Time to show estate agents the door

Online portals have given high-street firms an ever-tighter stranglehold on property sales and lettings. But a new breed of highly competitive rivals is emerging.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 16 Aug 2016
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Entrepreneurs

Most of us aren't big fans of our estate agents. A recent Ipsos Mori poll found just 22% of Brits trust their estate agents to tell the truth, a lack of faith exceeded only by politicians (on 13%) and equalled by those paragons of dishonesty, journalists.

And yet residential property sales and lettings are something that remain firmly in the hands of the flash git with a branded Mini Cooper and a fancy suit. While Amazon has laid waste to booksellers, Lovefilm and Netflix killed off Blockbuster and Uber has made local taxi firms all but irrelevant, the vast majority of house sales are still conducted through traditional high-street estate agents. It seems the property sector is yet to feel the full force of the internet.

But that's not to say the web hasn't made any impact on the way homes are sold and let. Rightmove and its smaller rival, Zoopla, are the first port of call for many a property seeker. The pair, both fast-growing FTSE 250 companies, are now responsible for generating almost all estate agents' leads, and Rightmove is the most searched-for business on Google.

They aren't going unchallenged. Fed up with regular fee hikes from what they see as an uncompetitive duopoly, some agents have launched their own property portal to fight back. OnTheMarket (OTM) was created by Agents' Mutual, a consortium including Knight Frank, Savills and Chestertons, and launched in January.

'Unfortunately, we felt that the other big portals were increasingly becoming money-making machines and they were acting in the interests of their shareholders as opposed to the interests of the client whose property they were listing,' says Andrew Hay, Knight Frank's global head of residential.

Owned by its members, which are predominantly smaller independent agents, the challenger is aiming to replace Zoopla as the second-biggest portal in less than a year. Its fees per branch vary between £177 and £655 per month depending on the number of branches an agent has, its location and the amount of time it is willing to commit to OTM for. That compares with reported average fees of £311 for Zoopla and £637 for Rightmove, so it isn't vastly cheaper, but its chief executive, Ian Springett, says it's more about control than about absolute cost.

'There are an awful lot of agents who run on very small margins,' says Springett. 'These can be small, tiny entrepreneurs really and a shift of a few per cent in their marketing costs is a straight bite into what they can spend on anything else.'

It's not the first portal to try to take on the big two, but it looks like the most successful so far. By the end of March OTM had signed up a total of 5,000 branches from 2,500 estate agency firms. This compares with 16,373 agency branches on Zoopla at the end of 2014 and a total membership (including property developers) of 19,304 on Rightmove.

What has really upset its critics is OTM's 'two portal rule', which forbids member agents from listing on more than one other portal - in effect forcing them to choose between Rightmove and Zoopla. As the smaller of the two, Zoopla has always been the most at risk, and so far 90% of the agency branches that have switched allegiance have chosen to drop it. In February, it was forced to admit 11% of its member branches had jumped ship.

High street estate agents employ nearly a quarter of a million people

Unsurprisingly, Zoopla has come out swinging. In February its communications director, Lawrence Hall, accused Springett of treating his members like 'guinea pigs', who are 'now feeling the real effects of losing enquiries, instructions, market share and reputation and will not be able to do so indefinitely'.

'They are on the defensive now and what they have to do is try to arrest our continued growth and one of the ways they can do that is to throw bricks at us - scare tactics,' says Springett. Zoopla also issued a statement suggesting OTM could face investigation by the competition authorities, potentially leading to fines for its members of up to 10% of their annual turnover.

'I think Zoopla has been quite disingenuous about this,' says Springett. 'It's known about this strategy since June 2013. If it thought it was illegal, why hasn't it challenged it before? What it has done is found mouthpieces to throw competition into the mix to an audience that are not competition law experts, just to try to derail us and put people off.' He added that OnTheMarket plans to ditch the rule when (or if) it overtakes Zoopla and has developed into a fully credible alternative to Rightmove.

Of course what will really determine OTM's fate is if it can attract enough consumers to the site to convince more agents to move to it. Whether it has been successful in that regard depends on who you ask.

Zoopla claims that as of mid-March, OnTheMarket was getting around 38,000 visits per day compared with 1.25 million for Zoopla and 2.4 million for Rightmove. OTM disputes that, claiming traffic is growing all the time and that it has attracted two million unique visitors since launching.

Zoopla's founder, Alex Chesterman, who was also behind the successful startup Lovefilm, declined to speak to MT about the situation. But he's appeared nothing but upbeat about the company's prospects, describing OnTheMarket as a 'short-term event' in February. Whether that's out of genuine confidence or just a determination to keep Zoopla's member agents and its investors on board isn't clear.

