The Times UK
Aug. 6, 2023
Three TV series inspired by the glamorous world of LA property are launching on our screens. But will hard-up homeowners like them?
Now it’s the summer — the killing season,” the voiceover says. This isn’t the latest David Attenborough documentary, and we’re not looking at footage from some infrared camera buried deep in the bush at Tarangire National Park.
Our hunting ground is Castle Eden in Co Durham — and the would-be “killers” are power-dressed reality show contestants who will be competing with each other to flog incredibly expensive homes and win a job at Nest Seekers International, the New York-based luxury property-selling giant.
The opening sequences of the BBC series Crazy Rich Agents will be immediately recognisable to anyone who has watched The Apprentice, the dog-eat-dog reality show on which wannabe business tycoons battle to win investment from Alan Sugar. There’s the same melodramatic music and the Olympic-level bragging (one contestant, Ali, 25, claims within minutes of the start to have “bumped into someone from the royal family” in a Mayfair club).
In reality, Crazy Rich Agents has less to do with The Apprentice than Selling Sunset, the smash-hit property show in the US. Launched on Netflix in 2019, it features a Los Angeles real estate agency filled with leggy, beautiful, witty and bitchy female agents who try to outdo each other to sell multimillion-dollar homes to celebrities in return for sky-high commissions. Six seasons in, it is the third most streamed online show globally. Two years ago Netflix built on this lucrative genre and launched The Parisian Agency, centred on the (predictably gorgeous and extremely cultured — this is France) Kretz family, who run a luxury estate agency business from a quintessentially Parisian 1920s art deco mansion.
Given our particular twin obsessions with property and celebrity in the UK, it’s a bit of a mystery that it has taken TV executives quite so long to cash in with a British version — but Crazy Rich Agents will be the first of three such shows to hit our screens this year. A remarkably similar-sounding show, Selling Super Houses, is to be screened by Channel 4 in late August, while Netflix is lining up a UK version of Selling Sunset to go live at the end of the year.
Daniel McPeake, the potty-mouthed Essex-boy managing director of Nest Seekers in the UK and a star of Crazy Rich Agents — which will be broadcast on BBC2 at 9pm next Sunday — greets my question as to whether the show will follow the Selling Sunset soft-focus model with a predictable blitz of expletives.
“If you look at Selling Sunset, everyone in miniskirts and high heels driving around in Ferraris and everything — it has a general whiff of bollocks around it,” he says. “I didn’t want to do that kind of show because it doesn’t f***ing work, we’re in the UK. If you took Selling Sunset — it’s hot, it’s shiny, everything looks great, it’s a little bit like The Truman Show,” McPeake says.
But what’s so different about the UK? Principally, he says, it’s the money.
McPeake, who will be the mentor and ultimately in charge of firing contestants in the BBC show, points out that US brokers personally take home a whopping 70 per cent of the commission gleaned by an agency from each sale, usually about 5 per cent, so can make millions a year in the luxury sector. But if they fail to make any sales, they can also earn nothing because they’re self-employed and do not draw a basic salary.
By contrast, in Britain agents take home only 10-15 per cent of the commission earned on a sale — which is frequently just above 1 per cent of the price. Plus, our agents are almost all employed by agencies, so earn a basic salary as a safety net.
McPeake, who started out as a double-glazing salesman in Woodford before making a fortune in property, was hired by Eddie Shapiro, the US luxe property kingpin who founded Nest Seekers, to launch the agency’s UK arm in 2020.
A self-proclaimed insurgent, McPeake wants to completely reinvent how property is sold in the UK along American lines. He pays his agents using the US commission-only model, believing it makes them hungrier and harder-working than traditional ones in the UK, whom he characterises as “hooray Henry” types.
“Real estate has, in my opinion, evolved beyond the stuffy Knight Frank and Savills whiff-of-yesterday feeling,” he says.
“You’ve got Rupert and Annabelle in Savills looking around in a Bentley in too tight a top and tottering around some house. That’s the norm, but we are looking towards the new generation.
“We have the American model, which pushes to make more people entrepreneurial. They need to be able to think outside the box, they need to be able to think for themselves.
