The internet and property sales looked like a match made in heaven. Bung your home on a web site with plenty of detail and some photos, let potential buyers sift and then arrange to look at the kinds of property that suit their needs. Removing the middle man in the Next double-breasted could save you between 1% and 3% of the sale price. That's many thousands of pounds for most of us and far more than we pay the solicitor.
It didn't work out like that. The agents took over most of the independent sites, and of the dozens of portals left, most are ill-designed, slow, and filled with sold buildings. They are cyber ciphers designed to hold users upside down and shake out of them all their personal details, which are then fed into databases.
But a site that may survive the dot.bomb is primelocation.com, whose pitch-perfect chief executive Ian Springett, 42, sprang from NatWest's offshoot Lombard Bank - which he managing directed at 35 - when NatWest fell to RBS. The site went live in April as a virtual high street of estate agents. It is owned by 250 top agents - led by FPDSavills, Knight Frank, Strutt & Parker and Chestertons - who have clubbed together and agreed that primelocation.com will be the only portal on which they show properties and that they will weed out sold properties. Renegades risk being blacklisted or obliged to fall on their cellphone aerials.
This unusual alliance stumped up pounds 8 million and invited on board a band of smaller agents from the upper and middle tiers of the market. Primelocation now covers prime properties from Land's End to John O'Groats, with plans to move into commercial property, farms, estates and new houses. Three-quarters of properties on the site are valued at less than pounds 500,000; the floor is set at 'the level of a pounds 150,000 country cottage', says Springett.
Persuading rival estate agents to act in concert, to pass customers on to rival agents in the same area and to pay for the privilege of doing so proved tricky. But one Gervase is very much like another, whether he works for Savills, Jackson Stops & Staff or Knight Frank. It was like choosing friends for a cricket XI. Besides, they've all done it before at The London Magazine, which some of the same group had set up as an advertising vehicle. More difficult was overcoming the technophobia of small agents, and enticing leading agents in their respective areas to join in.
One user in Mexico bought a flat in London via the site, sight unseen. Another user, fiddling with his laptop in a Far Eastern departure lounge, clicked on to a property he liked, viewed it as soon as he landed and bought it on the spot. When you consider that 60% of prime central London property sells abroad, you can see how the instant global exposure comes in handy. 'We're not trying to replace estate agents,' says Springett. 'The job of showing people around, negotiating, crisis management, hand-holding and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with vendors is still important.'
Primelocation saves you hours of traipsing around estate agents' offices and sifting junk particulars. Like all the others, it scans postcodes for your type and size of property, and it will alert you if a suitable deal pops up. You can pinpoint properties near dots on the map, railway stations, schools or off-licences.
For agents, primelocation is a massive time-saver and bulwark against 'pains in the arse', as one investor put it. Much of Gervase's time is 'wasted' on vainly waltzing 'buyers' around unwanted properties. The hope also is that primelocation will work so well that agents can cut down on traditional advertising.
Springett is locked in a who-stands-best-stands-longest battle with the Norwich Union-backed Assertahome. 'The market cannot sustain so many sites,' he says. 'We will end up with just one, or maybe three to four: the market may segment into brands, with primelocation covering the upper and middle tiers. We must maintain technical development, boost traffic and deliver value without spending huge sums on advertising. Agents think it's a good thing. In a downturn they might think it's an even better thing.'