Tempted to sell online? The case for using the virtual middle men

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They're unregulated, often indulge in questionable practices, and they don't come cheap. And while the stereotype won't always fit the reality, estate agents usually rank high in surveys of "least trusted" professions.

Sellers regularly question just what kind of service they are getting for the thousands of pounds agents command in fees or commission. Most charge a minimum of 1 per cent of the selling price, but this can rise to 2.5 per cent or more.

Disillusioned with the traditional process, more and more people are looking at new ways of selling their homes.

While homebuyers have, for some time, used the internet to begin their search - often browsing at a time of their choosing outside office hours - sellers have been more reticent about conducting the process online, preferring to let an agent do all the legwork.

But now there are signs that vendors are coming to view the internet as a viable, and low-cost, alternative to high-street agents. Witness the nascent growth of a host of "sell-your-own-home" estate agents that offer to save sellers thousands of pounds in commission by levying flat rates instead.

What you get for your money will vary wildly, though, and any seller venturing online must tread carefully, warns Peter Bolton King, chief executive of the National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA).

"It is important to differentiate between the two types of company operating online," he says. "There are those doing the proper estate agent job, only without a traditional shopfront, and that is fine as long as they are abiding by the rules."

However, there are also "listings" sites that simply offer to put your home on the market online for a flat fee - but are not, in fact, acting as estate agents.

The safest bet is to check whether the website is a member of a regulatory scheme run by the NAEA and the Ombudsman for Estate Agents, which will sort out disputes and can offer recompense.

One operator in this category is House Network. "We operate like a traditional estate agent but avoid the hefty charges by having no high-street shops," says founder Graham Lock.

House Network charges a capped fee of £500 and vendors who register are visited by a representative who takes photo- graphs of the property, draws up measurements and discusses the valuation. Within 48 hours, the company compiles a description of the property - including virtual tours, floor plans, photos and particulars - and puts this on its website (www.house- network.co.uk); the seller receives a physical "For Sale" sign.

The property is then advertised using key property sites or "portals" such as rightmove, propertyfinder and fish4homes.

"Home viewings are managed by us, but vendors show prospective buyers around their own property," says Mr Lock. "Sellers can log on to see viewings, potential buyer feedback and the number of hits."

Once an offer has been made, House Network handles the process through to completion.

With a simple listing on a website, by contrast, you will have to do all this work yourself.

Melanie Bien of broker Savills Private Finance says that while "DIY" online sites are becoming more popular, high-street agents still attract a bigger audience. "[They] tend to have offices in prime locations and advertise in local newspapers as well as online," she says. "If your home is only advertised on one website, potential buyers will not see it unless they specifically log on. This 'low traffic' could mean it takes longer to sell."

Further, you will have to show people around yourself, and this "is not as easy as it sounds", says Mr Bolton King, adding that there will be no way of checking whether the buyer is ready to go ahead with the purchase or whether they are time-wasters.

There is also the security issue of letting "strangers" into your home. "Ensure you are not on your own when you show people round," says Ms Bien.

Mr Bolton King stresses that a good estate agent can make a difference. "Many private vendors end up settling for a price thousands below the amount they could get. Compare this to having an agent whose job it is to get you the best possible price."

This could, he adds, mean you get thousands more for the property, easily offsetting the fees.

'We saved a lot of money'

Peter and Kathy Dixon sold their three-bed semi in Bingley, West Yorkshire, through House Network earlier this month.

They have just moved into their new home with their three children: Jack, eight; Sam, five; and two-year-old Libby.

"We approached a few high-street estate agents to ask about selling our home but found we were getting wildly varying valuations," says Peter. "The fees they wanted to levy also varied considerably - from 1.5 to 2.5 per cent."

After they got in touch with House Network, photos were taken and their home appeared on the company's website within two days - and on the rightmove site in five days.

"We didn't have a lot of viewings but House Network arranged these for us, so there was no hassle. The process was quick and easy and we saved a lot of money."