as a commercial concern.

Do you have to go to the lengths that Fergus Wilson has gone to in order to drive that revenue? I don’t believe you do, no. But you do need to be objective and firm in how and why you’re in the lettings industry if you want to make a go of it.

I’m not a landlord and I couldn’t be the type of landlord that Fergus Wilson has chosen to be – it would put me in conflict with my conscience. But then Fergus Wilson’s business is none of mine.