Working with Estate Agents
Poor old estate agents. Sellers see them as the devil in a Debenhams suit, trying to swindle them out of a couple of thousand pounds simply for popping a picture in the window and harassing them on a weekly basis to drop their price, carving valuable pounds off the deposit for their new place; and buyers just think they’re getting money for old rope, opening a few doors and stating the screamingly obvious: “This is the kitchen....” – no kidding?
Estate agents are stereotyped at their worst as patronising, slimy salespeople who don’t listen to what either buyers or sellers really want, and who are quite prepared to lie, bully and dirty-deal their way to a sale, their only motivation being the potentially fat commission cheque at the end of the month and a company car upgrade (Vauxhall Astra to Peugeot 306, if you’re asking). But those are few and far between. At their best, they’re experts in their local area, very personable and professional, and good negotiators who genuinely want the best possible deal for all parties. The rotten reputation is unfair because, while there are certainly some rogues out there, and a fair number who are simply untrained and a little bit hopeless, most are pretty decent.
Half the problem is the negative perception that both sellers and buyers think estate agents have far more influence and power than they actually do. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the estate agent but the vendors who have the final say on the asking price, when viewings can take place, how much they will sell for and when they’re prepared to exchange and complete; mortgage lenders control surveys and mortgage offers; and solicitors dictate how long the legal conveyancing takes. Yes, the agent should be tracking the whole process, keeping things moving along and making sure everyone involved is regularly updated, but they aren’t responsible – and therefore to blame - for much that can go wrong. Forgetting to turn up to a viewing or not making a phone call when they said they would is about as serious as it gets for a sales negotiator. Rocket science it ain’t.
And that’s the other part of the problem. Because you can just about muddle through as an estate agent without too much difficulty and you don’t need any qualifications to speak of in this country, it’s a job pretty much anyone can do. The less-desirable firms paying very low basic wages but with the promise of good commission tend to attract staff who see an easy buck to be made and, unfortunately, they’re often the ones who make the most noise and about whom the most noise is made. The over-familiar, “He-llo Patrick, how are you today, alright?”, instantly puts aged Mr Harrison, wincing at someone young enough to be his grandson addressing him like one of their mates, on the offensive.
But it’s not all one-way traffic on the suspicion and disapproval front – there are plenty of things buyers and sellers do that really irritate or get in the way of a good estate agent doing their job, so before you let off steam, just see whether you’re guilty of any of the following ....
I’ll start with vendors, because they certainly have the potential to be the hardest work, from the estate agent’s point of view! Firstly, the valuation. Estate agents like selling nice properties, because they’re easy to sell, and when I say ‘nice’, I don’t necessarily mean expensive and unique, I mean a property that the owner clearly takes pride in and where they enjoy living – a well-cared for and well-loved space. When you walk into value something that’s untidy and/or unclean, alarm bells ring, because if that’s how people are willing to present their home to the person who’s essentially responsible for its PR, and who they’re relying on to get the best possible price on their behalf, then you can pretty much guarantee that’s how it’ll look when you take a prospective buyer around. And that’s hard work, because no matter how much people tell you, “Oh, don’t worry, I can see through clutter and a bit of muck”, trust me, when it comes to it, most can’t. So if you’ve booked a valuation, put some effort into getting your home ship-shape, and keep it that way. Remember that for the period of time you’re selling your property – if you really want to sell quickly and at the best price - it’s no longer primarily your home, it’s a show home.
Then be absolutely sure you want to sell and let the estate agent do their job. As an agent you always know you’re in for a hard time when the vendor is difficult about viewings because, while every now and then you’ve just got someone who’s a bit nervous about letting strangers in, nine times out of ten it means they’re simply ‘testing the market’ and there’s nothing more annoying. If you really want to move, give the agent a key and be very flexible about letting people look around. People who insist on being there themselves and always seem to have ‘other arrangements’ that mean a viewing’s simply not convenient, are probably never going to actually sell, they just want to be able to tell their friends how much their home’s worth - and it’s a real kicker when it’s not as much as they thought.
Really good estate agents have, arguably, a better idea of true property values than surveyors, because they are not only valuing and selling houses on an almost daily basis, but they’re also – and most importantly - constantly speaking to prospective buyers, who are the key to the value. As my manager used to mutter when vendors insisted their house was worth tens of thousands more than he’d said it was, “It’s worth what someone will pay for it.”
