After thinking about selling her two-bedroom Battersea flat for several months, Camilla Harvey, a marketing manager, decided to take the plunge. But she didn't call her local estate agent. Instead, she put the details of her flat on privateHQ.com, a website for people who want to sell their homes themselves.
"I couldn't stand the idea of dealing with estate agents again," she says. Her flat has been on privateHQ.com for two weeks now and she has had two viewings and others are set up. "It's been easy," she says. "I'm busy at work, but this takes minimal effort. It has everything to recommend it."
Many would agree. Estate agents are not popular. And as house prices have soared, their percentage cut has risen. Add a reputation for bad practices and one can see why vendors want to buy and sell without using one. It's a method that has been popular on the Continent for many years.
Direct selling has been given a huge boost by the internet. Start-ups have been emboldened by holidaymakers, who now go direct to airlines and hotels rather than through travel agents. Two-thirds of property buyers now start their search online.
Selling without an agent is nearly a mass market. Ariane Decloux of Houseweb, one of the first private-sale websites (it was set up in 1996), reckons that 10 per cent of Britons sell privately. "It was 4 per cent when we started," she says.
One in five properties are now advertised privately. The likes of Tesco are now looking to gain a purchase on this side of the property industry by offering a platform for direct sales.
PrivateHQ.com was set up by the marketing expert Nicola Hoare to specialise in London properties. Hoare and her business partner, Annie Allison, were driven in part by personal experience. "The idea hit home when I was selling my house," says Hoare. "I thought how ridiculous it was to hand all this money over to estate agents."
According to their figures, Londoners have paid estate agents £1bn in commission over the past year.
Selling privately, she says, is "far easier than people think". Firstly, the website gives each vendor a questionnaire and requests pictures. "The quality of the pictures has been excellent," says Hoare. "People are shocked at how easy it is, and how professional their ads look."PrivateHQ.com also offers a hi-tech floor-plan service.
Hoare believes that it is empowering to both buyers and sellers. "Estate agents are supposed to market the house, and they control of the process," says Hoare. "We offer the vendor the chance to take control back.
"We're a platform for selling. It's a small proportion of the market, but people are waking up to it. It's the future."
How are estate agents taking this new threat to their market? "We've heard it before with Asda and even Woolworths," says Peter Bolton King, the director of the National Association of Estate Agents. "Direct selling has been around for a long time. But to be fair, this time it's more serious - they've got technology on their side."
He believes that a number of factors still favour traditional agents: negotiation and valuation skills, advertising outlets (the big property portals such as rightmove.co.uk do not allow properties without estate-agent representation to advertise), and the clout and contacts of the established agents.
But direct sellers are catching up, and sometimes they even use agents to their advantage. "I had an agent round to value my home," says Camilla Harvey. "It gave me an idea of the value, and I then put it on the site at that price." At a standard 2 per cent fee, she'd be giving up almost £8,000 had she chosen to sell through an agent.
Hoare thinks that valuing your property is easy, and that estate agents mystify it. "We give step-by-step guides to selling," she says. "It's about taking control of your biggest asset."
Another benefit is that sellers might share their savings with a buyer, she says. But Bolton King argues that the superior bargaining power of an agent will, in many cases, pay for itself. Indeed, he says that he has seen many vendors start on their own, then come back to an agent after failure; or use a mixed method, going private and with one agent.
But this can lead to conflict because vendors could argue that their own efforts sold their home. So some agents are redrafting their contracts to include "sole selling rights", as opposed to sole agency, to tie vendors into a commission, however the property is sold.
Agents also stress the security issue of conducting viewings on your own. But Camilla Harvey claims that this hasn't been a problem- she's made sure that friends were present at viewings. Meanwhile, she is sitting in her flat, which remains unsold. "I'm not in a hurry," she says. "Even if it takes a bit longer, I'm happy. That £8,000 will be very useful when I do up my new place."
Websites that work in an agent-free zone
A recently formed website that operates for London only, free selling site.
It offers a private sale advertising service for 12 weeks from £60 in the North-west of England and from £100 in the South-east for 35 words, plus a For Sale board.
The 10-year-old website charges from £47 up to £299. Top-end package includes professional photographs. Offers For Sale signs.
Covers London and Home Counties, for £137. The site can take photographs, and offers signs.
Charging from £59 per property, ClickSell features viewer security by way of getting viewers credit card details.
Six years old and UK-wide, it offers a standard service at £89.
This website features properties overseas and from the UK. Fees start from £99 per property.
Another new website. It is concentrating on the London area at present but its services are free of charge.Reuse content