Such a caring, sharing business

Estate agents are trying to improve their image, but will we ever learn to love them

Spring beckons, interest rates have fallen to record lows and houses look more affordable than they have for years. Conditions seem perfect for home-owners and prospective buyers alike to set foot again in the property market - and, in doing so, reacquaint ourselves with a breed we had all but forgotten existed: the estate agent.

In surveys of public opinion, estate agents rarely come out well. Lists of the professions least trusted by the public generally place them somewhere between journalists and politicians; that is to say, several notches below cat-burglars. At one time in the mid-Eighties property boom, when money grew on bricks, so low was their public standing that most estate agents would, if asked, admit to pretending to be something else at dinner parties: arms dealer was a favourite.

However, at the recent Estate Agent of the Year Awards, that glittering event sandwiched between the Brits and the Oscars in the annual calendar of self-congratulation, there was no such doubt. Held this year at the most expensive hotel in London, the Lanesborough, the message of the ceremony was clearer than if a board had been erected on the front lawn: "We are estate agents and we are proud."

Joanna Haydon-Knowell, for instance, almost expired with satisfaction on hearing her name called from the platform. Walking from her table, she broke down like a three-time Academy award nominee finally getting her Oscar.

"I can't believe it," Ms Haydon-Knowell blubbed, patting away tears of triumph and kissing Sue "Crimewatch" Cook (the celebrity award presenter) on each cheek as she trousered a pounds 500 prize for her labours. "I cried when I won the regionals, but to win the nationals, it's ... it's ... amazing."

The awards on offer were not to mark the kind of estate agent activity you might have expected. The annual list of winners did not include gongs for "the most audacious piece of over-valuation" or "the year's most convincing excuse for not sending any prospective buyers round for three months". No, none of that. This was about image-building. "We have," said May Storrie, president of the National Association of Estate Agents, "to educate the public that there are estate agents and there are estate agents."

Indeed?

"You see, the trouble is that anyone can just decide to become an estate agent without any qualifications or regulations and there is nothing anyone can do to stop them. The point of our organisation is to establish the credibility of the profession, and the awards are a celebration of all that is the best in it. Through that we hope to raise public awareness of the excellent service we offer."

"We try exceptionally hard," explained Mark Buckley, managing director of Oxford-based Finders Keepers and the Phil Collins of the estate agency world, so accomplished is he at picking up awards. "If you're going to do it, do it properly. The thing above all in this business is to be able to react quickly."

And with that he handed over a press release from a folder he carried under his arm, detailing how his agency had won an award at this year's ceremony. Which is what you call reacting quickly. Either that or Mystic Meg is on his board.

Winners were voted for by customers. "Unlike most awards, this is genuine marketplace feedback," said Hugh Dunsmoore Hardy of the NAEA, "that's why it provides such a fillip for the property community." Almost 9,000 votes were cast, which means it was a considerably more democratic exercise than, say, selecting the leader of the Conservative Party. Once nominated by the public, estate agencies were visited by anonymous judges who threw them tricky problems ("please sell my house", perhaps) to see how they performed.

So what did Ms Storrie, top woman in what has traditionally been regarded as a man's world, reckon made a prize-winning estate agent? "You've got to love people," she said, sounding eerily like a founder member of the Variety Club. "And you've got to be a sales person at heart. I love closing a deal, making it work for everyone involved. Making everyone happy."

The caring, sharing profession, with commission just an after-thought, then. "It's about contributing something to the community," added Mr Dunsmoore Hardy. "And about upholding standards within the industry."

Sadly, then, there was no award for Xxxxx, an organisation launched with delicious timing on the same day as the awards, and contributing something to the homeless of Brighton by providing the first agency for squatters.

"No, no," said Ms Storrie, scanning a newspaper report about the agency complete with a picture of its crusty founder, a ring in his nose. "No, no, that's not the image we want to build at all. That's a perfect illustration of what I meant about the need for legal regulation. We have tried to persuade all political parties of the need to implement the section of the estate agency act dealing with regulation. As yet it appears to be quite low on their political agenda."

This is the kind of thing estate agents concern themselves with these days: lobbying and law changing. Ten years ago the only worry they had was getting hold of a sufficient supply of bank paying-in books.

"I don't think the market will ever return to how it was," she said. "But I really can't understand why it is in the state it is: house prices have never been cheaper than this. Why rent when you can buy at half the cost?"

Perhaps this spring things will change for her poor, beleaguered colleagues. Maybe more of us will be coming into contact with the character on the high street with the mobile phone, the Mitsubishi Shogun and the soggy handshake. Oddly, though, despite the awards ceremony, it is unlikely that the image most of us will carry into the shop is that of a professional carer, a man there just to make everyone happy, a sort of nurse in pin- stripes.

Indeed, Brian Davies, chief executive of the Nationwide and the awards lunch guest speaker, may have been closer to the mark. Thanking Mr Dunsmoore Hardy for the warm introduction he gave, Dr Davies said: "I think that's the first time I've ever been called Sir by an estate agent."

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