Not all estate agents are quite as bad as their reputation suggests. As this week's Nationwide Estate Agency Office of the Year awards prove, there are great agents out there - and they can turn the difficult process of buying or selling your home into a positive pleasure. By Penny Jackson
"TAKE TIME and trouble with every client and it will never be wasted." That's the message from this year's estate-agency award winners. And as the industry as a whole undergoes review, they at least are in no doubt that they are held in high regard by both buyers and sellers.

The Nationwide Estate Agency Office of the Year awards are not just a pat on the back from an agent's peers, but rather a voluntary show of approval from the members of the public who nominated them. (Those agents who made the shortlist were checked out by a "mystery shopper".) But as well as showing their satisfaction, disgruntled customers could equally use the questionaire to make their discontent known.

At the top of the list of reasons given for choosing a particular agency was the attitude and behaviour of the staff members themselves. Apart from specific services, such as valuing a property and grasping the requirements of buyers, helpfulness, politeness and professionalism were the three top-scorers.

Sellers, it transpired, were a happier breed than buyers - and both had a higher opinion of the independent than the corporate sector. The overall national winner in the independent sales category is the perfect example of a small business offering a highly personal service. Curtis O'Boyle in Maldon, Essex, has been up and running for only a year, with a single high-street office.

After years of experience elsewhere, Nigel Curtis and Anthony O'Boyle decided it was time to run things their way. So what makes for an outstanding agency? "Spending time with clients - buyers and sellers," says Curtis, firmly. "You cannot do the job properly unless you know what they want.

"It is also important to price a property correctly and be clear about the seller's time-scale. At the beginning we always set out exactly how we are going to market the property. And with buyers we sit down and talk about precisely what they want and where they might make a compromise."

When it comes to choosing an agency, the complaint most often heard is that the plausible front man or woman is not necessarily the person who ends up doing the selling. Another, almost universal criticism, is about poor communication. "Our clients know us all and we keep in touch regularly. That is crucial," adds Curtis.

Although the agency is a newcomer to Maldon the partners in Curtis O'Boyle are not - and an open-door policy and a high personal profile in the area have proved to be more subtle marketing tools that customers have found working to their advantage.

In the corporate sector, sellers have access to a national network of buyers, as well as the services - financial, surveying, research - of a large organisation. But this should not, of course, mean sacrificing an individual service. The overall winner in this category was Buckle & Ballard, in Summertown, Oxford, part of the Bradford & Bingley group which swept the board with seven awards.

Francis Winstone-Partridge, the senior manager, believes that choosing the right agent is a matter of asking the right questions. "We have a very close-knit team here and that is important for sellers. They should find out how well the agent knows the area and look for evidence of similar properties sold and for what price. A good agent should turn up to look at a house with a list of potential buyers in mind. This kind of groundwork is essential. And after a viewing it is vital to report back in detail to the client."

Along with other winners, B&B offers a bespoke, professional service, delivered with enthusiasm to buyers as well as sellers. "It is no good sending them details of houses they haven't asked for, even if it is worth them seeing it. We would ring them first and explain why we were mailing something different," says Winstone-Partridge.

But perhaps it is in the field of lettings and management that it is hardest to get things right. In a sector which is unregulated and particularly prone to unscrupulous operators, the complaints of landlords and tenants are numerous and dismaying - as the Ombudsman's report recently showed.

It comes low in the glamour stakes and is regarded by those in sales as something of a poor relation - an irony given the burst of new investors. Yet it could be argued that a knowledge of the law and ever-changing regulations make a job in lettings and management more, not less, challenging than one in sales. At Valley Estates Lettings & Property Management in Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire, Caroline Virgo has built up the business that won the award in this section.

In her absence, a colleague describes her ethos. "She goes through every detail with landlord and tenant at the outset. If we are not managing the property, this is made clear to the tenant who we like to meet the landlord or his representative. No property is let unless it is spotless and has had safety checks - and we make sure that there are spares of things like light bulbs or fuses.

"The after-care is very important. What starts as a small problem can grow into a huge issue if it is not dealt with immediately. We take a deposit from the landlord for running repairs which speeds things up.

"You have to have patience and a sense of humour too. It is not unheard of for someone to ring late at night because the light in the downstairs loo has gone. Checks are done on properties every three months to prevent disasters at the end of a tenancy."

Clearly - as the National Association of Estate Agents, co-sponsors of the awards, has noted - it is the case that while there is dissatisfaction with the overall sales and lettings process, individual successes do not escape public notice.

Curtis O'Boyle: 01621 855558; Buckle & Ballard: 01865 516201; Valley Estates: 01491 414111