How online estate agencies measure up

Very interesting view from The Sunday Times about the new landscape in marketing homes for sale. There is definitely a potential saving by paying up front but at the expense of success. Only 48-58% of properties advertised with agents charging upfront are selling compared with 80% typically of those listed with agents charging on results.

Until recently, it seemed all estate agents were much the same: you agreed to pay commission, usually 1%-2% of the asking price, on completion of the sale. Then you sat back and bit your nails. Now, thanks to digital disruption, it’s all change.

Today, online agents make up 5%-6% of the market. You pay an upfront fee, with potentially huge savings. Purplebricks, easyProperty, HouseSimple, Yopa, eMoov and Sarah Beeny’s Tepilo — regarded as the six biggest online agencies — charge between £495 and £1,500, depending on how much work you want them to do.

A conventional agent’s commission of, say, 1.25% on a £250,000 home comes to £3,125, plus £625 VAT. If you’re selling at £1m, the bill would be £12,500, plus £2,500 VAT. By going online, then, you could be thousands of quids in.

A new player in the online agency market, HouseTree, is taking things a step further. It says it will effectively do the job free of charge. It asks for £996 in upfront commission, but will refund up to 100% of that fee if you use all its recommended mortgage and conveyancing services — usually not a good idea.

“Sellers rarely take into consideration additional costs such as conveyancing and a mortgage broker,” says Alan Simpson, HouseTree’s chief executive. “We realised we could use the commission normally received from these services to fund our fees.”

Yet is this increasingly cut-throat competition really a bargain? All online firms now list your home on Rightmove and Zoopla — where most buyers start searching — and many will send a “For sale” board and a local expert to advise on the asking price. But most insist that you handle viewings, offers and negotiations directly. Those local representatives often have huge patches to cover, so rarely rock up more than once. And once you’ve paid, what incentive remains for the agent to find a buyer or secure a sale at the highest possible price?

The figures are telling. The comparison website GetAgent reports that in 2016 and early 2017, traditional agents typically found a buyer for more than 80% of the homes they marketed. Online firms sold only 48%-58% of properties. Many disappointed vendors go on to hire traditional agents to finish the job — meaning they effectively have to pay twice.

Purplebricks, which has completed on £8.5bn worth of property over the past two years, and is set to expand in the US, disputes this. “It comes down to reputation and word of mouth,” it says. “You need to earn a good reputation in the local market in order to build a sustainable business.”

Some would argue that the buyer can suffer, too. Christian Warman, director of Tedworth Property Group, a high-end London agency launched last week, received poor service when he decided to purchase a flat through an online firm. “I made a low offer, but before it was submitted they tried to sell me add-on services — conveyancing, insurance, mortgages, surveys,” he says. “I suspect this is where they make money, as they’ve no motivation to sell once the vendor has paid upfront.”

He didn’t hear anything for two months, until the agency got in touch to see if he was still looking for a home. It had no record of his earlier offer.

There can also be collateral damage when an online agency doesn’t perform. Rupert Lawson Johnston, an agent at Strutt & Parker’s Newbury office, is selling a £1.25m home, but the deal might be scuppered. “There’s a chain of four, and online agents are failing to chase the sale of the flat at the bottom, causing a standstill,” he says.

Again, Purplebricks rejects the criticism. “If you’re a traditional agent, you’re going to throw a bit of mud, aren’t you? We’re giving people an alternative to the old costly structure of commission.”

Even if online agents are a mixed blessing, their existence is forcing some traditional firms to respond by charging less commission. A survey of 5,000 movers by the Property Academy, an industry think tank, reveals that a third paid traditional agents 1%, while another third paid even less. “It is no coincidence that since Purplebricks has been in existence, the average commission rate charged by traditional agents looks to have reduced. More telling than their criticism is the fact that many are now trying to imitate our model,” Purplebricks says.

If you are tempted by low fees but keen to minimise risk, there are safety nets. Countrywide, Britain’s biggest agency, offers online sales to vendors, who can then, if they wish, upgrade to full service, with the initial costs deducted from the commission paid.

Meanwhile, agentlocator. co.uk, a comparison website promoting conventional estate agencies, has a “Purplebricks price beater” facility. Enter your postcode and up pops a list of nearby agents offering old-school service at the same price as the firm — or less.

No one can say estate agents are all the same any more. The problem for vendors is picking one who can actually sell their property in this tricky market.

Hi-tech help for movers

THEADULTBIBLE.CO.UK 
A practical guide to the things they don’t teach you at school, this website details the types of mortgage you can get and explains how to find and buy a home — with links to official portals. There’s also advice on paying bills, running a household and setting the dinner table like a pro.

SHPOCK 
Use this digital boot-sale app to earn extra cash by selling items you don’t want to take with you when you move.

FACEBOOK 
Get a feel for the neighbourly vibe before laying down roots by scoping community Facebook groups and pages in the postcode you’re thinking about relocating to. “Content ranges from activities for children all the way to job adverts,” says Jamie Nicholas, manager of Country Properties estate agency’s branch in Shefford and Lower Stondon, Bedfordshire. “It’s a brilliant way for a town or village to come together, which subsequently increases its desirability.” By scrolling through the chatter and posts, you’ll get a feel for life in the area and any issues. You can also find out about local organisations and businesses, including places to eat and drink.

WHENYOUMOVE.COM
To make property purchasing a smoother and almost paperless process, this platform puts all parties involved in one place, so they can share documents and updates on where they’re at — it might also speed things up. Invites to download are sent to the mortgage broker, the estate agent, the solicitors, the buyer and the seller; once everyone has done so, they can see real-time updates on the progression of the sale to completion. 

AROUNDME
Find your new favourite coffee shops and cocktail bars, as well as essential amenities such as chemists, banks, supermarkets and hospitals, by pinpointing your whereabouts using GPS on this app. It will identify what’s nearby and it’s powered by Google, which means you get directions, contact details and previous user reviews.

Charlotte Vowden