Estate agents are notoriously competitive but while some manage to get on with rivals, for most it's a dog-eat-dog world out there on the high street. Ginetta Vedrickas reports
THE UGLY scenes in Marseilles may prove that conflict is endemic to football. But how about "our lads" on the high street? Are estate agents healthy competitors or deadly enemies?

"I love them all," squeals Mark Pendred, in a tone reminiscent of Larry Grayson. Mark works for independent agents John Thorogoods in Battersea's Northcote Road, where seven agents compete for business within a quarter- mile radius.

Is it a peaceful coexistence? "Everyone pushes their own strengths. Our manager's been in the business for 21 years but you get boys over the road who are there for six months and move on," Mark sniffs.

Thorogoods rely heavily upon personal recommendation, with many clients already living in the area. Mark believes the larger agencies prefer "the glossy magazine approach" which he feels works only for "things that don't sell particularly quickly" and finds rival agents try to poach clients.

"It's a bit naughty once there's a board up," says Mark. "They send letters saying: `Dear disappointed, we see you are unable to sell your property but we can help you'. Often we just haven't had time to get the `under offer' board up." Mark adds wistfully: "It would be nice if there wasn't anyone else."

Joanna Watkins, manager of Chestertons' Fulham branch, thrives on rivalry but prefers to call it competition: "It's healthy and good for business." With over 30 agencies in Fulham, does she socialise with her competitors? "We're always bumping into each other so we can't help it. Everyone goes to the pub and talks business, you want to know what you're up against," says Joanna, who finds that she's built up "trust and great friendships" over the years.

But trust is the last thing on some Fulham agents' minds. One confided that he is certain a rival firm is removing their sale boards, at a cost of pounds 10 each, and is considering hiring private detectives to catch the culprit. Has Joanna experienced this? "At the end of the day it's big business and everything happens but I've no wish to see anything like that."

Surely healthy competition turns to bitter enmity in a poor market? I ask, in a bid to get nice Joanna to say something nasty. "We go down the pub and have a good moan," is the worst she will admit to. Chestertons operate a quarterly and six monthly incentive scheme to encourage negotiators and give vouchers to top performers. Joanna believes effort is an investment "which gets you noticed in the company" but a particular quality is vital: "If you are hungry you will make a lot of money and we only want hungry negotiators."

Does David Parkin, an experienced surveyor, see much evidence of trust and friendship? "They're all at each others' throats, it's very funny," he says. "We often value somewhere and look for recent, comparable sales in the area. We approach other agents but they frequently give us duff information to kill a sale."

David finds that some agents are extremely competitive and try to mislead him to scupper rival sales. "Sometimes they think I'm from out of town and, in hilly areas like Crystal Palace, I have been told that certain properties won't be able to get insurance. This backfires alarmingly when it's their sale," adds David.

Steve Smith, manager of Bushells' Dulwich branch, is benevolent towards competitors but has warned younger, inexperienced negotiators: "We're not at war."

The battle lines look clearly drawn on Dulwich's Lordship Lane. While sitting in Steve's office I watch a rival agent cross the road in an attempt to avoid looking in Bushell's window. But how do agents know what the competition is selling and, more importantly, at what price? "I'd be surprised if at least four of our competitors were not on the mailing list," he says.

Steve loves everyone and organises an annual charity lunch and raffle for local businesses where everyone gets together for "a bit of banter". But there are, he concedes, notable absentees, which seems surprising when you hear about the quality of the raffle prizes: "We had a Bushells' umbrella last year and I was desperate for another agent to win it."

If you decide to market your property with more than one agency beware: inter-agency rivalry could result in you being sued. Some agents operate a practice of "shared commission", where they jointly market a property and split the commission rather than compete solely for the 3 per cent fee.

This tacit agreement is not always straightforward and vendors could receive two bills. One agent describes a case that has gone wrong: "We showed a client a property and he liked it but couldn't decide. He later approached another agency who was also marketing it and made the offer through them but they refuse to split the fee."

The first agency has lost out and so has the vendor. "We made the introduction and will continue to chase them for our fee," says the agent.

Steve Smith agrees that vendors can get caught in the crossfire: "Established agents act properly but there are sharper agents who do not perceive the long term view." A senior negotiator was surely only considering the short term when he - allegedly - punched a junior from his own branch and you may shortly read further details of this shining example of competition when the case comes to court.

Rivalry does not always result in a legal battle or a fist-fight. A recent television programme featured a Streatham agency manager who likened his two negotiators to Rottweilers. The programme was shown and the agency was deluged with dog biscuits - proving that it's a dog- eat-dog world on the high street.

John Thorogoods: 0171 2287474; Bushells : 0181 2991722.