This is the season to be selling. The number of new sales instructions is on the increase – this month the number is the highest for three years – according to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics).
Estate agents can breathe again, those that are still in business, as the listings come in thick and fast. But it remains a buyers' market. Supply is outstripping demand in some areas, giving agents a strong hand, with less negotiating power for vendors over that poisonous percentage.
Or maybe not. With the explosion of the internet, cutting out the commission has never been easier. For many, surfing through the sites has replaced a Sunday stroll, looking in estate agents' windows.
The web is usually the first port of call for any purchase, be it a garden gnome on gumtree or ebay, or a three-bedroomed house on Rightmove or Primelocation. Property listing sites are invaluable, but these big boys are restricted to estate-agent adverts only. Consequently, a number of sites are now dedicated to private sellers, offering services from simple classified ads, such as those on Homes on Sale, to a comprehensive hand-holding exercise on TV presenter and property developer Sarah Beeny's brainchild, Tepilo.
It is free to list on both sites, unless you want professional pictures, floorplans and advertising boards, but these can be done yourself. "Most people have a digital camera; it's easy to upload photos," says Ms Beeny. "By using the net there's not really anything an estate agent can do that a seller can't."
Yes, most people have a digital camera, but those wide-angled professional photos come in handy. Plus, estate agents are ostensibly providing an experienced, professional service. Trevor Kent, from Trevor Kent & Co Estate Agents, is unperturbed by the competition from "for sale by owner" sites. "Homeowners have always had opportunities to sell privately. In most cases they resort to using an agent eventually."
Miles Shipside from Rightmove, the biggest property website, says: "A good agent can earn his fee through professional presentation, local expertise, a wider audience and the experience of dealing with buyers."
The reason Rightmove and the other major players don't accept private listings is the Property Misdescriptions Act. Estate agents have to comply with consumer protection legislation, whereas private sellers don't.
One long-standing private sales site, My Property for Sale, has circumvented the inability to access the premier sites by moving into the estate agent business, but solely via the internet. Professionals take care of the visit, valuation, measurements and photographs, and details are listed for £299 plus VAT, on the professional sites. There's also an advertising board with a freephone number. "We upped our service because everyone wants access to Rightmove," says Trevor Gillham of My Property for Sale. "We have a network of surveyors and photographers. If we get a job in Edinburgh or Cornwall, we can get it listed by the next day."
So how much money does a private sale save? Several thousand pounds, says Ms Beeny. "On a £350,000 house, for example, at 2 per cent commission, and VAT, that's £8,225. If I say, 'OK, how would you like £8,000 for taking a few photos, and showing people round your house on a Saturday', I reckon you'll say 'yes please'."
High-street estate agents still have their uses. One is safety. You can insist on accompanied viewings, although professional key-holding services can do this for you if you go down the DIY route. Agents claim to know the local market, but a surveyor can also provide a professional valuation.
Gazumping and other deal-breakers are not eradicated by using a middleman, but an experienced agent can gauge the commitment, from buyer and seller. Potential "buyers" have always included day-trippers and dreamers. Are free websites the equivalent for the vendor? "It's true, people can just list their homes with us, without any real intention to sell," says Ms Beeny, "but I'm assuming people aren't that bored. We check out all the properties. We did have one ridiculous listing – a one-bed flat for £7m, but in general people are committed. It's not a 10-second process. To do it justice takes a while, with photos and floorplans."
Also, residential properties require a Home Information Pack, which includes title deeds, planning permissions or building consent, searches, including water and drainage, and an energy performance certificate. A HIP costs £350 or so. You can do it yourself, for half the price, but searches must comply with government regulations and are better done by specialist firms.
Cutting out the middleman may save money, but beware. "Sellers are not prepared for how hard buyers can haggle," says Mr Kent. This is where agents can earn their keep, by holding fast. And if the agent isn't up to scratch, weeks may lapse before you can exit the contract and do it yourself, so check how the property is being marketed. It may be little more than a listing on the internet.
Sarah Beeny, TV presenter & property developer
"The internet has changed the market drastically. Estate agents traditionally put together property buyers and sellers. They provided a service you couldn't get elsewhere – a shop front in a high street. Buyers would visit the area and register with every agent, or seek out for-sale boards. Now 99.9 per cent first go online. If buyers head straight online, then sellers should have the same opportunity."