Property Entrepreneurs: Jake Willis, co-founder of London Shared, on the changing rental market and moving online

 
Chris Bown
An adorable dog follows Jake Willis around everywhere, wanting to know the secret to a successful property business

There’s been lots of talk recently about house sharing as a way for young professionals to afford life in central London. And while the concept’s not new, there are few ways to make it simple. Many renters end up advertising rooms and interviewing potential housemates, feeling the heat as landlords demand full rent from day one.

It was these issues that led Jake Willis and Kim Felettigh to launch London Shared nine years ago. Today, the business manages over 80 properties, mostly around south west London, but watch out Camden and Shoreditch, as they are poised for capital-wide expansion.

The proposition is simple. London Shared manages houses for landlords, furnishing them and letting out rooms to individual young professionals. They take care of everything, carry the landlord’s financial risk, and help housemates find like-minded folk to share with. Simple it may be, but getting it right has taken Jake and his colleagues a few years of hard-won experience.

“When we started, the experts said it would never work,” says Willis, a Kiwi who started in the London property market as a young agent at Foxtons. “They took me in, and taught me a lot.”

The business has just celebrated its ninth birthday and Jake remembers that, when he scraped together the funds to start the business, “there was no shared accommodation market – the online platforms were barely starting.” Having convinced his first couple of landlords to try the concept, the hard work really began.

A bedroom furnished by London Shared for one of their rental properties

Along the way, London Shared has developed its customer service, and built online, paperless systems to enable the business to grow efficiently. Always looking to technology to provide an edge, they use Skype to allow remote viewings: “We’ve found that to be really popular.”

But the market is no longer theirs alone, with other brands also working in the same space. Willis worries that the attention has encouraged property “gurus” to now promote rent-to-rent, as the niche is sometimes termed, as the next way to make easy money in property; that could end up with disappointed amateurs, giving shared accommodation a bad name. He cautions it’s not been easy to develop a really professional, seamless approach that satisfies both tenants and landlords.

The London Shared offer used to appeal predominantly to arriving Aussies and South Africans, but the demographic of the tenants has changed substantially. “The majority now are British, and older, from 23 to 28.”

All appreciate the simplicity of finding somewhere to live that’s ready to go, with an all-in rent and decent furnishings. Landlords, meanwhile, get a guarantee of rent over a period of years, with London Shared taking the risk on any voids.

Read more: Why Build to Rent is London's great housing hope

Having grown a £4m turnover business, he’s now set to take it to the next stage, expanding from the Parsons Green office to other parts of the capital. There could also be an opportunity to share property management experience with the new, institutional landlords coming into the market.

Yet Willis is keeping his feet on the ground: “For now, our focus is on building our brand presence.” That, and making sure the plumbing works.

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