We once had a property on our books that we’d valued at around £630,000 but, after a tussle with the vendors, we agreed to market it at £700,000, on the understanding that if there wasn’t any interest we’d bring the price down to £650,000. Week after week nobody wanted to view and, week after week, we’d have the same conversation with the vendors, until eventually they came in to the office to talk to us. “We’ve been speaking to people and we think that the reason nobody’s been to view is because it’s too cheap and they think there must be something wrong with it, so we’d like to put the asking price up to £750,000.” We dis-instructed ourselves.
But whereas with sellers any issues are usually to do with their preconceptions and personality types, with buyers the problems tend to arise because of genuine ignorance about the process, most often in the cases of first time buyers or older people who simply haven’t moved for years. A lot of the time they don’t understand mortgages or conveyancing, because it’s rarely fully explained. One woman thought that simply because she had £30,000 saved up as a 10% deposit, she would be able to buy a £300,000 property, despite the fact she only earned £30k a year, and another couple didn’t realise their solicitor would need the deposit funds on exchange and delayed the transaction by a month while they accessed the funds. While you don’t need to know all the ins and outs of the financial and legal processes, you should have a basic idea, more than anything so that you know what questions to ask your broker and solicitor at various points throughout the transaction and can keep one step ahead.
If you’re serious about looking for a property, you should do your best to ingratiate yourself with estate agents. You want them to pick up the phone to you first, as soon as they take on a property, and for them to do that they need to know you’re serious, have your finances in place and can be flexible about timescales. Visit a good independent mortgage broker, get an agreement in principle from a lender and make sure the deposit funds are easily accessible.
When you register with agents, be as specific as possible about the most important things for you and also about the things that you absolutely don’t want. You’ll very quickly realise which agents are on the ball and understand what you’re looking for. When you have viewings, always give the agent feedback as to the good and bad aspects of what they’ve shown you so that they get a really good picture of what you want, and if they call you before they’ve even had time to produce any details - unless there’s a good reason it won’t be suitable - always try to go and view it. It used to drive me mad when I phoned people who had said they were ready to move, wanted to see new properties right away and would ‘definitely’ view on a basis of a verbal description, only to be told, “Mmm, it sounds quite nice, could we just wait and see the details first?” A good agent won’t want to waste either your time or theirs trying to drag you round something unsuitable, so go to the viewing and build the relationship. Generally speaking, if you trust your agent, they’ll trust you.
There are more than a few horror stories, and as an agent I’ve been lied to by other agents, telling me surveys had taken place up the chain when they hadn’t even been booked, or that their clients had found a property to move to when they were really still looking, but while there are often minor hiccups, most sales go through without too much hassle. And when you’re making or considering offers, remember that the ’best deal’ isn’t necessarily about money. As a buyer, if you can exchange quickly and be flexible with your completion date, that could be worth several thousand pounds, and when you’re a seller considering an offer that you think is too low, bear in mind your buyer’s position and how much that could be worth to you. Taking ten thousand less for the peace of mind of knowing you have a committed buyer who can work to your timescale is often a better deal than waiting for a higher offer, and the estate agent should be negotiating that effectively.
1. Usually have managers and sometimes senior negotiators who are FNAEA (Fellowship of the National Association of Estate Agents) qualified. The agency will also be a member of the Ombudsman Scheme.
2. Rarely give you the highest valuation on your property. (Less credible agents tend to overvalue simply to get the property onto their books.)
3. Will ask you lots of questions to make sure they fully understand your position and needs, whether you’re selling or buying.
4. Communicate with you regularly.
5. Will be people you like!
I’m selling my house - how do I find a good estate agent?
1. Look online and in the local paper to see which agents are selling houses like yours and which have the best adverts with good photographs and descriptions.
2. Pick what look like the best three and mystery shop them. Pose as a prospective buyer, looking for something similar to your own home, register your details and book some viewings. See how they treat you, what they show you, how they conduct the viewing and how they follow it up afterwards with you, because this is a good indication of how they’ll be dealing with your prospective buyers.
3. Understand that you tend to get what you pay for, and any agent who’s offering to sell your house for 1% or less is unlikely to be putting in their best effort.
Guest article produced by Sarah Walker of Platinum Property Partners.