039 SME Surveyor Business Stories with Robert Desbruslais

Robert Desbruslais is a Chartered Building Surveyor and member of the RICS with 30 years post qualification experience. He is the owner of Desbruslais Chartered Surveyors, specialising in pre purchase surveys throughout the UK, with an emphasis on listed and period property.

With a deep knowledge of period construction and defects, he gives regular talks on construction and listed building matters, and is well placed to understand and explain the implications of purchasing a structurally complex building. 

Setting up a Business during Recession

Robert Desbruslais set up his own company in 2009 amidst the recession, and he was surprised by the reaction of the market once he announced going independent.

“I made the decision not to do any valuation work, because that’s one of the reasons why I’ve seen companies failing, because of the valuation work drying up, and low fees but high liabilities. So once I set up on my own, I was absolutely amazed that there was this whole other world. A number of people phoned me up and said ‘Are you set up on your own now? Can we start recommending you?’ So they started to recommend me, and that was some high value work on pre purchase building surveys. Plus I’ve always had an interest in listed buildings, so I tended to promote myself on that basis. It just grew from there, and within six months, I was already at an income that I had for the whole previous year, and it was all cash buyers,” Robert says.

Reporting – a Key Skill for a Surveyor

We were wondering at what point Robert knew he was a good enough surveyor to work by himself, and that he had enough experience.

“You’ve got to set up in confidence in your own ability, knowing that you are going to be giving the best advice you can. You’ve got to be pretty experienced to set up on your own, you can’t just go out on a wing and learn as you go along, because you will miss things. The most important thing is knowing how to write the report. You can have all the knowledge in the world, and have a lot of experience in inspecting quite complex property, but if your report writing isn’t balanced so it provides not only sensible reporting, but also warns people of the risks, you won’t be able to provide good service. When you’re buying a property of superior timber frame, for example, there’s lots of what you can’t see, and you have to give them an understanding of what they might find. Once you know how to create those rules, and you’ve been surveying, you’ve had post qualification experience, maybe working for a company in that industry, I think you need at least two or three years in order to set up.”

The Process from Quoting to Reporting

Robert gives us an overview of his process of preparation and surveying some of the complex period properties he’s been involved with.

“These days, the property particulars are so much better than they used to be. We’ve got plans, Google Maps, geology reports, historical maps, there’s a lot you can find out about the property before you inspect it. But you don’t want to be doing too much before you’ve quoted, because you won’t necessarily get the job. So most of our research is asking – is it listed, how big is it, how long do we think it’s going to take, and is it going to be one, two or three of us? Then we’ll prepare a quote, based on the value of the property where relevant. Once we’ve got the job, then we will do more research, we’ll look at the flat maps, and the geology and the historical maps. We use polls for cameras on site, we employed a drone company a couple of times, but you can’t really predict how long it’s gonna take you, there’s always gonna be a few things that you haven’t expected.”

How to Grow and Scale an Independent Practice

We also wanted to know how it was for Robert to grow his company, and what’s his experience like with trainees.

“When you’re working for yourself, unless you make a specific decision that you only want to be a one man band, taking that first step and hiring someone is probably the biggest in the entire history of the business. When you’ve done it once, it becomes easier to take on more people as you grow. Suddenly, I had more time to go out and get more business, I got busier again, and ended up taking somebody else. Since then the challenge has not been attracting business, because if you know how to go about it and the steps you should take, it’s actually very easy.  The problem for me is finding the right people with experience in doing the type of work we do, because it’s quite difficult finding somebody who’s used to looking at all the properties and has the competence to report without scaring the buyer off.”

Robert admits he wasn’t lucky with taking trainees on, but offers some good advice for surveyors who are interested in period and listed properties.

“We were hoping to train somebody, who could help us with heritage reports and the research. One difficulty is that we’re all home based, and with trainees it’s quite important to have a lot of face to face time, not just to look at the property. The other difficulty is that nearly everything we look at is so complex, that the trainee finds it terribly difficult to understand what they’re looking at, when they’re still learning the basics of the building surveying.”

“If they really want to learn about construction,” Robert continues, “and get involved in residential pre purchase survey, the best thing they could do is go to a medium sized company that does a bit of survey work, but does a lot of residential project work on large buildings, or maybe refurbishment of listed buildings. A trainee working for a company like that will learn so much because they’ll see the fabric opened up, and they’ll also be able to contribute because they can do periodic inspections instead of a surveyor, as well as some of the admin that’s involved in project management. I think that is a really good foundation for a surveyor who wants to go into this aspect of the business,” he concludes.

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