Overview: No time to look for a home? Then why not buy a tip-off?

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The Independent Online

It has never surprised me that people like to find somewhere to buy before putting their own home on the market.

It has never surprised me that people like to find somewhere to buy before putting their own home on the market. I am not alone in assuming that my house will eventually sell, but finding a place that ticks all the boxes will be infinitely harder.

Enter the buying agent, homesearch service - call it what you will, but they have blossomed over the past few years. Apart from the specialist agencies, all the leading selling agents now have buying departments, often operating under a different name.

Last week, Knight Frank rebranded its buying service to Buying Solution, giving it a stronger identity while loosening ties with its sales-oriented parent.

Apparently people were confused about how they operated under the selling umbrella, some even unsure whether they could buy a property from the same agents.

There is clear guidance here, both from the RICS (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors) and the NAEA (National Association of Estate Agents) who both demand absolute transparency and the agreement of buyer and seller. Peter Bolton King, the Chief Executive of the NAEA, although satisfied that their strong rules about notifying third parties as well should eliminate any grey areas, is nevertheless aware of the potential for a clash of interests. An estate agency in Devon was recently ordered to pay £45,000 in compensation to a couple who found themselves bidding for a new home against the agent selling their house, an outcome that raises questions about how far a duty of care to a client extends, according to Bolton King.

Quite apart from the facts of this case, the buyers were in a predicament that everyone in pursuit of a desirable property dreads most. It is why paying someone else to handle the selling agents and fight off competition seems such an attractive idea.

It's a service that operates very much at the top of the market for people with money but no time. It can take anything up to a year or longer to find the right property, which may not even be on the market. Getting the nod early is the primary reason people are happy to pay around two per cent of the purchase price to a buying agent, and why anyone who is not represented tends to feel at a disadvantage.

And it is not just the tip-off, it is also knowing how to deal with the vendor's selling agent.

Tim Lawson of Property Pathfinder, an independent search agents and chartered surveyors, says that he is well aware that negotiators might be encouraged by their office to secure an instruction by making bold valuations.

"There is sometimes a conflict between professional and commercial needs", he explains. We are all aware of this, as the disparity between valuations so often shows. Meanwhile, the majority of us, who either aren't spending enough to qualify for the buying agents service, or can't afford two lots of commissions, have to struggle on. Even here, though, there are signs this exclusivity is breaking down.

Antony Brassey, the head of Lane Fox's country acquisitions department, is beginning to see a far wider range of clients and believes there is scope for negotiation on fees and the extent of the service.

What buyers clearly do want is a guarantee of expertise. During the Labour Party conference, the Fabian Society held a fringe meeting on issues involving the sellers' pack. It became clear that the advice of the selling agent would be crucial after 2007 as to whether a property should be sold in its current condition or after remedial work. The question is though, will we have the confidence to accept it without an intermediary?