The face of estate agency is ever changing. I remember when I first started my career in the industry, one of the unique selling points of the agency for which I worked was producing full colour property brochures! Some agents used a black and white photocopier for the details then stuck a colour photo on the front, after developing the 35mm film from Boots. I remember when Thursday was the busiest day of the week; when applicants would eagerly await the newspaper to discover which new properties had come onto the market. It is, therefore, no understatement to say that estate agency has changed beyond recognition over the last decade and, as we enter an ever increasingly digital world, it is not very hard to see where it’s heading. Or is it?
As more and more people have turned to the internet to make life easier, the birth of the online agency has arrived. I would be blinkered, foolish even, if I thought for one moment that these agencies were not here to stay. On the face of it, the concept sounds perfect – pay considerably lower agency fees to sell your property. Sounds too good to be true. I’m often asked why someone should use a ‘traditional’ estate agent over one of our cyber counterparts. Well, I admit I am approaching this from a slightly biased standpoint but I do believe there are some very valid reasons why the High Street agent is not the endangered species that some may think.
To me, estate agency is, and always should be, about achieving the best possible price for property owners. An effective way to achieve this is by using a combination of marketing tools: good quality photos (certainly no washing up on the draining board or clutter lying around); good, clear floor plans and the trusty estate agency ‘For Sale’ board. It is true that, for a fraction of the cost, you could employ an online agent who would provide all these basic things but, as far as I can see, that’s where the similarities end. There is so much more to selling property in order to ensure owners achieve the best possible price.
It’s easy to grab a headline advertising ‘Low Fees’ and asking the consumer, ‘Why wouldn’t you?’ Well, here is the answer. Online agents deal with an extremely high turnover. They need to obtain as many instructions as possible and then sell them as quickly as possible. In most cases, the agency fee is paid up-front so, in essence, their job is done before they start. Will they go the extra mile to achieve that extra ten or twenty thousand pounds for their clients? Or, will they simply want to see ‘Sold’ as quickly as possible, so they can move on and take their next fee? In addition, when a property is being sold through an on-line agent, the majority of property viewings are left to the owners to carry out. Years of experience tell us that accompanied viewings are far more likely to produce good offers.
Then there is the human element. Many online agents operate from a call centre (often not even based locally) where potential buyers will telephone an advisor to ask for details about a property, but will find themselves speaking to someone who has never actually viewed it themselves. The vast majority of people buy property through an emotional attachment they have formed when viewing, so it is vital that members of staff can convey the feeling of a property to any potential buyer. I have always believed that you can’t sell something you haven’t seen and that is why all our staff inspect all our properties upon instruction. It is also very reassuring to identify with the person you are trusting to sell your (most likely) largest asset.
One of the biggest issues I can identify is perhaps one to which many would not even give a second thought: after sales service. Finding a buyer is only part of the job. The work then really begins in earnest, involving hours progressing the sale to a satisfactory exchange of contracts. The national fall-through rate for house sales is approximately 1 in 3 – a staggeringly high number. It is little wonder that people are frustrated with the system we have in this country (a rant for another time!). There are a number of reasons for the high ratio of sales falling apart after an agreement has been made; agents rushing to find the wrong buyer in the first place; failing to negotiate following the survey and quite frequently failing to spend enough time communicating with all the parties involved. Sales don’t magically happen after an offer has been accepted. We work tirelessly behind the scenes to minimise the risk of sales falling through and are proud that our ratio is only 1 in every 10 agreed sales.
There is also the small matter of the High Street presence. I seriously debated before opening Cole’s whether to launch the company as an online agency. I was itching to get started and was struggling to find a suitable office. Seven and half years later I’m so very glad I waited, as an office has proved invaluable. As I mentioned earlier, for most people their property is their biggest asset, so it is vital to have the opportunity to come into the office to have a chat, to jump for joy, to cry or simply to have a cup of tea.
The industry will, no doubt, continue to change, but, from what I have seen to date, the need for online agents to sell property as quickly as possible jeopardises their ability to achieve the best price for their clients. I believe that this new approach to selling houses will come at a cost – a cost to home owners who will probably be none the wiser.