The high streets of Olde England are disappearing at an alarming rate. Having struggled to survive the onslaught of out-of-town hypermarkets and chain stores selling everything from books to hair styling, local independents they are losing the battle to… estate agents.
Make no mistake: while economists and journalists debate whether or not we are in the midst – or the brink of - a house price bubble, as the young despair of ever getting on the housing ladder and the older feel unable to help them sufficiently, one group of people is rubbing its hands in glee and opening more and more outlets. Yes, it’s our beloved estate agents I am talking about.
In chic Barnes, West London, where boutiques once rubbed shoulders with chef-owned restaurants, there are now 18 estate agents. In Stoke Newington, in North London, more than 12 agents have crowded out the area’s traditional stores and authentic eateries. In Walthamstow, East London, the number is 24.
Furious residents have printed off stickers bearing the message: "Estate agents: Everyone hates you!" which they attach to agents’ boards. This, of course, is a waste of time. It’s not our love agents want – it’s our money.
According to the ONS, there were 77,000 more estate agent staff in the UK in 2013 compared with the year before. The reason is simple. As house prices soar and demand hugely exceeds supply, earning 1 – 2 per cent of a rapidly ballooning figure becomes, almost literally, as easy as taking candy from a baby.
Recently agents have worked out that they could earn their fees for even less effort. It’s charmingly known as “Open House”, but what it means is that the agents need no longer take the trouble of showing the property individually to interested buyers, having arranged viewings. Instead, all the buyers are told to turn up at the property at around the same time on a designated day. They must then submit their offers there and then, assuming that the best offer will win.
The result is a scrum, resembling the First Day of the Sale at large department stores. As hopeful buyers queue, push and jostle, the advantages for the agent are clear: minimum investment of time and effort to assemble buyers who have no time or chance to inspect anything too closely, but are aware of the pressure to make as high an offer as they can anyway, for fear of losing what they perceive as a property everyone else wants too. Yet on a property worth £500,000 the agent will earn at least £5,000. Some agents even charge the buyers a fee to attend an Open House, which is downright dodgy, but hey – KER-CHING! Nice work if you can get it, and more and more are, as it were, getting it.
You can, of course, get it too. There are no qualifications required to become an estate agent, which is another reason why they spring up like toadstools at the first sign of a market recovery, feeding on the desperation of Generation Rent.