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We have just seen the programme by Mary Portas ‘Secret Shopper' on estate agents on Channel 4. We only vaguely recollect watching a few ‘Secret Shopper' programmes before, however when they had a ‘Secret Shopper' on estate agents we just had to watch this.
We have seen everything over the years with estate agents; from the honourable and ethical estate agents to those who would sell your gran estate agents! It has to be said that over the years it is very much moving towards the car sales type industry being used to sell houses by the estate agents. There are various estate agents that we know that do create a lot of pressure to buy.
What the Secret Shopper Revealed
It was very interesting to see the techniques the estate agents used and we have to say we believe these are very common. These range from the “we've got hundreds of viewings that day” which is the implied sell, where they are saying it is bound to sell, to the assumed sell where they advise that the house will sell that day. Interestingly, it was commented within the Channel 4 TV programme that where they were told this the house didn't actually sell that day, which didn't come as a surprise to us. All this was filed by Channel 4 in what we would term as a buyer's market.
So, in theory, the buyer should have the upper hand, but we would say it would be fairer for neither party to have an upper hand, but for it to be balanced and an honest progress. This is indeed what Mary Portas focused on. Estate agents were second only in unpopularity to politicians (we think bankers would be quite high on the unpopularity list as well these days)!
She also focused on the lack of basic knowledge that the estate agents had and was very much asking what value would the estate agent add to the process. She did comment that you could literally put your house on the Internet to sell.
Co-operation of an Estate Agent
We were very pleased to see that Mary Portas found an estate agent to co-operate and would say it was very brave of the estate agent as well. The estate agents office is one of a group of independent estate agents, which we generally advise are the best to deal with, or the worst, as with National corporate estate agents, such as:
Mann & Co
John D Wood
You tend to get more of a formatted service, very much like where you are in a big restaurant chain and they come back and ask you is everything okay with your meal in a voice that really doesn't mean that they care if everything is okay with your meal or not!
The feedback that Mary Portas gave to the managing director was very much that there was a lack of knowledge and a lack of customer care during the viewing process.
The viewing process is just one part of what estate agents do
We would agree with the estate agents managing director when he said that the viewing process is just one part of what estate agents do. Probably estate agents consider the most important bit is bringing properties on board to sell, because without anything to sell you don't have an estate agency. Equally, when they do get the sale they have to push it through via talking to the solicitors, surveyors, valuers, mortgage companies to get their commission, as they only get their commission when the property is actually sold, which is a massive incentive for estate agents.
First we would term the managing director as being reluctant to take on board the information with regard to viewing, as he rightly said that houses to sell themselves, and it was interesting that this comment was even made in what we would term as a buyer's market. Whilst the estate agency was based in London , and you could argue that some parts of London have hot spots and has come back into a seller's market, it is very much an attitude of mind that we see time and time again that houses do sell themselves. In fact, we would say it's the normal practice to have the least experienced people within the estate agents practice to do the viewings and this is why when they are showing people round there is next to no knowledge available for them to show. We are talking first of general things, such as the type of property and the attributes it has, such as storage space, south facing garden, etc. There is a great line in the programme where one of the estate agents said that “west is the new south” which did make us smile and I'm sure will be remembered by many people for some time to come.
They didn't know anything about more broader information, such as where good schools are, which is an essential part for people buying a house; we would say it's always in the top five list of anyone who is buying a house. Often, the good news for estate agents is that people will already know where the good schools are, or where the schools there children go to, or want their children to go to are, and have only viewed the house on this basis, but nevertheless it's information they should know.
We would say it did feel as if some of the estate agents that were viewed on the Secret Shopper had next to no knowledge on that particular property and it was shown on one of the viewings where the estate agent was constantly on the phone, and this was their award winning star estate agent!
