The Internet Vs The Agents

As vendors get used to selling on the web, new sites are springing up.
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The Independent Online

In the past decade, UK house prices have risen on average 212 per cent, according to the Nationwide building society. Estate agents' fees, always based on a percentage of sale prices, have also risen 212 per cent. This is despite the fact that their workload and overheads have dropped, as buyers increasingly use the internet to shortlist homes, with 50 per cent of brochures being sent out by estate agents via e-mail, not Royal Mail.

Take a look at the figures: the agent's average 2 per cent fee on a £200,000 home in 1996 would have been £4,000 plus VAT; today, assuming a 212 per cent rise, the same house would sell for £424,000. The estate agent's fee would have rocketed to £8,480 plus VAT, although the costs he has to bear are much reduced.

As vendors become used to the idea of selling over the internet, new websites are springing up all the time. Skip the Middleman charges a seller a one-off fee of £850, visits the property to take still photographs and film a virtual tour and provides a floorplan. These are all then displayed on www.skipthemiddleman.co.uk with a confidential e-mail address so that potential buyers can contact the seller to arrange a visit.

The service currently operates only in London, but the potential savings for both buyers and vendors are vast. Modest properties in the capital these days reach £500,000. The typical 2 per cent estate agent fee on that would be £10,000 plus VAT. If Skip the Middleman works, an owner could save well over £9,000 - and pay for a Caribbean holiday to recover from the house move.

As a bonus attraction, if your home doesn't sell on Skip within 30 days the £850 is refunded but the property details remain available online in case a buyer looks later.

"Buyers stick with estate agents because of the quality of details and the professional approach most agents portray," says James Corr, one of Skip's founders.

"If we can reproduce that quality but do so at a lower cost, everyone wins. What we don't do is what the seller can do best anyway - show people around the property," he says.

Properties advertised on Skip will also appear on the big property portals - those umbrella sites such as www.fish4homes.co.uk and www.channel4.com/ homes that pull together property details from a range of sources.

Skip is only the latest in a line of "no agent" websites to appear in recent years, although it sets itself apart by not allowing the seller to use their own pictures or write their own details, hence its claim to be of comparable quality with estate agents' details.

Most "no agent" sites charge between £50 and £400 to register and ask you to e-mail photographs and details to the website's call centre for public display within 24 hours.

You must calculate your asking price - most sites suggest you do what the professionals do, and find precisely comparable homes on sale in estate agents' windows and settle on a similar figure. Finally, a For Sale sign is put up, giving the website address and a central contact number through which viewing appointments can be arranged.

A few sites also offer extras, such as preparing hard-copy brochures using a professional photographer, but these all attract additional fees.

Mark Behling runs www.houseladder.co.uk, which has 2,500 homes listed for sale across the country, ranging from £2m apartments in London to ex-council flats in the North.

"Most clients go for a £120 package that gives them a board outside their house and allows them to list on our website for up to a year," says Behling, who says his service attracts a diverse mix, from young, internet-savvy owners to retired people.

"The common theme is that they have time to sell - it can easily take three months to find a buyer online," he admits.

There are disadvantages to online private sales, which owners must bear in mind. Some websites have so few homes that they fail to attract a critical mass of would-be buyers, so thoroughly check on a site's scope and credibility before advertising.

In addition, Rightmove - the largest property portal in the UK, with more than 100,000 homes on sale in London alone - will not publicise homes on sale through these private sites.

As most private sale sites also insist that you handle the viewings of your property, you must follow common-sense security rules: allow only viewings booked via the website with full contact details and a landline number of the potential buyer, then have a relative or friend with you, and ensure that valuables are out of sight when viewings take place.

Established estate agents, naturally, frown upon these private sales. "We're a buffer between seller and buyer, making it easier for each to act freely. Agents' websites are updated rapidly and look more professional than private ones, and every agent negotiates on a seller's behalf. We're there to handle any queries, to protect the seller's interests and to use our experience to get the best price," says Peter Bolton-King, chief executive of the National Association of Estate Agents.

Any seller who has had a hard negotiation over price with a buyer will know that an estate agent is indeed a useful buffer. But, as house prices continue to rise, the advantage of having an agent may be outweighed by his fees.

That Caribbean holiday might just be a very tempting alternative to writing a cheque out to the agents at the local office of Sellit, Grabit and Run.

Sell on the web

www.houseladder.co.uk
www.housenetwork.co.uk
www.thelittlehousecompany.co.uk
www.houseweb.co.uk
www.homesonsale.co.uk
www.homepages.co.uk
www.home.co.uk
www.mypropertyforsale.co.uk.

Save money on the web

www.uswitch.com gives information and price comparisons on energy, internet broadband, TV and telephone suppliers;
www.helpiammoving.com has checklists, moving guides and forms for free removal quotes;
www.iammoving.com is a free change-of-address service for friends, utility firms and business contacts;
www.reallymoving.com allows you to find free quotes for conveyancing, surveys, removals and storage.

'The last incentive scheme won me a 3am Easyjet flight'

There's always someone in every company whose role is so undefined you wonder what they do all day. In ours, it's Adam, the mortgage advisor. Theoretically, he's there to advise on mortgages, but, whenever I pass his office, the only advice he's dispensing is to the website for Russian brides.

Not any longer, though. Head Office has got wise to his inactivity and, like a teacher with the loner in the school playground, is offering the rest of us an inducement to play with him. For every client we refer to him who then subscribes to one of his mortgages, we get £100.

They're often doing this - dreaming up incentive schemes that on the face of it seem very alluring, but, like store loyalty cards, require disproportionate expenditure for the reward. For example, at the end of every quarter, the offices that have made the most money "win a holiday". As a newcomer, I bust a gut to qualify, picturing myself luxuriating on a Caribbean island, ordering my seventh cocktail on the company's Amex card. Unfortunately, the reality was a 3am easyJet flight to Warsaw, a shared room with Tracey from Accounts and her snoring Polish lover, several bus tours seated next to my manager as he slavered, "Get a load of that," at any local girl, and the unfamiliar, yet undeniable, realisation that I'd rather be at work. The idea that our hard-earned money should be repackaged and sold back to us as a "treat" is infuriating, especially when it's patently obvious that the real beneficiary is the fat cat at the top who labels the trip "team building" and sets the whole thing off against tax.

Naturally, therefore, I was sceptical about this latest enterprise, but first indications seemed positive. "And have you sought financial advice?" I asked, slightly sternly, of the young couple I'd just registered. They winced at each other as if I were from the family planning clinic and was about to lecture them on condoms. "No," the girl confessed. "Perhaps you could help?"

This was all proving a bit too easy. "Absolutely!" I replied, then launched into such a glowing account of Adam that it seemed a glaring oversight he hadn't been headhunted by another firm.

It worked beautifully. I found them a property, their offer was accepted, they signed up to Adam and I collected my £100. Then, last week, I decided to chase up the survey.

"What survey?" Adam replied, blankly. I reminded him of the couple - his only clients to date. "Ah... yes, haven't started working on that one yet." I gave him a look that said "are you totally inept?" and rang the buyers to apologise. But it was too late. They'd got tired of waiting and had found another property. Having now lost a sale and £100, I can't help but hope the next thing to be lost is Adam's job.

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