How do you spot a good estate agent? No, I’m not about to tell a joke. It’s a serious question.
With a baby on the way, the need for a double spare room for visiting first-time grandparents and more space to work from home, I’ve started to wonder how much longer our growing family will fit into our compact three-bedroom semi.
We can’t face the hassle of a loft extension and together with the lack of parking we’ll likely sell up in the next year or so. And when we do, we’ll become sellers for the first time.
I didn’t pay much attention to the estate agent I used when I bought my home. After all, I wasn’t paying them and all that mattered was the house, its price and location. But I know it will be much more important to choose the right one when I come to sell.
It appears all too easy to get stuck with a dud. One seller recently told me of the bad experience she encountered when she tried to sell her flat in Lewisham, south east London. She ended up sacking the first agent she appointed because he insisted on bringing round buyers looking for properties with a garden despite her flat having no outside space.
The HomeOwners Alliance, a paid-for advice and support organisation, also told me of a particularly shocking run-in with an agent experienced by one of its members. A lady from Hampshire wanted to sell her home so she could retire to Italy. Her property had been on the market with a local agent but, in order to generate more awareness, she also advertised it online on Gumtree. Another estate agent spotted her ad and got in touch offering to market the property. His advances were unsolicited and no written agreement or terms of business were entered into. A buyer did find the property through this second agent but followed up and proceeded to completion with the local agent the buyer had actually instructed. The other agent then demanded payment for his services, which the buyer says she never sought or agreed to. But that didn’t stop him from issuing court proceedings prior to completion of the sale.
Another member who sold her home privately in Bracknell experienced an attempted claim for commission owed from an estate agent who had tried and failed to sell the property more than a year before, despite the contract being well past its expiry date.
I’m not trying to bash estate agents as I know there are plenty of good ones around and I have nothing but praise for the individual agent who sold me my house. But other than show us around and take a few phone calls when making an offer, we didn’t really need her to do much. I have no idea how our vendors got on with the agency - whether they were charged a competitive fee or felt like they received a good service. In fact, it seems tricky to find any meaningful impartial comparison of estate agents.
A few websites claim to do the job but on close inspection the information they provide seems to lead to more questions than answers. Some are just downright frustrating. Take getagent.co.uk. It claims to let you ‘see which agents will do the best job of selling your home, based on past performance’. But after you enter your postcode, basic property details and a rough asking price, all you actually see is a list of unnamed agents, the average time they take to sell a property, the number of sales they’ve listed in the past six months and average asking price achieved as a percentage. The search results don’t even include the company name. For that you have to hand over your contact details to the website, which will reply to you with a quote from any of the anonymous agents that take your fancy.
The HomeOwners Alliance’s new partner agent comparison site estateagent4me.co.uk is a bit more useful in that it gives the names of the agents. But the information it provides, which is very similar to that from getagent, strikes me as offering no more than a snapshot of the health of my local property market rather than giving any meaningful insight into the skill of a particular agent.
Property expert Kate Faulkner from propertychecklists.co.uk says if I want to find an estate agent I can trust there are a few golden rules.
‘First, search properties for sale on the big portals such as Rightmove by entering your postcode, rough asking price and tick the magic box that says “include under offer, sold STC”. This will give you a list of the local agents that have been selling homes like yours recently. And they should be the agents you approach.’
She says you should always speak to three agents to give you a valuation but don’t be tempted to simply plump for the one that gives you the highest amount. ‘The auctioneer principal is far more effective. An auctioneer gives the minimum, or reserve, price in the hope of drumming up competition among buyers and that’s what leads to higher prices.’
She adds that the real way to gauge whether an agent is trustworthy is to ask them a series of questions and get the answers in writing before signing up to their service.
‘Ask how many borrowers looking for property priced around your asking price they currently have on their books. Then ask how long they think it will take to arrange 10 viewings of your property (how many it takes on average to generate an offer). Ask for examples of similar properties they have recently sold and how long it took to agree a sale and how many viewings they arranged. Then ask for their terms of business. They generally operate on a no-sale, no-fee basis but still find out what the fee will be, including VAT. And check how long you’ll be locked into a contract, and whether they demand exclusivity.’
Laura Whitcombe is knowledge and product editor at ThisisMoney.co.uk.