Nobody actually likes estate agents. So how do you choose one you can do business with?
IT COULD have been the stuff of a TV fly-on-the-wall documentary, but Lynda Forrest was not playing to the cameras when she invited seven estate agents to her one-bedroom flat to pitch for the business of selling it. Before making her shortlist, Ms Forrest visited all their offices, checking how busy they were, and how they responded to her in person and on the telephone.

"I'd never sold a property before, so I wanted to do it properly," says Ms Forrest, whose gruelling schedule took up the best part of a week. "If I had to talk to someone for the next four to six weeks I needed to have that gut instinct that they could sell my flat. I wanted to be able to give them a set of keys and say `Get on with it'."

Ms Forrest prepared a list of questions to ask each agent and sent them away with a checklist of facts about the property. The valuations were all pretty much the same, but levels of enthusiasm varied.

"They all knew I wanted to put the flat on the market the following Monday, yet some agents only followed up their visit with a boring letter," adds Ms Forrest. "I was wary of agents who said they had a client base of around 200 people when I knew that they didn't have enough staff to keep track of that number of people."

"Enthusiasm and confidence" helped her make her final choice. "All the staff were incredibly friendly when I went into the office. I thought happy staff were more likely to do a good job," she says. Did the valuation sway her decision? "It was higher than the others, but I've set a time limit for the sale and the agent is confident he can meet that."

Hugh Dunsmore-Hardy, chief executive of the National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA), thinks the public should be less accepting of property valuations. "Agents should be able to show evidence of comparable property values," he says. He also warns against just choosing the agent charging the lowest commission. "The cheapest may not deliver the quality of service. Look for testimonials from clients," he says.

Understandably, Mr Dunsmore-Hardy advocates membership of one of the professional bodies, where certain levels of competence can be expected. "The public need the assurance that estate agents are following best practice, especially if things go wrong," he says. He suggests that agents need to put more emphasis on communications, keeping the vendor updated even when a buyer has been found.

Stephen Smith from Bushells estate agents in south London, which won the instruction from Ms Forrest, welcomes her approach. "Estate agents don't get quizzed enough, which means people end up choosing an agent for the wrong reasons - the highest valuation, the lowest fee or because of an out-of-date recommendation," he says. Carrying out your own research on foot and by telephone is essential; pay a visit to the agent's website, too. "See where the agency is located in the high street, and if the staff are on the phone or just sitting there hoping a property will sell itself," advises Mr Smith. "Staffing levels and experience are very important."

However thorough your selection procedure, the human element is bound to creep in. "Personality does count," remarks Ms Forrest. "The guy from Bushells was the only one who drank my tea."

Bushells, 0181-299 1722; Barringtons, 01753 880200; NAEA 01926 496800

How to Choose the Right Estate Agent

l You don't have to like your agent, but it is important to feel that you can trust them.

l Visit and telephone the offices as a "purchaser" to see how you are greeted and what response you get.

l An experienced staff makes all the difference. Who will be handling your sale?

l The staff should appear smart and tidy if they are to instil confidence in potential purchasers.

l Ask at least three agents to visit your property and give you a valuation. Make sure you include independents as well as chains.

l View sample details of similar properties on the agents' books, noting the use of photographs and attention to detail.

l Check staffing levels and opening hours. Will viewings be accompanied?

l Do they phone and mail out all new instructions?

l How often will you be updated on your sale's progress?

l Discuss fees.