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How should I choose an estate agent?

You put your house on the market, but the estate agent is the one who actually sells it. Choosing the right agent is a critical decision – it can make the difference between getting a really good price, and not selling your house at all. But how do you tell the difference between good agents and bad ones?

Remember: the agent works for you

As the seller, you choose the estate agent, and the agent works for you. But the decision to accept an offer remains with you. As the seller, you are usually in a strong position with estate agents – unless they have properties to sell on their books, they won’t make any commission.

Choosing a sole or multiple agent

You have to decide whether you are going for one, two or more agents.  See How many estate agents should I use? Clearly, if you are going for a multiple agency agreement, then you can just put your property on with any agent you like, and you don’t really have to chose between them. The following comments are only really relevant if you are going for a sole or joint sole agreement.

Select a shortlist of estate agents

  • Ask family, friends and neighbours – there is nothing better than a personal recommendation
  • For most properties, it is best to stay local – local agents know the area, and can be close to meet prospective buyers
  • If yours is a particularly unusual or expensive property, you might want to choose a national estate agent who specialises in homes like yours
  • Make sure the agent has experience of selling property like yours – and the best way to do that is to check there are properties similar to yours in the window. There’s no point using Strutt & Parker, which sells large country houses, if you have a central Manchester flat.
  • Go into a number of estate agents and pretend to be looking to buy a house similar to yours – are they professional? Do they seem competent? Are you impressed?
  • Look at the agent’s website – are the pictures well taken, and the descriptions clear and relevant?
  • The “sold” boards outside properties are good indicators of which agents are doing well (but beware – some agents put up boards outside multiple occupancy houses just to look like they are busy)
  • A good agent will invest in marketing to ensure they get the best price, while a poor one will just wait for customers to come to them (see below)
  • Do not feel pressured to hire the estate agent you bought your house from. Obviously, if you were impressed how they sold your house to you, you might decide to go with them again
  • What is their viewing policy – check they will accompany potential buyers when you are out. Do they phone and send around potential buyers straight away?
  • Narrow your choices down to a shortlist of about three and invite them to do a valuation

Find out how good they are

  • What recent sales have they made of comparable properties and at what price? Ask for details so you can check them out
  • After they value your property ask them to explain their reasoning
  • Do they have any estate agency or sales qualifications?
  • Are they members of a professional trade association, such as the National Association of Estate Agents, or the Guild of Professional Estate Agents?
  • Are they members of an accredited independent ombudsman service?
  • Can more than one person in the office talk enthusiastically and with knowledge about your property?
  • What would they do if your property was not selling as well as expected? What do you think about their answer?
  • Are they open at weekends? A surprising number of agents only work during the week, and perhaps do half day on Saturday, which means they are less accessible to potential buyers

How will they market your property?

  • Assuming they will advertise on the internet, which portals are they using? Their own website is not worth worrying about. It is the big property portals you want to be listed on: Zoopla, Rightmove and Primelocation
  • From 2015 things are set to get a bit confusing for us homesellers with the introduction of a new property portal. Onthemarket.com has been set up by a group of high street agents wanting to take control of the online market. As a result, you need to ask agents the following detailed questions:

i) Are you an OnTheMarket member? If they are, they will only be able to list your home on one of the other two leading portals – either Rightmove OR Zoopla – thus potentially halving the marketing exposure of your property.

ii) Which portal will my home be advertised on and when? It will be interesting to hear the reasons your agent gives for going with Rightmove or Zoopla, and whether you agree.While agents will probably tell you this happily, they may be a bit more cagey about the other policy condition to signing up with onthemarket.com. This involves advertising your property first on this portal for 48hours before putting it onto Rightmove or Zoopla.  This means your home could sit for two days or more on a relatively unknown site, missing out on the influx of traffic to Rightmove, which attracts 90m visitors a month, and Zoopla, which reports monthly visitor numbers of 45m. Therefore it is worth also asking…

iii) Can I negotiate a reduced % fee for the delay in your property appearing on Rightmove or Zoopla. It’s worth a try.

