Country houses for sale

Online v high-street agents: Do the risks outweigh the value?

Online agents promise to sell your house for a fraction of high-street agents’ fees, but how does their service compare?

Almost everyone has at least one humdinger of a house-selling story. Whether it’s a deal that came off in spectacular fashion or a sale with more twists and turns than Line of Duty, these yarns have long entertained kitchen suppers across the land. Central to the plot, of course, has always been the local high-street estate agent, but change may be afoot.

As online-only agents attempt to disrupt the status quo, some kitchen suppers find themselves debating the traditional agent’s role – so how do the two models compare?

Online-only agents say they’re able to sell houses for a fraction of the traditional 1.5% fee by doing away with bricks-and-mortar offices. The main players are currently Purplebricks, HouseSimple, Yopa, easyProperty, Emoov and Tepilo and their models all vary, but vendors usually pay between £400 and £1,500 upfront.

On closer inspection, this fee provides a sort of ‘no frills’ service and there are add-on charges for anything from professional photographs to a ‘For Sale’ sign – assisted viewings, for example, come in at about £300. The vendor is allocated a local agent tasked with taking them through the journey from valuation to completion, with everything managed through an online dashboard.

‘In this climate, vendors really need someone who’s going to be proactive about selling a house.’

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What do high-street agents offer, in comparison? One obvious point of difference is that you don’t pay until the deal is done, which provides an incentive for the agent to go to work.

With their fee in the bag, online firms may not be so motivated – indeed, anecdotally, some high-street agents tell of being instructed by vendors who had tried an online agent, but failed to sell; others report chains featuring online agents being held up for months in conveyancing.

There is also the market to consider, as Rupert Sweeting, Knight Frank’s head of national country sales, points out: ‘In this climate, vendors really need someone who’s going to be proactive about selling a house, not just listing it.

We see ourselves very much as a catalyst for the whole sale, from beginning to end. Sometimes, the work really only begins once you’ve had an offer accepted and this is where we can really earn our money.’

purple bricks, online, web based estate agents sign board

For James Mackenzie, head of the country department at Strutt & Parker, it’s worth vendors considering the legwork involved: ‘The process of selling your property can be a complex one, with a lot of moving parts and, unless you’re willing to keep on top of it all yourself, you need to feel confident that you’ve chosen the right person to keep things running smoothly.’

Lindsay Cuthill, head of the country department at Savills, believes his company’s model offers the best of both worlds. ‘Our website and digital marketing easily match those of the online agents, but, on top of this, we guarantee an absolutely personal service.’

Director at Jackson-Stops Dawn Carritt concurs, adding that her agents work with sellers on every tiny detail. ‘We advise on everything from mise-en-scène to complex paperwork and in-depth preparation before viewings even begin.’

However, it’s not only experience with marketing houses that the top high-street agents bring to the table; they also work hard to find the right buyers. As Mrs Carritt points out, ‘an online-only search can have its limits’.

‘Ultimately, it’s up to vendors to weigh up the risks and the rewards.’

Knight Frank’s Ed Cunningham says he had just this in mind when he launched Pyt House in Berkshire onto the market in May, at a guide price of £4.25 million. An advert in the pages of Country Life attracted two highly motivated buyers who ended up in competition and the figure achieved was in excess of the guide.

Of course, the debate will continue. Online agents maintain they save clients thousands of pounds and high-street agents are confident their services represent good value. Ultimately, it’s up to vendors to weigh up the risks and the rewards and make their choice based on which model works best for them.

Rest assured – you’ll be hearing the results at a kitchen supper near you before the year is out.

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