Trust me, I'm an estate agent: How underhand technology is being used to sell homes

Graham Norwood reveals the latest tricks of the trade
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The Independent Online

The popular image of estate agents is that of wide boys (and girls) driving branded Minis by day and shiny BMWs by night, expansive with asking prices and expensive with fees. Their offices reinforce the belief that even in recessionary times, estate agents see themselves as Masters of the Universe, hitting the phones and scanning emails in pursuit of a quick sale.

Yet we love them – at least when they are selling our homes rather than cajoling us into buying. When we become vendors we want agents like Lord Sugar on speed, dispatching time-wasters with a pointed finger and a two-word send off, as they inexorably move to clinch that deal.

But what are the tricks of the trade that lie behind the sharp suits and commission charges?

Property insiders – typically former estate agents who have moved on to become buying consultants – say there are three areas where estate agents sail as close to the wind as legally possible. The first is with property descriptions, the second is the photography of a home and the third is in the handling of viewings with potential buyers.

When it comes to property brochures and websites, Stephen King would be proud of the creativity exercised by some estate agents.

Stacks Property Search, a buying agency, has compiled a list of euphemisms found in details. "It's worth understanding agents' jargon so that you can identify potential problems and question agents more closely rather than waste time on a viewing" says Stacks' Jo Aldridge. "Cosy" means tiny and "interesting conversion" signifies that the interior arrangement does not work properly, she says. An "easily maintained garden" means it is too small to be interesting and "requires renovation" suggests the property has major structural problems. A killer description is "conveniently located", which usually means too close to an airport or busy road.

More than one agent recognises the clichés and euphemisms that plague property details. Bonett's in Brighton has sent staff on a poetry workshop to reinvent the way brochures are written; a Glastonbury agency called Real Ralph Bending prides itself on telling it like it is, even to the point of describing a property as "cheap but not particularly cheerful".

Aldridge says: "another brochure clue is if there are only interior pictures featured. This generally means the exterior is unattractive or that there's a great deal of renovation to be done." Estate agents use photographs ruthlessly to convey a positive image of a property, even if that means distorting the truth a little.

Pictures taken at flattering angles with trees obscuring next door's peering windows, or with an adjoining petrol station carefully obliterated through judicious cropping, are legendary. But these days far greater liberties are taken.

Views from a property are sometimes "stitched" together digitally to suggest a panoramic vista when in reality the shots may have be from more than one window. Photoshop, a picture "clean-up" program fitted to many home computers, is routinely used to ensure almost every property is seen against a summer-blue sky, even if photographed on a dreary day.

The Property Misdescriptions Act of 1991 is one of the few laws regulating estate agencies. It forbids "false or misleading statements" which can include pictures as well as words, but there remain grey areas.

Tracy Kellett, of the BDI Homefinders buying agency, says she has seen Photoshop used "to remove double yellow lines outside houses for sale, and to eradicate pylons in the background – both material factors which may be critical to a buyer deciding to purchase". Wide-angle and fish-eye lens are routinely used to make rooms look longer, higher or wider. On the other hand, estate agents quit reasonably say their clients – you and me selling our homes – want the best presentation possible.

"I spend a lot of time digitally removing wheelie bins and cars from estate agents' photographs. Quite why agents or sellers can't do it physically, I don't know. We should always be careful not to misrepresent the property. But vendors would be up in arms if the poor quality often seen on estate agents' images were reproduced and found responsible for not selling a home," says John Durrant, a one-time agent who is now a professional photographer.

He runs the appropriately-named website, www.doctor-photo.co.uk, improving estate agents' pictures of homes from just £3 a pop. The website promises grass made greener, unsightly skips and washing lines removed and even rival estate agents' boards airbrushed away.

Serious discrepancies can be spotted when buyers arrives to view a property, but even at this point would-be purchasers need to keep their wits about them. During a viewing the rigours of the Property Misdescriptions Act, applying chiefly to printed and online material, are effectively lifted and agents can be more expansive – or, as Kellett puts it, "they can lie".

Minor fibs include describing structural problems as mere "settlement cracks", hiding damp patches behind large pieces of furniture, and claiming a property is "just on the market" when it has actually been on sale for months or even years, but with a different estate agent.

Larger-scale problems involve more devious tactics. Some agents advise sellers to switch on radios, CD players and bathroom ventilation fans to create ambient household sounds which distract visitors from busy street noise. Other agents time viewings to avoid aircraft noise near airports and military bases, or to steer clear of hectic traffic and parking during school runs for homes on rat-runs or near the schools themselves.

A few agents make the best of a bad situation. Mark Parkinson of Middleton Advisors, a country house buying agency, accompanied a prospective buyer on a viewing of a house which overlooked Didcot power station. The buyer expressed disappointment "but the agent said he thought it looked 'rather lovely' and claimed to have a painting of the cooling towers above his mantelpiece," Parkinson says.

Some agents have advised sellers to remove internal doors and claim they were being repaired in a bid to make a tiny room look spacious. Kellett recalls an agent padlocking the gates of a home with a bumpy driveway that was scheduled to be visited by a Ferrari-owning buyer. The official story was that the gates were being repaired but in reality "if he tried to drive down it, he'd rip the bottom off his car," she says.

More seriously, perhaps, a few agents will say anything to make a property appear better value than it really is.

Jo Eccles, of Sourcing Property, a London buying agency, often views homes in some of the most expensive areas of the capital with "short leases" of between 10 and 50 years, well under the usual 900-plus years. If the leases are extended – at a cost – they significantly enhance the value of the properties. When she viewed one home in Chelsea "we did a rough calculation and estimated £1.2m for the lease extension but the agent was telling buyers that the vendor had 'verbally estimated' a cost of £800,000."

In a struggling housing market, such sharp practices may become more common but in theory the industry's trade body, the National Association of Estate Agents, is trying to boost the agency image by introducing a licencing system. This is partly based on how long an agent has been in business, rather than solely on qualifications, so some observers feel this does not guarantee an improved performance when it comes to jargon, photographs and viewings.

Perhaps that is why estate agents are consistently regarded in surveys of the general public as untrustworthy and occupy what they themselves might well describe as a cosy, well-appointed location nestled in the moral foothills – alongside, of course, those other hated professionals, politicians and bankers.

Cut through the patter

* Check the area around a property on Google Earth and StreetView.

* If the details show only interior pictures, insist on seeing some of the exterior before any viewing.

* Visit a property in daylight and at night, and at peak commuter and school-run times.

* Check all doors are fitted and all furniture, especially beds, are standard size.

* Shift furniture away from walls to see what lies behind.

* Make sure all music or other noise sources in the house are turned off.

* Ignore agents' deliberate vagueness over "with offers in the region of", "guide price" or "offers in excess of". Instead work out what price the property would have reached at the peak of the market in 2007, then subtract 35 per cent.

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