Describe an estate agent's properties: They are supposed to help in buying or selling a house, but to many they are anything but helpful, says David Lawson

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The Independent Online
ESTATE agents are drifting away on holiday knowing that not much is going to happen while they are away. The rush to beat stamp duty has drained the market of potential buyers for the next month or more. Many agents may return to even worse news, however. More redundancies are likely before the end of the year as the big financial groups tighten their belts even further in the wake of huge losses.

Bob and Rowena Barlow will not be sorry to see some agents disappear. They have just found a new home despite the best efforts of several agents. And if people like the Barlows have problems with estate agents, there is not much hope for the rest of us: they are in the property business, as marketing consultants.

'At the beginning of July, we wrote to around 20 firms in Cambridge and Newmarket, explaining what we wanted and asking for details of properties,' Bob says. 'As cash buyers, we sat back and waited to be overwhelmed.' On the first day, nothing came through the door; on the second, a few envelopes arrived. But some agents have still not replied.

Even the information sent was unsuitable. 'We asked for a period house and got information on flats, bungalows and modern homes,' Rowena says. 'A week later, we got fed up and spent a day visiting offices. I even put my name down again on the same mailing lists. It made little difference.'

The direct approach was not a complete loss, however, as they spotted a few homes they liked in agents' windows. Then came the problem of seeing inside. 'We were in a rush because we wanted to beat the stamp duty deadline,' Rowena says. But that seemed to cut no ice with the agents. One was 'too busy' and suggested a date the following week. Another was also tied up but said she would try and arrange for someone from another office to help.

'We waited all day for a call and heard nothing. When I finally rang, the blame was pushed on to the other office for not calling back,' Rowena says.

The one house they saw was just right, and they decided to make an offer. 'It was a Sunday, but the agents boasted seven-day opening, so I rang anyway. I was told to call back the following day as the negotiator was not at work.'

One group even had the temerity to write to ask if they wanted to be taken off the mailing list - then followed up with a call asking if they could sell Rowena's old house. None of this should have come as a surprise to Bob, who saw a similar performance from the other side when his former home (the Barlows married this year) sat on the market for more than two years with various agents.

'They were usually dreadful, doing little to keep me informed. One did nothing for months, and when I rang up they had lost the keys. I made them spend pounds 40 having the locks changed. I had only 10 inquiries in the whole time.'

Small agents came out head and shoulders above the big chains. Rowena has put her trust in Sworders, an East Anglian group, to sell her home. 'I bought it from them six years ago and they were very good. I would certainly not consider any of the big chains, which could not be bothered to even reply to our inquiries.'

This sort of repeat business is crucial in deciding which firms will survive the recession, according to Simon Frost, an even smaller agent who found a buyer for Bob's house within a fortnight. 'You have to build up trust so people stick with you. That means working hard at keeping people up to date as well as knowing your local market like the back of your hand,' says Mr Frost, who concentrates on a tight area around Hadleigh, near Ipswich.

The big chains can face problems motivating staff to compete with small operators who are working for themselves and put in 12 hours a day, seven days a week. The best staff often leave to set up on their own. Others who achieve high targets may be shifted to do the same at a 'difficult' office.

Cost-cutting is also hitting morale. 'We still have large numbers of inquiries, even if most of them never go through,' says one manager at a well-known group. 'And we have to handle these with far fewer staff.'

But Trevor Abrahmson is one agent who insists that most of his colleagues are simply not doing the job they are paid for. His agency, Glentree Estates, blew a gale through fashionable north London during the boom with a hard-driving sales style and star- studded client list. Unlike many other shooting stars, however, he has survived the crash.

'This business is all about doing deals, not waiting for them to happen,' Mr Abrahmson says. The secret is bringing buyers and sellers face to face. 'The British do not like confrontation and aggravation. If they get half a chance they will back off from a meeting. I will drag them together - often kicking and screaming - and sit them down in one room.'

Then he becomes the arbitrator. If they hit an impasse over the price, he takes one or the other out of the room to persuade them to bid a bit more or shave something off the price. 'I simply do not give up unless things become completely impossible,' he says.

The arguments are persuasive. Sellers have usually made a huge profit out of their home over the years and are told they can afford to give up a little to make the deal happen. Buyers hear that it is almost irrelevant if they pay a bit more because they will probably be in the place for 10 years, during which time it is bound to appreciate far more than this.

Any agent could do this, Mr Abrahmson says. 'Selling property is more about people than bricks and mortar. You need to have an instinct for what they really want rather than what they say they want.'

(Photograph omitted)