What really happens at an Inside Track seminar
Is it really possible to become a property millionaire in a matter of years? Even when property prices across the board are falling? Merryn Somerset-Webb investigates.
Is it really possible to become a property millionaire in a matter of years? Even when property prices across the board are falling? A good many people would have you think so.
A few months ago I interviewed the very charming Robert Kiyosaki, author of money bestseller Rich Dad Poor Dad. His book has outsold mine (Love is Not Enough; The Smart Woman's Guide to Making and Keeping Money) by hundreds of thousands of copies so I figured he must be on to something.
He says he is. Property. Anyone he said, can start from nothing, and be a millionaire in a matter of a couple of years simply by buying the right properties in the right places. This was in early spring this year, just as the blood bath in the US market was really kicking off. "Even if they buy now?" I said. He couldn't have been more confident. "Absolutely," he said.
Hmmm. He isn't the only one to think like this. Now the UK market is falling too I put the same question to, Brad Rosser, one of the management team of property sales company Inside Track last week. Sure it is, he said. It just "depends where you buy and what you buy."
Both Kiyosaki and Rosser look pretty prosperous so with a view to finding out what they might know that I don't I thought I'd sacrifice one of my Saturday mornings to one of Inside Tracks free seminars on the subject. The point of these is not to actually tell you any secrets but to convince you need them so much that you'll pay to go on one of their weekend courses and then pay more to join their property club but I figured I might get a flavour of the riches on offer out of a couple of hours with their team at the Edgware Road Hilton.
The two and a half hour seminar was run by a woman called Vanessa. Vanessa has been on the Inside Track weekend herself and told us frequently that she has made a fortune since (though clearly not one that means she doesn't still need the commission she gets from her Inside Track salesmanship).
She's very good. You can be a millionaire "in three years or less" she tells us. Property is the "best pension" there is. Inside Track can show you how to buy without ever putting down a deposit ("exchange bonds" apparently). She asks if we really want to keep working for other people forever? If not how will we change our lives? "If you don't do this what will you do?" Everything the papers say about property slow downs is a "pack of lies." The 1990s property crash was like a haircut (wait a bit and everything's soon just fine again). And sub prime in the US? Not an issue. In fact now "is the best time to buy" in Florida.
I'm pleased to say that she gave a few very firm wealth warnings along the way about the risks involved in property investing. But the overall impression was straightforward: let us help you and your future will be assured. How? Simple. Once you know what you are doing you'll fast be buying properties at huge discounts from Inside Track's sister company Instant Access, "the UK's leading membership introducer of off plan residential property in the UK and internationally (primarily the US Orlando and Spain)" and doing so with brilliant mortgages from their other sister company Fuel Investments.
Then we'll have and this is one of Inside Track's signature phrases "instant equity." I want to ask about this. Vanessa's wealth warnings stress that property is a mid to long-term game but the examples she gives us are all about making thousands in "instant equity." But questions aren't allowed until the end.
Next comes the oldest and best sales trick in the book. The course normally costs just under £4000 each but sign up at the seminar and 2 of you can go for less than £3000. Next a more devious trick. Vanessa asks us to put our hands up if we want something for free. We do. She gives someone a bag of DVDs. They're thrilled. Then she points out that you need to go on the course to really understand them. Then she asks who else likes free stuff. We put our hands up again. She says she'll only give it to someone who is serious, who really wants to go on the course. A lot of hands stay up. She chooses someone. Then she hands their DVDs to a sales person. You don't get the DVDs now, says Vanessa, you can pick them up on the course. The sales person takes the punter away to hand over her cash. Vanessa has just made Inside Track going on three grand out of giving away one set of DVDs. Nice. I've spoken to Inside Track at length about all this. They aren't all bad (they're all good sales people they grow on you). They offer a proper cooling off period (the punter above could have called later and said thanks very much I'll have my cash back, you can keep the free' CDs). And they don't flog houses in Bulgaria.
But what is clear about all this is that the success of Inside Track (like that of the hundreds of similar companies around the world doing this kind of thing and that of the mini publishing empires devoted to promoting property such as that of Robert Kiyosaki) is that it is a function of the property bubble. During a bubble everything goes up. Doesn't matter what it is; a rising tide lifts all boats.
So while people investing in buy to let flats in Marbella and Hull may have thought that they were doing well because they were following special expert advice advice so great they were prepared to pay thousands of pounds for it - odds are they were doing well because the market was on their side: house prices around the world (Japan excluded as ever) rose at extraordinary speeds until the end of 2006.
The fact is that it doesn't really matter what you bought five years ago a couple of beach huts just down from Hastings, an unrenovated six bedroom house in Brixton, or just a handful of condos in Orlando - if you'd leveraged yourself up enough and sold at some point you'd have made yourself a million. No advice needed.
So what happens now the market isn't on anyone's side? And in particular now the prices of the kinds of properties buy to let investors and clubs appear to favour new build apartments in Spain, Florida and in UK city centres are falling faster than the prices of any other properties? Inside Track sent me numbers showing me that they've sourced 17,000 units for their clients in the last five years "worth some £2.4bn." They are also pleased that according to their last round of valuations in 2006, their clients now have equity worth £179m.
That sounds good doesn't it? But divide £179m by £2.4bn and the numbers suggest that these investors had an equity cushion of only 7.5% last year. Which doesn't sound so good given that prices in Florida have been in freefall ever since; that the same is true in parts of the Costas; and that there are empty buy to let blocks all over the UK. My guess is that those who have put their faith in clever sounding experts might be about to find out that those experts were actually better at selling books and seminars than at beating markets.