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Someone turns to me at a party and asks what I do. Despite 35 years of practising an answer, my first instinct is always to panic and say anything but estate agent. Why? In surveys public satisfaction with their agents is consistently 90 per cent-plus and, given the role agents play in disposing of your most important asset, surely you should love them too.
When I first met my stepfather 35 years ago about the only thing going for me in his book (and he was a man of some standing) was that I was an estate agent. A gentleman’s profession, he said — not any more apparently.
Years ago an eminent psychologist, Cary Cooper, told my wife that agents were, and always would be, unpopular because they are the messengers.
Well, we may be, but should that consign us to an eternity of social exclusion or is it time to remind people that it’s not actually our fault when their dream crashes around them?
Sadly, life these days seems predicated on a right of entitlement. Add to this a seemingly ever-increasing focus on upward social mobility and you have the perfect excuse for blaming an estate agent when your property utopia doesn’t materialise and feeling comfortable with the sage nods of others who feel such people are beneath them.
Given the absurdity of our property-buying system, the cheapest in the developed world and one the government refuses to regulate in even the most basic way, there are plenty of weak links where those who could face blame enjoy hiding behind the estate agent. Most of the public erroneously thinks that, once an offer has been accepted on a property in England and Wales, it is sold — it’s not. Until contracts have been exchanged, anyone can pull out of a deal — buyer or seller — and 35 per cent of people do. That’s a lot of heartache, and lost money.
Let’s examine some problems and see who really is to blame.
The buyer pulls out as the deal takes too long: it could be for a number of reasons, none the fault of the agent. The solicitors could be slow but it’s much easier to blame the agent rather than a lawyer.
The buyer’s finance could be slow or have failed: again the seller will rail against the agent who is powerless. The seller might have been slow getting all the paperwork together, which again is outside the agent’s control.
The most emotive issues tend to revolve around how buyers and sellers conduct themselves on the subject of money. The seller can decide to accept a higher offer, known as gazumping: but why is this an agent’s fault? If 20 people see a property before a sale is agreed and one decides to come back at a later date and make a higher offer, we face criminal charges if we fail to report this. It’s the seller that agrees to cut another deal, not the agent, yet more often than not it is seen as the agent’s fault.
Similarly, if a buyer decides that something is wrong with the property or if there is a legal problem and they try to cut the price — gazundering — it’s hardly the agent’s fault but somehow they will be left feeling responsible.
Quick offers, especially at the asking price, sound great but more often than not sellers think it’s too quick, worrying that their property is undervalued, and of course the buyer will take it out on the agent as they’re offering what was asked. Best bids are a recipe for universal ire. You have five buyers and the price ends up over the asking price. The seller thinks you got the original price wrong, the winning buyer thinks they’ve paid too much and the unsuccessful buyers blame you. Seemingly everyone’s left with a bitter taste.
It’s money for old rope: this is one of the more common ill-informed hand grenades lobbed into conversations. Everyone remembers the sale that went through quickly, forgetting why. Agents spend money ensuring their databases feature qualified buyers — why should anyone be surprised when they do their job rapidly? If it is money for old rope, perhaps detractors would like to suggest why people aren’t all fighting to become estate agents. Oh yes, social stigma — of course.
But there is one very good reason why you should love your agent. Very few property dreams come true without one. It may surprise you but only 20 per cent or so of the work an agent does goes into advertising your property or putting details on one of the massive property portals. Eighty per cent is reserved for the bit that cajoles, begs, drives, counsels, buys, kicks, obsesses over and finesses all the elements mentioned above. Given we are the undertakers, the last involved, we very rarely get any thanks.
Love, with a small “l” isn’t a strong enough word for what we deserve, yet what we get are the brickbats thrown by those disadvantaged by a lamentable system. Ultimately, who would you rather blame, your immediately accessible and vulnerable estate agent or the government?
Ed Mead is executive director of Douglas & Gordon estate agents
Illustration by James Fryer