  • If your main concern is optimising exposure of your home to as many potential buyers as possible then find an agent who is not with OTM and still using Rightmove AND Zoopla (Foxtons, Connells, Countrywide and others).
  • Will they use newspapers? Which ones? Find out what local newspapers there are and if they will feature your property in them. If you are selling a more expensive property, will it feature in any national newspapers or magazines?
  • Will your property feature in their window? For how long?

Don’t be fooled by the valuations they give

Agents know that one of the main reasons people pick them is the valuation they give. They take two general approaches:

  • Some agents give deliberately optimistic valuations, to make you think you can get a higher price with them, and then try and talk you down after you have chosen them
  • Some agents insist they are giving a realistic price, and tell you not to be fooled by falsely high valuations

Do your research on how to value your home. The agent will come armed with evidence of local sold prices to support their valuation. While you should take their advice, it is you and not the agent who decides what price to put the property on at.

How much do they cost?

  • Estate agents will normally charge you between 1% and 2.5% +VAT for a sole agency agreement of the price at which you sell your home
  • Fees normally exclude VAT, currently 20%. Add VAT, and you will have to pay them between 1.2% and 3.0% of the value of your home. So, for a £300,000 home, it varies between £3600 and £9,000
  • Try to get agents to compete on cost
  • For more details on estate agent costs see How much should I pay the estate agent?

Traps to watch out for in the estate agent agreement

Different estate agents have different terms and conditions, and their fees cover different things – although in practice, many are open to negotiation. In particular, things to watch out for include (for more information see Estate Agents’ contracts – what to watch for)

  • Does their fee cover marketing and other costs, such as for preparing the property details and For Sale boards? Clearly it is best to have all this included
  • Avoid agents who insist on “sole selling rights” – that means that even if you find a buyer yourself, then you still have to pay the agent their fee. If you do give away sole selling rights to an agent, it must only be for a very limited period
  • Never sign an agreement that commits you to paying the agent just for finding you a “ready, willing and able purchaser”, rather than for actually selling you the property. This would mean you still have to pay the agent a fee even if the sale falls through because you have had to pull out – such as if you lost your job. You should only use an agent who expects a fee as a result of exchange of contracts
  • Make sure the agreement has a time limit, so you can change agent if you are not happy. A normal period is 12 weeks, but can be as little as 4.   Agents might not like it, but try to get a no-penalties notice period of 2 weeks

What about online estate agents?

Online estate agents are much cheaper than conventional high street estate agents. But, because the market is quite new, there is huge variety in price and quality. See our guides Should I use an online estate agent? and A comparison of online estate agents: which one should I use?

  • They vary but start at about £300 flat fee paid up front
  • There is a range of pricing plans, though the essence of it is that the more you pay up front the less you pay on completion
  • They all have essentially the same marketing approach, which is to advertise your house online on websites like Zoopla, Rightmove, Primelocation, as well as national newspapers
  • If you do want to use an online estate agent get some local estate agents to value your home first, and then you will have a good idea of where to pitch the asking price
  • Some online agents will conduct viewings for you; others will arrange a convenient time between you and the prospective buyer.
  • Most will charge you for a “For Sale” board

Can I sell my home myself?

This is a possibility as more and more websites pop-up allowing you to list your home and market it to potential buyers. They will not however be allowed to market your house on the big property portals so exposure to potential buyers will be limited. If you can sell you home for the right price this way you will save a lot of money. But beware that not getting the best price for your home can be much more costly than paying an agent. £5,000 off a £200,000 home may not seem like much but will completely erase any savings from not using an agent. See our guide Should I sell my home myself for more information

Final thoughts when choosing an estate agent

Do you get on with them and trust them – you will have to spend lots of time with them, and trust them with your most valuable asset.  Remember to read the contract carefully and check your sole agency tie in period and required notice period. If you don’t understand something, ask. If you are not happy in any way do not sign the contract



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