Turning the notoriously tricky house-buying process on its head is what new website buyersbillboard.co.uk is all about.
Instead of the traditional model of sellers advertising for prospective buyers, Buyers Billboard creates in effect a beauty parade of buyers from which sellers can choose.
BuyersBillboard.co.uk aims to invert the usual buying process. Instead of homeowners advertising their homes as they might on property portals such as Rightmove and Primelocation, the website invites those wanting to buy to advertise exactly what they are looking for. If you're a potential buyer you register all of your requirements: location, budget, number of bedrooms, bathrooms, etc. Homeowners can use the search engine to match them with buyers that will be most interested.
"Owners have no confidence that there are serious buyers out there which is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy," says David Lomas, the managing director of Buyers Billboard, which he hopes will reignite the market for both the owner and buyer.
"What buyers cannot do at the moment is advertise themselves to people who may be tempted to sell but haven't concluded in their mind. They have the ability to access all the homeowners who don't yet have a house on the market; it widens the pool of properties they can look at and the real benefit is that people who are thinking about selling can spend a few minutes and see what credible buyers are out there."
The UK property market is certainly in need of something radically different after the latest UK housing market survey from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors reported that new instructions dropped in September from a balance of -1 per cent to -5 per cent. Newly agreed sales dipped from 2 per cent to -4 per cent, the first negative reading since the beginning of the year.
A lack of fresh stock is indicative of fears over job losses and the eurozone problem. Some say that many homeowners are hesitant to put their property on the market because they have little faith that they will be able to find serious buyers.
Billboard gives buyers access to owners who have yet to put their property on the market. For owners, it is the perfect opportunity to test the water if they are uncertain or reluctant to commit the time and money involved in putting their home up for sale. If they do find a buyer through the site the only charge is a one-off fee of £150 when the sale is completed.
Sellers using Buyers Billboard are free to proceed directly with their chosen buyer with or without appointing an estate agent to manage the transaction for them, but David Newnes, director of LSL Property Services warns against going it alone. He argues that although on the face of it online property sales sites appear to offer great savings to sellers seeking to avoid estate agents' fees, this can be a false economy because they miss out on the expertise a local agent might offer.
"Estate agents are experts in the local market and can give clear advice to sellers about what they can expect to get for their property, rather than providing guideline prices that don't take account of the specific characteristics of the property," says Mr Newnes.
Agents can also give sellers tips on how to present a house and negotiate, but, crucially, a good agent will ensure that buyers and sellers keep in constant communication to prevent the delays which can often cause a chain to break down. This usually means that sellers using agents get more money for their properties than they would going it alone, and this should cover the agent's fee.
"Sites offering sellers the direct chance to get in touch with buyers are a commendable innovation, but they run the risk of encouraging sellers to put themselves in a weaker position when putting their property on the market," says Mr Newnes.
As well as this danger, experts argue that although new ideas should be welcomed, they are unlikely to have any significant impact as people will continue to buy and sell in the way they always have. There are also a few indications that the market could get going again on its own, including competitive mortgage rates and HSBC offering new high loan-to-value mortgages with no fees and pledging to reserve at least £250m for first-time buyers (FTBs) until 31 December.
However, there is a long way to go: homeowners are still struggling to sell and the number of first time buyers in the UK has fallen to below 200,000 in the past three years, according to the Council of Mortgage Lenders, a far cry from the 500,000 a year seen previously. For those still unable to raise a deposit, or those with no job security, it is safer to rent.
Economic uncertainty works the other way too and increases the likelihood of gazanging, when a seller suddenly pulls out of a sale, leaving the buyer stranded. Gazanging was recently reported by an online conveyancing firm to have affected 54,000 buyers in the first half of 2011, up 20 per cent, year on year. There are many reasons for this increase including a shortage of housing, fewer homes being built and even the abolition of home information packs which were widely criticised but could at least prevent homeowners from putting their property on the market with no genuine intention to complete.
All this could mean that a service such as Buyers Billboard has a place, but property expert Henry Pryor says that the real problem lies with owners' high expectations: "I applaud the initiative but it tries to solve a problem that I don't think exists. The big problem is that sellers are too greedy; they don't understand that the market has moved. Many people who want to sell are not in a position to proceed."
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