Ready to face the housing market? Put your feet up...

Surfing the Net is replacing the trawl of the high street for buying or selling homes.
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The Independent Online

Put your London home on the market now and you can confidently expect the legendary 12-deep queue, leaving your agent with little to do than count their commission. On a £350,000 sale that's around £8,000 for the pleasure of simply leading the queue to your door, but there is another way: selling your home on the Internet can be cheaper, even free. But how easy is it, and what are the pitfalls?

Put your London home on the market now and you can confidently expect the legendary 12-deep queue, leaving your agent with little to do than count their commission. On a £350,000 sale that's around £8,000 for the pleasure of simply leading the queue to your door, but there is another way: selling your home on the Internet can be cheaper, even free. But how easy is it, and what are the pitfalls?

Surfing the Net, if we believe the hype, has replaced trawling the high street. There are now more than 100 property websites - and growing. A wealth of information online means buyers can now take virtual tours around homes for sale, and check out transport and school facilities without leaving their armchairs.

But vendors should be aware that sites differ radically, with major implications for cost. Some are independent of agents, allowing you to write your own property description and post photographs, with fees as low as £20 or even with no cost at all.

The other kind are more expensive. In addition to agents' own sites, "umbrella" sites advertise properties from a range of estate agents. Your home is marketed in the normal way and via the Internet, so standard agency commission fees apply.

The web scene may be complex for vendors, but buyers have it easy, particularly if they want new property. Developers have realised that cybersales are good for business with "fly throughs" for proposed developments where buyers can have input. Laing Homes boasts two interactive features: the House Explorer lets users experience 360-degree views of showhomes and Kitchen Explorer enables potential buyers to create their own kitchen.

Laing estimates that 20 per cent of enquiries now come via the internet and other developers also credit technology for boosting sales: "Over the last 18 months, the volume of site hits has grown to around 35,000 a month," says Caroline Gowans of Taylor Woodrow's Spanish site design company, Oppo Consultants.

The World Wide Web, particularly, helps buyers of overseas property as Hertfordshire-based Lawyer Rodney Foster found when he was considering buying a second home in Spain: "I'm a regular internet user and find it useful for accessing information and shopping. I searched for sites selling Spanish property and found Taylor Woodrow's the easiest to access."

Within days, Mr Foster flew to the Costa del Sol on an inspection flight and is now anticipating regular holidays in his new three-bedroom apartment at El Lago. But perhaps finding a Spanish dream home is easier than finding a site best suited to selling your English property? After hours spent "trawling the superhighway" I felt as frustrated as I might have done after visiting every agent on the high street, because many sites had nothing in my area.

One umbrella site, www.chancellors. co.uk, claims to have found a way around this by allowing potential vendors to inspect their database to see how many buyers are looking for their type of property. Chairman James Scott Lee explains: "If you live in a luxury four-bedroom, riverside house in Henley you can look on the buyers' list and find people looking for your type of property, within your price range.

Sellers using www.chancellors. co.uk site pay standard agency commission rates but is this wise given the state of the market? Vendors about to pay hefty commission fees must have balked at last month's launch of easier.co.uk, a free online residential property sales and buying service. Following its £13m advertising campaign, Steve Rist joint chief executive, said: "By the time our initial campaign is over, more than 20 million people in the UK will know that easier is a fast, free and fair alternative to estate agents."

Jo McEwan was about to put her four-bedroom Dulwich apartment on the market and was initially optimistic: "I thought I could save a lot of money." She logged on but found the process too complicated: "I spent 40 minutes trying to register. I put in my password, answered the key questions but when I went back and tried to get in it said 'invalid'. I even used their suggested name with no luck. She tried a further two times: "By this time I had a cold hand from mousing around and wasn't impressed. If I couldn't even get in how could they sell my house?"

Ms McEwan then explored other sites: "I found most of them just directed me to local agents, but I think there's some value in visiting offices and not just being a voice on the end of the phone." There was also evidence that sites were out of date: "Some agents hadn't updated their sites for over a month, but it did give me a good overview of local prices."

Having given up on the internet, Ms McEwan finally instructed a traditional agency, Hampton's, to market her garden flat at £295,000 and found that it appeared on the internet within 24 hours as all Hampton's properties are posted on umbrella site Home2Home: "I was able to reassure my vendor that my flat is on the internet and should sell quickly," says Ms McEwan. Critics of internet sales say it encourages unrealistic pricing and vendors with no serious intention of selling although fans of the web see it as an extension of vendors' perks. "They can test the market and retain a degree of anonymity," says Chancellors' James Scott Lee.

Those determined not to pay commission fees, if they can surmount registration difficulties, can take advantage of easier.co.uk's introduction to qualified independent valuers. The site also has information from the Metropolitan Police and Suzy Lamplugh Trust with guidance on preparing a property for sale, highlighting security and negotiating tactics.

But Home2Home's editorial director Neil Mackwood doesn't believe that free sites are the way forward: "Estate agents aren't an endangered species. Private sales seem attractive, but I wouldn't have the time to show people around my house. Agents must be able to add value." Mr Mackwood describes his early attempts to persuade agents to post properties on his site as "disastrous": "For two or three years there was fantastic fear that their business would go down the plughole, but they now realisethey must have a presence on the Web - or miss out."

Mr Mackwood sees the UK market ultimately mirroring the US where 95 per cent of properties for sale appear on the internet but he accepts the major criticism of "too many sites offering too few properties".

Home2Home has just announced an acquisition which will increase its 55,000 properties for sale: "It's a question of critical mass. The majority of good houses aren't on the web yet, but we're determined to get them on. Our vision is not yet complete."

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