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Bucking the property trend

Martin Malone talks to Rathangan based online businesswoman Fiona McLoughlin


Leinster Leader – 7/04/2010

Its Tuesday morning as I roll to a stop in the carpark at Hotel Keadeen in Newbridge. The government is hours away from breaking its NAMA news and winter has returned in summer to give us a cold snowy reminder of things past and bad things to come.


I arrive a little early, ahead of my latest interviewee and assemble my thoughts. A few minutes later Fiona  McLoughlin joins me. I think its ironic that on the very day the Government remodels our island to make it a ‘Titanic’, that I’m interviewing a hugely successful business woman who operates in the property market (and property, as we all know is our Titanic’s iceberg).

Fiona tells me that’s originally from Castlerea in Co. Roscommon. After living in Newbridge for three years, she now lives in Rathangan with husband Bernard Healy (a GP in Newbridge) and three children Ryan 6, Erin 4 & Freya 2 – Steps of stairs.


Fiona smiles and admits, “I’m kept pretty busy.


“I started out my working career as a nurse – about six weeks in I knew it wasn’t for me, but it was the late eighties and it was all about getting a  job. So, I stuck at the nursing and qualified. After graduating Fiona volunteered her services to an orphanage in Romania. She recalls some of the horrific scenes she witnessed there, children chained to radiators and children with misshapen limbs…


“It was in 2002 – it was pretty brutal and a bit of a shock to the system when we arrived there – the smell of the orphanage; the conditions that they were in.. there was some HIV and kids who were close to what we would call normal”.


Most of the volunteers were non-medical, so Fiona and her two friends were the main medical staff. “ It was a very difficult time. I’ll never forget the cold – we were living in a Portakabin.”


Fiona says it was a good life experience; in terms of realising how fortunate we in Ireland are, and how different political regimes affect people on the ground. Nursing however, was soon to be a thing of the past. She went to NUIG to complete a degree in Law and Politics, winning awards for coming first in both subjects for every year of the degree.


Neither content with topping her class nor resting on her laurels, Fiona went to Ulster University and completed her Masters in PR, Communication and Advertising, with a view to doing political PR in the longterm.


When I ask for which party, she laughs and says, “ I’m not going to say: I never went into it, because of  family differences and stuff.”

Fiona’s thesis for her Masters was on the top then charity organisations in Ireland and as it turned out, instead of entering the political domain, she applied for a position with a charity.


“It was known then as Cerebral Palsy Ireland – I ended up becoming its managing director and rebranding them as Enable Ireland. That was very exciting – it was a huge project.”


Around this time Fiona started to invest in property at home and abroad and eventually left the charity to focus on these interests.


“ The commute to work in Dublin was really brutal – on Thursdays you could be easily four to five hours in the car, between the journey up and the journey down.


Fiona was advising other people on how to present their property for it to sell well. “ It was kind of like your House Doctor in the Uk : de-cluttering your house, presenting it in a specific way to maximise its potential for sale.”


In California Fiona trained with the creator of the staging/house doctor model, experiencing at first hand the practice of selling property privately, without an auctioneer.


“Staging… I now own the trademark for that in Ireland. But it was while in America that I came across the whole concept of selling privately. I wondered why no one was doing this – was there some legal tie?”


There was no legal bind and Fiona incorporated all of her legal , property, branding and staging expertise into growing


The concept proved an immediate hit with the Prime Time investigating team showing it was a successful alternative to selling via an auctioneer and much less costly. Endorsement of Fiona’s business came from the likes of Ben Dunne, Senator Shane Ross, Conor Pope of The Irish Times; people who know the genuine article when they see it. has also been shortlisted for a Golden Spider Award.


Fiona describes herself as a ‘serial learner’ and her interest in new media led to her studying for a Diploma in Digital Marketing and Search Engine Optimisation, for which she earned a distinction.


Fiona says: “ has done well despite the recession as sellers and buyers both realise the margin for negotiation that exists, as up to 2 percent of the price of the property is not paid to an agent when you sell directly.”


On TV’s Ireland AM (where Fiona has had a regular property advice slot for three years and is currently one of the all women panel on TV3’s Midday programme, discussing everything from politics and current affairs) she introduced a “Start your own business competition. “ We generated €50,000 worth of sponsorship for the competition. The winner won everything from laptops to website to I.T support for two years. Fiona approached The Daily Star who chipped in with over €30,000 worth of advertising for the winner.


“I started writing for the Star then, giving people business advice and that – the competition went really well. We got great ratings. And we’re coming back to review the winner in April to see how they’ve progressed,” she says.


A quirky thing happened though. Fiona says, “ I had been wanting to get into the property letting and management for a while and one of the finalists sent me some information about a property management company they were setting up.. so Karl Byrne is now working with me.”


If that wasn’t enough for Fiona she’s currently involved in creating a House Price Index. “You know in Ireland we’re all working off asking prices, which is why we don’t know how hugely overvalued the properties have been with NAMA.”


There has been some talk in the Government of making house prices more transparent. “In my experience even looking at the property services regulatory authority and how long it’s taking for that to be set up, it could take years.


I’m going to set up a house price index – because the market is very local and all we have are generalised average figures for areas. In some  areas it has bottomed out.”


Fiona mentions the recent sale of properties in Mullingar for €82,000 as an example of quick fire sales by cash strapped developers.


“That is bottoming out, its local. In other area, if you’re a good negotiator, there’s still 10 to 15 per cent more to come off it – if you don’t get too invested in the house and you’re prepared to walk away from it, you can get the property at 15 to 20 per cent less,” she said.


There is activity in the market at present, Fiona says, primarily caused by first-time buyers.


“I think the interest rates are going to go up, Greece is keeping the ECB rates from going up at the moment and they may not go up until late this year or into next year. But the national banks are going to push up the interest rates – it’s the only way they’re going to get money out of people.”


Fiona says that she believes in this so much that she changed her own portfolio to a fixed rate. “Over the next ten years we will never see rates as low as they were up until this point.”


We discuss the human aspect of the economic downturn; the negative equity; the householders who can’t afford to make their mortgage repayments; the suicides of the 29 property developers and those of the untallied ordinary homeowner.


Fiona’s advice is sound. “You have to contact your bank manager or whoever you’re in debt to – no bank wants to take a house – what will they do with it? There are options and don’t adopt an antagonistic approach – just discuss the issue and go through the range of options.”


Fiona has been a member of the Newbridge Chamber of Commerce for some years and if she is representative of its members, then it has high calibre individuals indeed.



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