Striking the Right Balance

At the helm of Melbourne’s exclusive Luxe Property estate agency, Sabina Aldouby is about balancing efficiencies and relationships – values which are reflected in the thriving property management-centric business she directs. Iolanthe Gabrie sat down with Sabina to learn more about her 20-year career in the property management category, and why Luxe Property’s old-school end-to-end service has future-proofed her business in a real estate environment of constant change.

Sabina’s real estate career began in 1996 after she decided to leave a nursing degree. “I got halfway through my degree and felt I didn’t have the passion for it. I went to my career counsellor and said ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ She suggested real estate and I thought ‘That’s it! That’s what I want to do!’

“I started my career with a very small agency in the CBD. I was there for four years before I was headhunted by Mirvac, who were ramping things up in Melbourne. I set up their rental department based on property developments they had coming up for settlement. I did that for another four years; during this time I had my first child and went back to work. That was easy: I loved what I did.

“Then I got pregnant with my second. By this time, I was approached by Australand – they saw what I’d developed in property management as a value-added service to their clients. So I went to consult with them whilst I completed my real estate licence part-time, ultimately unsure of whether I’d use the qualification. I decided it was time to create a little business from home – just word of mouth, family and friends. I had five clients; it was a hobby, called Real Estate Essentials. This was 12 years ago. I built that up to about 40 properties.”

Sabina’s hard work and diligence were noticed by another developer. “They had a lot of developments coming up in Melbourne and were interested in value-adding for their clients. We formed Luxe Property together; that was in 2006. Initially it was me looking after things, but it was soon time to expand.

“A couple of years into Luxe Property we thought, ‘How will we ramp this up?’ So we thought we’d explore purchasing rent rolls. At this stage we were at 150 properties, so thinking about integrating 300 properties in one hit was a big challenge. Interestingly enough, within 12 months we acquired six rent rolls. Currently we have 1,300 properties under management; of these around 800 are from rent roll purchases.”

As any property manager who has incorporated purchased rent rolls will know, this process can be taxing on any business. “There were lots of challenges associated with completing due diligence on those rent rolls,” notes Sabina. “We learned the hard way. We implemented steps to ensure we were dotting i’s and crossing t’s, so by the time we purchased the sixth one we were a well-oiled machine.

“Along that journey there were the challenges of employing staff, and making sure our systems and procedures were watertight. That led us to where we are today. Luxe Property went from two staff to 12 very quickly. We also have clients who want to sell, so we’ve established a small sales team too.”

Luxe Property has a wide cross-section of property in their care, from one and two bedroom apartments through to executive homes worth $2,000 per week. Does having such a variety of stock present concerns?

“In that mid-section there’s a lot of new development stock which can come with challenges, particularly when a landlord’s investment value isn’t sitting at the level they expected it would. We really work hard to condition clients’ expectations. In terms of the area we look after, we decided we couldn’t efficiently service clients all over Melbourne. Instead, we service within a four to 10 kilometre radius of the CBD. Any further and efficiencies just aren’t there. We also think our clients would suffer for us not being in their areas regularly.”

With sharp modern branding, Luxe Property’s identity is carefully curated, representing their unique service proposition. “We don’t look at ourselves as typical real estate agents,” says Sabina. “Our core asset is our rent roll. Not many agencies have a director who is solely focused on the rental department. I’m a resource and knowledge base for our property managers.

“As any property professional knows, no two days are the same. No two problems are ever the same. A property manager with five years’ experience might not always have all the answers, so for us it’s about collaborating with senior property managers to give them the process required to remedy a situation that’s extraordinary.”

Talking of the extraordinary, are there any differences when leasing properties in the luxury category? “The days of relocation agents doing interstate or international transfers are few and far between. We need to look at other ways to attract individuals to luxury properties. Whether we’re targeting major companies directly or using online marketing, we make sure we’re pricing appropriately to minimise vacancies.

“People are paying a lot of money to live in luxury properties and their expectations can be quite different. Some in the industry think that high-end properties are really easy to look after: you get a great tenant, it’s set and forget. That’s not necessarily the case. Really simple maintenance items are expected to be addressed very quickly, as many luxury property tenants feel like they’re living in a serviced apartment environment.”

Sabina prides her business on its ability to balance old-school human service with technology. “I’m old-school in terms of our business structure. For landlords and tenants there is one point of contact. There’s been a recent shift towards having leasing consultants, property managers and maintenance managers. I’m a big believer that clients want one point of contact. There’s accountability in such relationships – property managers need to see things through.

“We offer end-to-end management; our property managers have all resources available to them to ensure that they follow through the leasing processes, the admin processes and any maintenance and communication with clients throughout the tenancy. That’s something which sets Luxe Property apart from other agencies.

“The main attribute of good property managers is that they’re control freaks. They want to do everything themselves. They want to be the person at the open for inspection; they want to help select the tenant because that’s the person that they’re going to be dealing with throughout the tenancy.

“It’s interesting to see the shift towards technology that’s being pushed to property managers, supposedly to save them time. I believe there’s a balance in that: some things can save you time, others cause a hindrance in efficiencies. Something I created many years ago is Luxe Property’s routine inspection report and condition report, which is something we’ve built for the iPad. It’s branded, it’s concise. And then property managers drop in specific photos of maintenance items to discuss with landlords if they are not at the inspection.

“For me, it’s important that we find the balance, ensuring that property managers have a touch point with clients and that it’s not all technology-based. When clients can log into technology independently and obtain financial statements and the things they need, they don’t ever need to speak with their property manager. I don’t want to go too far down that pathway, as there’s no returning point. It’s a balancing act that’s important to maintain.”

So how much time does Luxe Property invest in social media marketing? Sabina is unequivocal. “Social media can be done really well, or really poorly. Often agents on social media are just shoving new listings down your throat. Luxe Property presents a mix of thought-provoking content and sharing interiors that we admire – even if they’re not always representative of the properties we list. We mix up our social media with listings we have available, creating an awareness of the brand.”

Highly involved in local real estate industry bodies, Sabina has been on the Property Management Chapter Committee for the REIV for the past year, and is also part of the subcommittee for the Residential Tenancies Act. Being conversant with laws and trends as they shift is clearly key to Sabina’s success in building a 12-strong team of passionate property professionals. So how is the future of property management looking, according to Sabina?

“For a business that remains focused on providing a significant point of difference for their clients, the future is bright. There’s been a shift towards smaller operators focusing on property management. I don’t think that’s a bad thing – there’s enough business for all of us in this industry. The focus should be on providing an end-to-end service that you can be proud of.”

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Iolanthe Gabrie

Iolanthe Gabrie is a Director of Ruby Slipper Consultants, providing written content for the real estate industry. For more information visit rubyslipper.com.au.