Robots vs humans

How do you search for property these days? For most of the clients I’ve encountered this year the answer is universally “via Rightmove”. Whether you’re logging on at work, surfing after dinner or linking by smartphone, Rightmove seems to be the UK’s choice for buyers and sellers. The website itself claims more UK users than Yahoo, a market share above 80% and over 90% coverage of UK estate agents. Seems simple, doesn’t it? You’re “guaranteed” to spot all the homes you want, you don’t have to talk to the nasty estate agents until you need to and you can search when you want from where you want.

When I first started work as an estate agent (over 15 years ago now!), buyers registered on our mailing list. What this actually meant was we filled out a 6 x 4 blue card with all of their contact details and buying criteria, then popped said card in a alphabetized drawer of about 3000 others. If the buyer was especially proceedable, realistic and motivated, we kept a maximum of 30 cards on our desk (hot applicants, specials) for priority service. When our boss came through the door with a new instruction, we called our matching hot applicants first. Once finished, we might take a stab at the rest of the mailing list but boredom usually won by about the letter S.

So, technology and progress definitely win. Long live the age of the machine!

 Or maybe not?

Have you considered what happens when you try to apply human wants and needs to a robotic search program? Buying a house is a visceral and emotive process so do property websites take this into account. Here are a few issues we’ve come up with;

1) Searching by area or point then radius is all well and good, as long as the buyer has a good grasp of local geography. If not, they could be missing out on plenty of properties because the computer has decided they are “out of range”. For example, I met a client at a Widcombe flat whose search criteria turned out to be BA1 + 1mile. Southern parts of Widcombe are outside this radius yet under a mile from the edge of the city centre and thus well within his actual criteria. Did the flat appear on his Rightmove search? NO. Did he buy the property? YES.

2) Searches can be done on number of bedrooms only – what happens if the property has a loft room or a reception that can be used as an annex or ground floor bedroom? Some buyers need extra receptions (working from home?). There’s no flexibility or context to allow for unusual homes or unusual requirements, forcing buyers to widen their search or (what usually happens) not bother and potentially miss out.

3) Using the “Added In” function? You’re expecting to see only new instructions? You’re actually seeing not only genuine new properties but also price reductions over 4%, properties that have changed agents and also properties that have been artificially “refreshed” by the agent to seem new (although most websites say they discourage this). How do you know the difference?

4) Limited information – searching a property website means initially filtering properties on the merits of a price, a photo and 4 lines of text. I know many estate agents are awful at presentation but even the finest homes can be overlooked if you’re dealing with thumbnail shots and the usual “We are pleased to present” prose.

There are lots more issues we could highlight, like the current clunky smartphone interfaces or the revenue generating phone numbers Rightmove make buyers use to contact the estate agent, but suffice to say property websites are not the shining solution many buyers believe them to be.

However, don’t think because we’ve said this that we don’t believe property websites have an important place in the process. For research into prices and availability, Rightmove and the like are absolutely invaluable. The mistake comes when buyers continue to rely on such sites for the remainder of the search process.

So, how should you search for property?

Use websites to research what is available AND sold in the area you’re looking in. Can you afford what you want? Don’t just rely on the “big” websites – use sites like PropertySnake to see recent price reductions or UpMyStreet for local information. Check sold prices via the Land Registry and market surveys from the Halifax and Nationwide. 

Learn which estate agents deal in the area you’re interested in and make a list of who to call or visit. Don’t ring direct from the website – it’ll cost you!

Buy several issues of the local property paper and cross reference your website research with print – have you missed out on any agents or properties?

If you’re “not from round here” devote at least a whole day to walking or driving around your chosen area. Look for estate agents boards, pick favourite roads (and ones to avoid).

Visit your chosen estate agents – sit down and talk through your requirements. Ask if they are realistic and achievable. Listen to advice and re-tune your criteria if necessary. Give the agent every means of contacting you. Keep checking websites in case an agent not on your list takes on the right property.

Ask local friends or contacts their opinions – take their recommendations on agents, locations, schooling etc on board.

Keep in touch with the agents – pop in or call regularly so they know you’re still around. Make sure you’re the face they remember when a new property comes on.

Think outside the box. Widen your criteria or anticipate compromising on some elements of your wish list. Your ideal home might be exactly what you thought you wanted or something you’d never dreamed you’d like.

Remember the estate agent works for the vendor so make sure they think of you as a good prospect for earning them some commission. Can they get hold of you easily? Are you ready to view quickly?

Don’t just concentrate on new instructions. Revisit properties that have been reduced in price or ask the agent which homes have been on the market for a long time. Never ignore a property just because you’ve “seen it before so there must be something wrong with it”.

Utilising a combination of the internet, printed media, window displays and human contact is far more likely to give a representative selection in your search. It will take more time and effort on your part than sitting in front of the screen but you’re likely to end up with a better result all round.

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