Browsing for housing

Cutting out estate agents sounds appealing. Robert Nurden investigates buying on the net
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The Independent Online

Guy Brown opted for the internet when looking for a three-bedroom house for his young family. Logging on to a centralised property portal from his office, he took virtual tours of 50 potential homes before coming up with a shortlist of five, and then plumping for one and arranging a visit. The sale went ahead without a hitch and within weeks his family had moved in.

That was in Santa Barbara, in the United States, where online buying has reached such a level of sophistication that the market has been transformed. "Coming from England, I was amazed by the efficiency," said Brown. "It shows that with the right amount of technical input, electronic house-hunting can work." By all accounts, the picture is the same in Australia.

But the UK lags pitifully behind, with countless stories of dissatisfied buyers throwing wobblies when agents fail to send e-mail updates of properties. The reason, invariably, is that staff cannot work the technology. The other main bone of contention is that properties for sale on websites have already been sold.

Megan Lane was attempting to find a house online with her boyfriend, but they soon ran into problems. "Once, two weeks after we had seen new owners moving into a place we had spotted online, it was still on several websites. An automated e-mail alert, our first after registering with a site, simply listed every property on the agent's database, regardless of the price range we'd specified."

The problem is that many estate agents in Britain regard online selling as just another shop window, its purpose being merely to entice customers, rather than being a reliable source of information about real properties for sale. Yet about 60 per cent of buyers now start their search for a suitable property online. Clearly, there is a yawning gap between customers' expectations and agents' delivery.

Part of it is down to the buoyancy of the market. When sales are booming, agents can be too busy clinching real deals to bother getting their heads around awkward software. But when the market slows, it makes sense for them to give online selling more attention.

Adam Rollins, of the National Association of Estate Agents, says a property website is only as good as the person operating it. "Poor performance is sometimes down to laziness, sometimes due to lack of expertise. An agent always has to prioritise what they are doing. It's important to distinguish between large chains and small, independent agents. The big boys can usually afford to invest in more sophisticated technology, which is able to send photos and e-mail details to potential buyers. Not so the local firms, which are invariably loath to fork out thousands on sophisticated electronics that carry no guarantee of increased sales."

David Boulding, a designer of software for the property sector, says: "Often estate agents do not train their staff to use the software properly. Perhaps that's not surprising when much of it is unnecessarily complicated, not only in its operation, but in its content. It asks subscribers too many pointless questions, rather than concentrating on the essentials. Simplicity and ease of operation are what is needed."

Martin Pridham, a Tunbridge Wells estate agent, says his online sales have leapt appreciably since he stopped buying space on large, complex portals that list thousands of homes, and started using a tailor-made product instead.

But there are some good British websites that purr with efficiency and reliability. www.houseweb.co.uk is one and www.primelocation.co.uk is another. Many offer a comprehensive service, incorporating mortgage deals and conveyancing, as well as information on home improvements and environmental conditions.

Online property really comes into its own, however, when the buying and selling are done through a stand-alone site, rather than that site being just an add-on to a firm of estate agents. This form of selling privately is rapidly growing in popularity, reflecting the existing trend towards bypassing the agent altogether.

The best example of this is www.4salebyowner.co.uk, which charges sellers £59.95 to advertise their house details. For that, they get a full-page listing with up to 10 photographs, the ability to edit it when they want, and to carry on posting the details until the property is sold. Buyers can browse before registering, and they can post "house wanted" ads and join a chat room to swap information. At www.propertybroker.co.uk, vendors are charged £137 for posting details and pictures, while maintaining total control of the content. Estate agents probably hate these sites because they cut them - and their commission - out of the process.

The majority of sites are of the shop-window variety, in badly need of a good dust. In my own small trial, Felicity Lord's site insisted: "Please enter a numeric value for the maximum price", which is what I had just done. And Winkworth screamed at me: "Please select an area", when that, too, was what I had just done.

Online buying works best when it is used to get a general idea of prices in an area, to find the names of agents in a particular town, or to land a good mortgage deal. For the core purpose of buying, it is still too cumbersome to pose a real threat to the trad- itional method.

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