Jayne Dowle

Money for old rope: take care when choosing an estate agent

Money for old rope: take care when choosing an estate agent
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I could recite the standard advice on instructing an estate agent in my sleep. Always invite three to do a valuation, don’t go for the one who quotes the highest asking price, and haggle on commission.

However, it’s not until you sell your own house that you realise this mantra doesn’t even begin to prepare you for the shark-infested waters ahead.

Here was the biggest investment I have ever made, my only source of equity, the once-dream home where I had raised two children. Here was my soul writ large on Rightmove. Tread softly? Any pride I once felt was trampled into the ten tons of dust disturbed by 'decluttering' it for the sales brochure.

After diligently sourcing those three agents, I instructed the one who enthused over the period features, not the one who turned up early, got round four floors and a garden in ten minutes, and handed his business card to my teenage son.

First mistake. Unless it’s a small independent agency, the person who comes to value is not likely to be the one doing the actual selling.

Don’t be fooled by his clipboard bearing local 'comparables'. This is data twisted to flatter you and deter buyers until you reluctantly drop the price by ten grand, wondering if it’s all your fault because the kitchen hasn’t got underfloor heating. He’s there to get instructions. Indeed, he may even be paid by instruction rather than commission on the actual sale.

That’s the commission you keep adding up in your head, muttering, 'that can’t be right - £800 an hour?'. It might all be part of a mysterious business model which makes pyramid-selling look like a school tuck-shop.

Into this model also comes the unsavoury practice of trying to flog legal services and mortgages from associated companies. Everyone takes a cut, except you.

By the way, consumer organisation Which? says that commission can vary between less than 1 per cent to 3.5 per cent. There is no justification for paying more than that, ever.

Obviously, if your valuer is not driven to earn money through commission, he’s not going to be focusing his every working hour on closing the deal, is he? That, in far too many high street agencies, is the responsibility of an army of women (and it is mostly women) who keep purchasers sweet, chase up AWOL conveyancing solicitors and generally make sure that hundreds of thousands of pounds eventually changes hands in your favour.

Before you instruct, pay a visit and check out the operation. In my fantasy estate agency, all the staff would be constantly on the phone or typing frantically, hunting down would-be purchasers.

The reality is they are more likely to be staring at the shop window with its fly-blown sales details, or complaining about their boyfriend/colleague/client.

I am also sad to report that outside London you’ll find agents who don’t open Saturdays, agents who expect you to host all your own viewings, and agents who persist in the delusional belief that advertising in the local paper will flog your three-quarters of a million pound des res with paddock and outbuildings. The response, 'ooh, I don’t do that social media', is not what you want to hear. But you will.

On the subject of contracts, never sign anything binding you to one agent for eternity. I’ve seen documents that require the seller to hand over their house into their not-so tender care for 20 weeks. That’s five months, locked in, unless you pay a large exit fee.

Aim for a month, two at the most. If the agent bridles, take your business elsewhere. The high street – and the internet – are full of them fighting for our custom, and some will do it for a very competitive fixed fee these days. You wouldn’t engage a divorce lawyer or a doctor who didn’t have your interests at heart, so why choose an estate agent who doesn’t care?

In the end, after no viewings and a load of excuses, I showed my original agent the (freshly-painted) front door and found an excellent independent with a brutally-honest approach. How did I do that? He sold me the house I live in now.

Jayne Dowle is a freelance property writer