Estate Agents Speak
Mary Portas also identified what we come across a lot - estate agents speak, for example “the property would be a good DIY project”, meaning that it has major problems. As Surveyors we too are guilty of surveyor speak, as are many industries, however where estate agents are directly selling to the public they need to speak in a format which the public can understand and Mary Portas identified a unique selling point that the estate agent should actually use honest criteria and features and advise if there are any things they didn't think would appeal to the majority of people.
At first the estate agent director was not too keen on this, as he rightly pointed out that a selling point for one person is a non selling point for another, but he gradually came over to the idea, particularly when the senior partner (his father) who set up the practice was involved and could see, perhaps it would be fair to say “the wood from the trees” and didn't have to do the day to day running of the practice.
Mary Portas Secret Shopper Set Loose
The plan she approached the Board with was to:
1. Have estate agents details that told the truth.
2. Have estate agents that knew about the product they were selling, i.e. advise of the best local schools and any features that the property had.
Other people showing people round houses other than estate agents
Mary Portas then went and visited a stately home (we believe it was National Trust/possibly English Heritage) and showed people round a house and how they explained about the attributes and features of the house. Mary Portas then put the challenge to some of the estate agents to see what they could do and with only 15 minutes training she genuinely showed surprise at how the estate agents were able to take on a guided tour of a room of the house.
We weren't surprised about this because we feel that good estate agents are vastly underrated; their sales techniques often come more about the lack of time they have than the standards they genuinely have.
Mary Portas was very impressed with two of the estate agents who started to star and feature in it. One of them was the independent estate agents top performer and another one was a lady who had been with them, having had no previous experience in the estate agent industry for a few years.
You could see a general change in attitude of the estates agents as they took on board what Mary Portas was saying about giving good service on the viewing. Interestingly, it did occur to us that it very much depends upon the emphasis that the managing director of the estate agency has on the viewings and his comments earlier that houses sell themselves and may well have influenced his staff's attitudes, so you do have to be careful of what you say and what you do.
The non-secret filming of the estate agents
Talking about what you say and what you do, it was very interesting to then see the final section of the film where they were filmed, not secretly this time, with a client, showing them a property.
The two estate agents that we mentioned earlier were featured in this section, where they showed a prospective purchaser around a property and were filmed doing this. The difference in approach was considerable and the confidence, we would say, was greater, but was it a realistic situation? In the real world the top selling estate agent may well have had that time for the viewing but he have got other sales if he hadn't taken calls during the viewing, as he did on the secret filming earlier carrying out his estate agent duties?
Secret Shopper by Mary Portas - good entertaining TV
It has to be said that the Secret Shopper with the estate agents made great entertaining TV, particularly as the estate agents are a profession that we love to hate, so to speak, and most people in our experience find that what should be a pleasant experience of looking for a new house is unpleasant.
We would be intrigued to see how long these new practices last because of the pressure on estate agents to sell, as they are on a no sale, no fee commission basis and we would say there's a lot of pressure being one as the cost of running an estate agency means you have to have:
1. A good high street location with your photographs in the window.
2. High visibility adverts in the local paper
3. A website presence on somewhere like RightMove.co.uk.
4. You have to have cars to transport your negotiators and sales staff to the properties
You have to do all this without getting a fee and if you don't manage to sell something, no matter how many times you have shown viewings of the property and how many people you've shown round, if you are competitor manages to sell the property you won't get paid anything. This should be remembered when you are dealing with an estate agent. They do offer a free service for a lot of people, that's why the fee that was quoted of many thousands of pounds is charged because you are not just paying for the service that you've got, you're paying for the service that someone else had and didn't manage to sell their house on.
We do think the Secret Shopper film on Channel 4 would make a great film to show estate agents in their training.
Do estate agents have to have any qualifications?
What we think could have been better shown in the programme was that estate agents don't have to have any qualifications whatsoever and, in our opinion, a great way of moving the whole industry forward would be to have to have qualified estate agents only dealing with the sale and then in turn their professional body, The National Association of Estate Agents, producing an ethical rule that can apply if not kept to and throw the estate agents out. Therefore the estate agents would be fully accountable for some of the stories they are telling.
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