The honest estate agent
Estate agent Jules Bending doesn't do property jargon, and prides himself on his honesty. No wonder the industry is up in arms. Clare Dywer Hogg meets a salesman the buyers trust
Wednesday 01 July 2009
Jules Bending doesn't like to conform to stereotypes. Leave behind your assumptions, then, when he is introduced as an estate agent. "Traditionally, if boys weren't bright enough to be a lawyer or a surveyor, estate agency was a logical route," he says self-deprecatingly. This is a little disingenuous. Aged 42 now, his career in estate agency began 17 years ago as a junior in a large corporation; now he and Jane, his wife of 20 years, run their own agency in Glastonbury with one other employee. The Ralph Bending estate agency isn't your average estate agents. A cursory look at the properties online will reveal why: "small and cheap studio apartment...Suit a midget on a budget." Or: "Character-forming country cottage currently undergoing a bit of a makeover which will eventually drag it from the turn of the century up to somewhere around the 1950s".
On one of his first classes in estate agency, the teacher asked what was the most important thing about being an estate agent. "I put up my hand and said 'trust'," Bending says. "There was a hushed silence around the room. I think my card was marked at that point." He laughs, but it underlines the rather more serious philosophy behind Ralph Bending estate agency: "I happen to think that trust really is the fundamental basis. And you need to be honest with people for them to trust you."
An estate agent who is honest. That means, in real terms, no spin. And yet spin is what people have come to expect from the process – take some flattering shots of a property, leave out the bad bits, and hope that the smell of baking bread wins over potential buyers when they come to visit.
Not so at this estate agents. "If it's a dirty old hovel we say it's a dirty old hovel," Bending says. "We're here for the long term, and not interested in the fast buck." Jules and Jane determined this was how they were going to be 10 years ago, when they woke up one morning (on the day of an eclipse, Jules points out – they are based in Glastonbury, after all) and decided they were going to do things differently.
This meant ditching suits but – more fundamentally – not trying to push finance deals, and presenting properties as they were. So, out with the bullet-point format that we're all familiar with, and in with something a little more descriptive. "At the beginning, lots of people didn't understand and thought it was a joke," Bending says. "People would phone up and tell us that someone had put something rude on our website, and ask if one of our negotiators had gone mad." Everyone noticed. "Right there was the holy grail of estate agency, something you rarely come across – a unique selling point."
The technique is not, he says firmly, a gimmick. In fact, he finds it sad if people term honesty as such. It has been their practice for a decade now, and while it polarises opinion – as well as the 'alternative' dwellers Glastonbury is famed for, there's an equal number of residents made up of the more traditional farming community – the clients who choose them are very happy with the results.
"You can say it's a hovel if it's a hovel – that's the trick," Bending says simply. "You don't need to gloss and spin things; people will buy things as they are as long as they're priced appropriately." It's not, he points out, as if you can hide the truth anyway – people are always going to see the reality of the building you've described, no matter what clever language you use. He gives the example of a two-bedroom Victorian house he recently put on the market.
"It was a very rare find, original, and hadn't been decorated in about 80 years," he says. "It would have been tempting for orthodox estate agents to say it was in need of 'gentle improvement' or that it was 'deceptively spacious'." Instead, the Ralph Bending estate agency described it as a dark and cramped Victorian house with a filthy backyard.
"Instead of wasting time with 100 viewings, we had eight over two or three weeks," Bending says. As a result, they had less work to do, and the buyer had no false expectations. "Having worked in the other environment, I know that 25 per cent of sales fall through, after the gut-wrenching task of lying to people and chasing around, because people have no confidence or trust." Using honesty as the base line, he says, means sales rarely fall through.
That's not to say the techniques haven't caused problems: Rightmove, one of the major websites estate agents use as a platform to advertise, has forbidden Bending from appearing. They said it was an issue with language.
It is true that some of Bending's descriptions in the past have been unusual ("would suit witch", for one) or innuendo-laden (a house with a view of the Glastonbury Tor came with the description "wouldn't you like to wake up to a massive erection?"), but a lack of advertising space hasn't forced the agency to change.
Instead, they're going further, and are in the process of subjecting all their properties to a "warts and all" 90-second tour, which will be filmed and appear on YouTube. And the clients keep coming: every day, 120 unique people visit their website.
"The first year, we turned over £40,000, and this year, we're just below the million mark," Bending says. A lump of this is from rentals and lettings, which forms a large part of their work, but it's still a sign that business is booming. Which isn't bad for a company of three people working in a town that has four other estate agents and only about 200 houses that are sold every year. "It's funny that people are so interested," he laughs. "The work of an estate agent can be honest!"
In his own words: Selling the Jules Bending way
* "Lease available for what can only be described as a prime piece of retail crumpet."
* "If this house were a person she'd be dressed in Chanel and not wearing knickers."
* "Where Guinevere lost her cherry and Arthur found it. Don't think I've ever been in a house that reeks of character quite so much."
* "Offered with benefit of no chain. S&M enthusiasts bring their own."
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