Upmarket real estate agency Unique Estates has bitten the dust. The principal, Nicolette Van Wijngaarden, founded the agency in Byron Bay in 2009 and it grew to seven offices including Sydney, Melbourne, Gold Coast and Hong Kong. The agency concentrated on premium properties over one million dollars and recently expanded into yacht and jet charter.
“It is with great sadness that I inform you that Unique Estates is going into liquidation today and you are to stop work straight away,” founder, Nicolette van Wijngaarden emailed staff. “Wages can not be paid tomorrow. I am very sorry it has come to this.” she wrote.
Nicolette only started the business after her partner at the time had difficulty selling a large estate on Friday Hut Road, Possum Creek. Armed with a marketing background she jumped in headfirst and quickly made a mark. The agency published the glossy Unique Luxury Magazine distributed to Qantas Airways Chairman’s, First Class & Business Class Lounges both nationally and internationally. Ads cost $4500 per page. The Unique Estate principal came armed with an impressive ‘little black book’ and was able to land some very big sales. But many of her listings went on the market at too high a price and more than a few disgruntled sellers were forced to find follow up agencies to do a mop up.
The main question is whether Ms Wijngaarden is really unique or just another incarnation of a previous high flying agent by the name of Sarah Dougan. In 2011, Sarah Dougan opened a Belle Property franchise in Byron with lots of flash and promise. Sarah Dougan put together investor syndicates to buy top end properties for the Holiday Let market. She left a trail of woe in her wake and made off to Los Angeles with the bulk of the trust account and many disgruntled debtors. Efforts to extradite her to face charges have not been met with success.
We will not know any of these details until the liquidators McGrathNichol, appointed by the Office of Fair Trading, have done their work. Personally, my dealings with Nicolette were always pleasant and professional. I felt she was authentic and well meaning. However, a licensed agent is required to manage a “trust account”. The name is what it implies, an agent is holding large sums of their clients money “in trust”. Any principal who uses trust account funds for operational or personal transactions has crossed the line and is playing with the devil.
Again, we do not know if there was any malfeasance until we have the liquidator’s findings. But I am sure there are many innocent owners and buyers caught up in this and feeling very agitated. Ex Unique agents Gary Brazenor and Denzil Lloyd have now moved to Bangalow Real Estate under the excellent principal, Mary O’Connor. Most agents I deal with are highly qualified and capable people. When episodes like this happen, the public’s already low opinion of real estate agents is reinforced, which is unfortunate, as that is not my experience.