The agents behind the masks

Online agents haven’t been much of a factor in the Bath property market in the past and, despite massive advertising campaigns, the biggest players in this sector still have less than 2.5% market share in the city (less than half of what they would claim in other areas of the country). Like many agents, in the fast market we have enjoyed for the past few years their properties have sold well. However, now we are in a more uncertain phase, we are encountering a lot more dissatisfied customers of these onliners looking for a real local expert to help them out.


There is an inherent problem though – the vast majority of these owners have paid for the onliners services up front. As a recent example, I was asked to a valuation last week where the couple had been on the market for months with one online agent and had only been provided with two viewings in that time. They had been advised a hugely inflated asking price, had paid extra for accompanied viewings and had even been charged £100 for a premium listing on Rightmove. Their upfront spend was already almost £2000 but with no results to show from it. I spent over two hours with them auditing their current marketing and discussing recent local sales. I also discussed that we would be able to offer far more advice, local knowledge, a wider customer base and loads more advertising (not to mention the sales support after offer acceptance that online agents offer but rarely deliver).

At the end, I gave them a full list of changes to make but, for the sake of complete transparency, had to also advise them that they would lose all their “investment” with the online agent if they switched to us.

The next day, the owners came into the office to say that they would love to appoint us to help them and they wish they’d come to us first but they can’t write off the amount of money they have already paid to the onliners. They are going to instruct their current agent to implement all of my suggested changes and I really hope that does the trick for their sale.

So, despite some unbelievably bad initial advice, substandard marketing and a total lack of communication, the online agent will probably end up still selling this couples home. I would be the first to congratulate the clients if this happens (and they’ve promised to keep me in touch with their progress) but it does annoy me that they feel so trapped.

Alongside upfront fees (and linked to them), the second biggest issue we are encountering with online agents is the total lack of support their customers get once an offer is accepted. Although it’s the mostly unseen part of our job, the time proper estate agents spend keeping sales ticking along from offer to completion garners more feedback from our customers than any other aspect of our services. At our office, Sarah spends almost all of her time working on agreed sales – chasing solicitors, co-ordinating timescales, arranging inspections and generally fighting fires. When one of our customers is involved in a chain, she speaks regularly to the other agents in that chain. However, over the past year, I’ve been keeping track of her chains involving online agents and their willingness to communicate. The results aren’t hard to express – not once have we been actively contacted by an online agent in a chain and our attempts to get hold of them have, on at least 90% of occasions, resulted in silence.

We have just completed on one of our clients properties which sold to a buyer using a well known online agent (to sell their own house). The total transaction took from 15th Feb to 14th June and, at no time during this period did we receive one single communication from the onliner. Every scrap of news from the chain below had to be gathered from the owners & buyers themselves. Once we got to exchange, I asked our buyer what his thoughts were on the experience he had just gone through. To paraphrase his full feedback, “it wouldn’t have gone through without Sarah’s efforts and I’ve learnt my lesson that you get what you pay for”.

If the online agent has already been paid, they don’t care whether your property sells or not. If they are charging cheap fees, they can’t afford to employ enough people to do Sarah’s job (and a fancy website is no substitute). If an up front fee basically equates to a Rightmove advert, it may be interesting to see how the various onliners get on when the market becomes tough.

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