Overview: The profession we love to loathe

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The Independent Online

There can't be many people who went into the estate agency business hoping to be loved - although most agents might have hoped we'd learned to love them during the recent years of bumper house price gains. Not a bit of it, according to the latest survey on which profession we love to hate most. Always towards the bottom of the popularity stakes (usually vying with journalists, it has to be said), estate agents seem to have hit a particularly low point, coming just below traffic wardens and on a par with bouncers and motorcycle couriers.

There can't be many people who went into the estate agency business hoping to be loved - although most agents might have hoped we'd learned to love them during the recent years of bumper house price gains. Not a bit of it, according to the latest survey on which profession we love to hate most. Always towards the bottom of the popularity stakes (usually vying with journalists, it has to be said), estate agents seem to have hit a particularly low point, coming just below traffic wardens and on a par with bouncers and motorcycle couriers.

Perhaps some of those questioned on behalf of Horlicks were feeling genuinely bruised after a recent encounter with an estate agent, but it is also likely that a fair number were simply having fun, rattling the bars of a profession that is almost resigned to being disliked.

Nothing new in that, except that it is intriguing why, in a property-obsessed country, those who handle the goods are resented so much. One reason could be that since people are not moving as often, one bad experience can linger for years. One reader had a benign, if not positive, view of estate agents until she and her family found themselves homeless three weeks before they were due to move into a new house.

Ten years on, she still nurses vengeful feelings against the estate agent who mishandled the purchase. After fantasising for a while about dismembering the agent's desk with a chainsaw, she draws some satisfaction from getting his firm out every year to do a valuation for sale - despite having no intention of putting her home on the market. Others resent paying commission for a sale that appears to have required nothing more than a few telephone calls.

Many similar complaints find their way to Stephen Carr-Smith, the ombudsman for estate agents , who is well placed to know what rankles most with the public. At the heart of much of the disgruntlement is a mismatch of expectations. He finds that the public is remarkably ill-informed about the process of buying and selling, and estate agents fail to explain it adequately.

"Agents may be good up to the point when an offer is made, but then they often fail to monitor the progress of a sale and to make regular reports to their clients on the state of play. They must communicate better and also keep a record of events so that they can demonstrate who exactly they called and when."

But shoddy service is not an excuse for withholding fees, and in the vast majority of cases the ombudsman supports the agent's contractual terms, although he may make a separate order for compensation.

But Carr-Smith points out that, as an unregulated profession, agents can't automatically expect to be held in high regard. "Although many do have qualifications and belong to professional associations, why do only 36 per cent belong to the ombudsman scheme? It is hard to think of a better way of inspiring public confidence."

The trouble is, the process of selling our homes can bring out our worst instincts. If those guys can really get us that much, why quibble about their credentials? Sometimes we get the estate agents we deserve.

There was a downbeat mood at a debate organised by estate agents John D Wood recently. The invited audience from all sectors of the property world voted against the motion that house prices are sustainable in 2004. Rather a lot seems to be riding on the first-time buyer. Patrick Currie, managing director of Hometrack - who supported the motion - thinks that first-time buyers have not been priced out of the market. Ed Stansfield, senior economist at Capital Economics, took a gloomier view of the fact that the number of first-time buyers has dropped to record lows.

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