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Online property auctions good or bad?

There is much to be said about the growing popularity of online property auctions, especially at a time when transactions are taking longer and over 300,000 purchases fell through last year. But is it all it's cracked up to be? Richard Copus explains why buyers and sellers need to tread with caution...

6 minute read

Legal paperwork

Over the last few years, a new way of buying and selling via an online property auction has appeared.  Known as the Conditional or “Modern” Method, it differs from traditional auctions because contracts are not exchanged on the fall of the gavel.  Instead, the buyer pays a reservation fee which allows more time in which to prepare him/herself to exchange.  These types of auction are growing in popularity because they allow people who need time to raise the money to buy properties they would otherwise be unable to do.  These transactions will complete a great deal faster than buying on the open market and there is no risk of gazumping.

However, this new method of buying and selling via an online property auction is successful for estate agents who are using it to prise extra fees from buyers and to entice sellers to part with their homes on a no fee basis.  Traditional auction, where exchange happens immediately and completion is 28 days later, is well regulated by law and has been used successfully for centuries.  The seller pays a commission, usually around 2%, and the only charge to the buyer is a few hundred pounds administration fee.  This encourages the maximum number of bidders and the full market price is obtained for the seller.

On-line property auction fees explained

The Modern Method of online property auctions does away with all of this.  A high non-returnable reservation fee is charged to the buyer, normally a minimum of £5,000 and generally around 4% including VAT which is way above the traditional buyers’ administration fee.  This fee reduces the number of bidders and reduces the amount the property is sold for because, such a high amount, materially affects what the buyer can afford. This fee is also added to the purchase price for stamp duty purposes creating an additional cost for the buyer.  The seller might think they are saving money by not paying a fee, but in reality, they often come away with less at the end of the day because their house has sold for a lower price than it would have otherwise.

Why are these reservation fees so high?  Mainly because the fee is split between the auctioneer and the estate agent marketing the property and this fee is non-negotiable.  Unlike traditional auctioneers who are qualified professionals and who carry out their own marketing, the Modern Method is often run by tech platforms who work with estate agents to offer this service, and in return, these estate receive a large chunk of the fee.  This fee varies between a third and half the total amount paid by the buyer; about double what they would earn through selling a house normally.

Non-returnable reservation fees and other issues

One of the main complaints buyers have with the Modern Method is not being able to recover their reservation fees when the seller has been unable to exchange contracts within the given timescale, usually between 28 and 56 days, and when the agent has not provided enough information about the property to enable the buyer to exchange in time.  For example it is not uncommon for the full details of the leasehold title to be missing in the legal pack.   Through no fault of their own, the buyer is suddenly out of pocket to the tune of thousands of pounds.

Agents rarely give buyers their money back in such cases because they say the contract states that it is only the buyer who is bound by those terms and not the seller.  However, a contract is a two way agreement and one which is weighted unfairly against the consumer is often unenforceable.     In addition some agents have failed to provide the information they are required to do by law which has caused the delay.  However, the buyer is usually told categorically that his fee is non-refundable “because that is what it says in the contract” and they walk away penniless. Learn more about what you can do if you are in a dispute with your estate agent

Over the last decade or so, estate agents and auctioneers have had to comply with more legislation to protect consumers.  The most important of these is the Consumer Protection Regulations to ensure full and correct information is used when marketing properties.  Hiding behind a simple clause in a contract does not mean that the consumer cannot get their money back.

Under the Property Ombudsman Code of Conduct, before taking on a property agents have a duty to advise their clients of the best method of sale and the pitfalls of the one they recommend.  Some of the houses on the market through the Modern Method are ordinary, mortgageable homes where the home owner has been attracted to sell this way because there is no fee payable.  Selling these properties by any form of auction is not normally advisable, unless the seller needs a very quick sale and is not too worried about the price he will achieve, and there is a duty to spell this out to the seller at the outset. Learn more about what the Property Ombudsman does and how to make a complaint

My advice to buyers is: Only use the Modern Method of online property auctions when the reservation fee is low and the property is your dream home, and be very wary of the terms in the contract.  For sellers, my advice is: Don’t be seduced by the offer of not having to pay any commission; there is no such thing as a free lunch!

By Richard Copus,  Fellow of the National Association of Valuers & Auctioneers and the National Association of Estate Agents and founder of

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  1. Paul BarnesPaul Barnes

    The next PPI scandal! This will come to bite the estate agents on the back side. Miss selling and pushing vendors into “no fee sales” when in fact it’s costing them thousands in lost sale price all so that the parasitic agents can make an exorbitant amount on basic sales that would otherwise only make them 30% of the money. Why would they not push vendors to sell via this method? The normal routes take months and far more work, this way it’s all online and makes a fortune.

  2. glenys harrisonglenys harrison

    The buyer always comes off worst some on line auction houses lie about the reservation fee even go as far as to send yolu am email to say if your house sale falls through they will refund it. One i know took the house out of the on line auction put it back with the original estate agent increased the asking price and if anyone viewed for a 2nd time thinking that they were dealing as normal with the estate agen t the auction house still wanted paying 4.2%

  3. Dennis HughesDennis Hughes

    The people most disadvantaged by the Modern Method of Auction [MMA] are the vendors, as the article described. As a buyer, we factor in the admin/lotting fees plus all the other fees in the special conditions before arriving at our maximum bid. Every pound more in admin/lotting fees is a pound less for the vendor, because my maximum bid will not change. Again, as the article also articulates, the vendors are seduced by the the “no fee” argument, it may take a little time but sooner or later someone will have a “hang on a minute, I’m losing money here” moment, or not. I hate them by the way, even though our current project was through just such a method – nightmare.

  4. David TurnerDavid Turner

    I agree with your comments. I would pick you up with your comment about standard auctions where contracts are exchanged on the fall of the hammer. It is essential to read the legal pack purchasers now have to pay so called fees. However these fees can amount to in excess of £10K. The buyers who dont read the legal pack and many don’t then get a nasty surprise when they do the paperwork with the solicitors who deal with the paperwork at the auction for the property just sold. Your bid must take into consideration the additional fees you have to pay

  5. J ThompsonJ Thompson

    The above information has confirmed my concerns how did this happen and is it not a practice that should b modified so no more than £500 can b charged to buyers as this method has put me off because of the large amount they take and do not take it asa deposit and knock off the price it has not always been this way so needs bringing up in parliament to an these large amounts- I amreferringtothe Modern method of auction Also with Auctions must read every detail online of the legal pack what is told you is Not what is so leave just sat for 3hrs going through with a tooth comb Now,l know l will not bidding on the one l had got excited about due to it having obligations to other owners in the building being able to get u to pay so many things as the freeholder No freedom in that kind of purchase only a millstone round ur neck hope this helps others

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