If it's too good to be true... Why online agents are not all they appear.

Have you ever hear the phrase – “it sounds too good to be true...?” To most of us, that’s not a signal of an impending bargain – it’s a warning cry, telling us to look deeper at what is on offer.

So this week I’m offering my own opinion on the rise of the online agents; but perhaps a more appropriate name would be call-centre estate agents, as nearly all agents, high street or otherwise, are online. Now it’s fair to say that I have some bias here, since I run a bricks-and-mortar, high street estate and lettings agency. But as with any field, my expertise is what has shaped my opinions – so with that said, I will leave you to judge for yourselves. I’m not saying there is no place for them – but I do think that their advertising is highly misleading.

Misleading advertising.

I was prompted to start this post after the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) recently upheld a complaint over a well-known call centre agent’s website statement featuring testimonials from clients. In short, the ASA were asked to investigate claims that the testimonials from clients misled the public over the amount of money saved by using the call-centre agency. The figures claimed run to thousands of pounds, but the ASA investigation revealed that this was based on some misleading evidence, using poorly evidenced assumptions over what a high-street agent would have charged.

In addition, that ASA ruling stated that:

“We understood that the service Purplebricks provided was largely similar to that provided by ‘high street’ estate agents. However, we understood it was standard practice for ‘high street’ estate agencies to conduct viewings on behalf of property sellers as part of their fee, whereas Purplebricks charged additional fees if property sellers wanted an agent to conduct viewings on their behalf. We considered it was not clear from the ad that the service provided for Purplebricks’ fee was different to that of ‘high street’ estate agents.”

For me this is a crucial point. By comparing the cost of their lowest level of service to our only level of service, which is much higher, the ad was sufficiently misleading that the ASA ruled that it should not run again in it’s current form.

This has ruling has prompted the regulator to warn call centre agents that there will be repercussions if they do not clean up their act.

Claims:

Many claims that are made by the call centre agents can be challenged and with a little bit of probing they do not stand up to scrutiny.

Would it surprise you to know that the Trust Pilot score that is so heavily relied upon is not accurate? The call centre agents pay Trust Pilot to remove a large proportion of negative reviews. That’s right, the scores that are supposed to help guide your thinking and are supposed to provide you with assurances can be manipulated to only read positively. Now I find that shocking, but it’s perfectly legal, just very misleading to the consumer.

Would it also surprise you to know that only 48% of properties that are listed by call centre agents are estimated by independent bodies to lead to completed sales? That means that 52% of customers that list with a call centre agent revert to a high street agent, and the money that has been spent on a call centre agent has been wasted. The call centre agents repeatedly refuse to publish this data so it can be accurately passed to the consumer, I can only assume because they believe it will damage their reputation and their credibility.

Why viewings matter.

One of the biggest differences between the call-center agencies and my own, is the matter of viewings. By not needing to send a staff member out to your property every time an interested party wants to view it, the call-center firms can save money. But the savings come from your own time – you need to conduct the viewings yourself, probably meaning time off work or personal plans disrupted. Convenience is only a small part of it though – when we conduct sales viewings, we actively discourage the owner from being present. The main reason is that owners have an understandably emotional attachment to their home. None of us like seeing someone turn their nose up at our choice of decoration, or hearing that the kitchen is too cramped, when these are the spaces that our lives are played out within. That dynamic can make the atmosphere difficult – and potentially cost you a sale.

Negotiation skills.

In addition, our agents are experienced in ‘talking up’ a property’s potential, weighing up what this particular potential purchaser might be looking for and highlighting its best attributes. We are experienced negotiators, who can set the right tone before arranging the sale – at the best price for you. And of course, by working on a percentage basis we are well motivated to sell your home for the best possible price – whilst an call-center estate agent is only motivated to sell quickly, at any price they can get you to agree on. A real agent will be able to negotiate the best price, and earn you far more than you will pay in fees! If you feel confident then you could conduct these yourself, but you must be willing to take on what can be time consuming and stressful negotiations.

High street presence.

When I first took over my company, it was working out of a dingy office above a charity shop. A number of customers had commented to us that they didn’t realize that we were even there, or that they would’ve listed their property with us except they were worried no one would see it. So we moved to fantastic, modern new premises with a great high-street presence, and business is booming. We were still unpacking from the move when the first passing customers popped in for a look! Why does this matter? Well it’s true that a lot of property searches happen online these days, which is why we have a robust online presence and marketing plan for your property. But it’s easy to forget how much people value being able to walk into a store like ours and talk to us face-to-face. That is a service that you simply cannot get by dialing a call-center or having a web-chat online.

Local knowledge.

While a call-center agent will send someone to your home to take photos and conduct a valuation, they are unlikely to match the local area knowledge a local high-street agent can offer. Even where they claim to have a ‘local’ representative, this often means they cover a wide geographical area. When even a street either way can make a significant difference in price, someone from the next town over is unlikely to be able to market every property accurately. Our knowledge of the local market comes from living and breathing that small area, day in and day out.

What happens if my home doesn’t sell?

If you use a high-street agent, if they cannot sell your home in an agreed time frame you would usually owe them nothing. However, a call-center agency would normally charge their fixed fees up-front – leaving you potentially holding a £1500+ bill even if your house doesn’t sell, not including the eventual costs of approaching a real agent to get the job done right.

With annual house price rises often exceeding the owner’s annual salary, getting a sale right is crucial. So why would you cut corners, when a professional can do it for you properly?

The biggest asset that most people own is their home, so I ask this question knowing that there are a number of different answers and not everyone will feel the same; When you buy a TV or a car, do you choose the cheapest option or do you choose the product most appropriate to your needs? Why do people buy a Panasonic or a Sony or an Audi or BMW when considerably cheaper options exist? Would you trust your car to be fixed by a mechanic that was 40 miles away and drove to you, without all of the tools required to fix the job and then when the item that was broken had been fixed the mechanic says to you, I’ll leave you to put the car back together then if that’s alright? Would you accept that? I am guessing not, so I ask you why choose an agent that is 40-50 miles away in some instances, that can’t possible hope to know the local market in the kind of detail that a local high street agent will, that once they have listed your property hands you over to a call centre who you will deal with, who also deal with the entire country, so won’t know you personally or your property or have the personal connection?

Is this acceptable to you? Is it worth a little bit more money for a far superior service that you can walk into branch and visit whenever you like and talk to the team face to face?

We know that there is not one solution fits all, different routes are suited to different individuals, so if after reading the above you still believe that the best choice for you is a call centre agent, then we wish you well, but we stand by our service and the quality that we provide.

 
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