“What you have in the UK at the moment is they’re in the high street, waiting for someone to walk in the door or phone up, saying, ‘Can I come round to see a house, or can I sell a house?’ Our model is different — these guys have to go and find those situations.
“We take people who have been working in McDonald’s or a juice bar, or whatever, and we tell them, ‘You’re already selling something, but you’re just at the wrong price point.’ We take them from that point and put them into a different situation.”
McPeake tells his contestants in no uncertain terms that they’ll have to use their own mettle to generate leads during the four-month property-selling “killing season” — which, for the purposes of the show, apparently runs between June and October. “If you’ve got 40 or 50 people on your phone, phone everybody,” he says.
“Go through everybody on your phone and tell them you want to get involved in real estate and tell them your reasons why. We are a marketing company that deals in real estate, not a real estate company that does marketing — that is the fundamental difference [between what they do and traditional agents]. We are of the TikTok generation, we are of the Instagram generation. We believe in YouTube, heavily. We are looking forward, not behind.”
Shapiro, who has made a fortune selling properties from New York to Miami and Los Angeles to Aspen, says there’s no reason whatsoever the industry in the UK shouldn’t be much more like in the US.
“What you find glamorous about the US, we see the same in the UK,” he says. “You have got some of the most beautiful townhouses and estates in the heart of London, you’ve got the beach market, and you have very expensive historical estates.”
Setting aside the American hype (there’s widespread cringing as the visiting Shapiro tells contestants in the first episode, “You can become unstoppable, you can call the president and sell the White House if you have to”) there are also some real practical problems with transferring the commission-only model in the UK.
Vanesa Tonova, a fast-talking 25-year-old Bulgarian who is one of the contestants in the show, points out that agencies in Britain don’t typically share client databases with each other — as they do in the US — making being an independent broker here incredibly hard.
“I love the American model, I am absolutely convinced that people need to earn more commission. But when you’re trying to do the American model, you need many, many independent agents who can help each other out with buyers and sellers and you have a big fee to split. But that does not exist here yet,” she tells me.
Over on Channel 4, Selling Super Houses follows eight agency hopefuls competing against each other for a job at the West End office of Robert Irving Burns, the luxury agency that is 50 per cent owned by Paul Kemsley (known as PK), a property magnate.
Antony Antoniou, managing director of the agency who judges on the show with Kemsley, says he hopes it will “bring some of that Beverly Hills sparkle to the capital”. Perhaps in a bid to try to inject that sparkle, the show features the UK buying agent Thea Carroll, who looks as if she might have come straight out of casting for Selling Sunset, as an adviser to the contestants.
Carroll brings more than simply glamour, however. She is a well-established figure in London’s luxury real estate scene, masterminding property sales all over the world worth hundreds of millions of pounds for ultra-high net worth clients each year.
The Netflix series, meanwhile, is arguably the most intriguing of all, as it is rumoured to have the involvement of a well-known celebrity of the luxury property world, although there is no date yet for broadcast and the streaming service would not say anything on the record about it.
There is one tiny fly in the ointment in all this, though: the fact that, in the middle of the so-called killing season, the wildebeest seem to be disappearing.
In September last year, just as filming for the BBC series was nearing an end, Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget led mortgage rates to skyrocket, although they had already been rising steadily for months, triggering a slow but steady cooling of the property market, which, most analysts agree, is now accelerating.
McPeake doesn’t discuss whether the slowing market influences how their contestants do in getting the super-wealthy to actually commit to buy or sell houses, although Shapiro says: “Without getting into too much detail, the economic conditions do have an impact.”
But most pertinently for executives at the BBC, Channel 4 and Netflix, it remains to be seen whether the fact that hundreds of thousands of prospective viewers are now struggling to pay their mortgage will leave them with any appetite to look at the outrageous homes of the super-wealthy.
McPeake says his show isn’t all super-luxe — although his definition of down-to-earth doesn’t exactly match that of the rest of us.
“Yeah, we don’t forget to stay humble — so we do deal with £500,000. We do deal with £1 million. Plus, you’ll see the down-to-earth reality of selling something of £3 million to £4 million.”