'We are a force for good for consumers,' he told the FT last month. 'Digital marketing has changed the property landscape forever, as it has changed many industries. This small group (of agents) would like to return to the way things were and pretend this little thing called the internet never happened.'

Estate agents themselves have mixed views about the portal. Tony Jones runs Cardiff-based ACJ, an early member of OTM. He's confident it will be successful. Although he lost around 10% of the leads he previously had since leaving Zoopla, he says the interest he gets via the portal is growing all the time.

Sandy Bhambra and Naman Pathak run Kings, a small one-office agent in west London. Though they admit Rightmove and Zoopla cost 'an arm and a leg', they don't see leaving either of them as realistic, as it's where 95% of their leads come from. 'They're invaluable, to be honest,' says Bhambra. 'There would be no offices in the area if it weren't for Zoopla and Rightmove. We wouldn't be able to rent anything if it wasn't on online portals.'

Some are keeping an open mind. Peter Rollings, the former managing director of Foxtons, acquired his own estate agents, Marsh & Parsons, which now has 22 offices in London. He says he's keeping a close eye on OTM's progress but wants to wait and see how things pan out before making a decision.

'At the moment, for my clients, I cannot justify coming off one of the big two 300lb gorillas of the market, where everybody goes to look for property, and going onto something no one knows about - it would be doing my client a disservice,' he says.

Estate agents have gradually taken over Britain’s streets

Hay doesn't see it that way. 'We're hitting all our targets very comfortably and we haven't seen a slowdown in sales and we haven't had clients complaining that their properties haven't been well exposed and aren't selling,' he says.

If OTM can convince people like Rollings to come over then it could cause even more of a headache for Zoopla. But all this squabbling could turn out to be a distraction from the real existential threat that is set to challenge high street estate agents in the coming years - the pureplay online rival.

Bypassing your local firm has always been an option. Putting up a sign and placing an ad in the paper has long been a route trodden by those fastidiously refusing to fork out for a pricey estate agent, but the hassle of doing so has long been an obstacle for all but the most miserly. The internet has the potential to change that.

Early property websites were fairly basic, offering differing levels of service but ultimately behaving as a listings site rather than a full-on agent. One of these was Smove, founded by married couple Nancy and Jim Cruickshank, in 1999 after they had a lot of hassle when moving home.

'It struck us that no one was doing anything interesting with the property market online, and actually when you thought about a vertical space where there's loads of consumer friction and loads of opportunity to create fantastic systems automation then this was definitely a big target category,' says Nancy Cruickshank. 'In the UK we all place our local estate agents in pretty much the same category as our local traffic warden. It's not a market that is enormously loved and valued.'

After struggling to land growth funding, thanks to the dotcom crash, Smove was eventually acquired by competitor Asserta.com, which was itself ultimately consumed by Zoopla's acquisitive expansion spree. But it and others like it paved the way for future startups to experiment with selling houses online.

Perhaps there's little appetite for sellers and landlords to do all their own marketing directly, but a new breed of online 'hybrid' estate agents has come to prominence lately, claiming to offer almost all the benefits of a traditional estate agent, but at a fraction of the cost.

Companies such as HouseSimple, eMoov and Purplebricks have raked in tens of millions in investment and are growing apace. The last of these, backed by renowned investor Neil Woodford, has sold more than 1,200 properties and is reportedly planning an IPO.

'It's something that should have happened a long time ago,' says Alex Gosling, chief executive and founder of HouseSimple, which bagged £5m from Carphone Warehouse founder Sir Charles Dunstone in January. 'We do the same job, much more cheaply and much more efficiently.'

While earlier online agents were easy to dismiss as just conduits for private sellers to get their home on to Rightmove, this new breed of agents offers valuation, professional photography, help with arranging viewings and negotiations, and most have an option to pay after completion. 'Full service' fees start at just £475 (on HouseSimple), compared with a typical estate agent fee of around 1.5% plus VAT. That would save you about £5,500 on a house at the national average asking price of £281,753.

Of course, asking estate agents whether they could be replaced by an online competitor provokes the same response you get when asking them about a suspicious damp patch: denial.

'I think people simplify massively what estate agents do,' says Rollings. 'We use technology as a fantastic tool, but that is combined with experience and great people, and very unsociable working hours, putting up with the most extraordinary things that people say and do in the heat of the moment in the stresses and strains of buying and selling houses, and I think we're worth our weight in gold because of that - but ... I would say that, wouldn't I?'

'I don't think Knight Frank perceives it as a threat,' adds Hay. 'Quite simply because it's all about giving good advice and good service, and sorting out all the emotional problems that come with the sale of residential real estate, and I don't believe you can do that in an online trading platform.'

There's also the issue of incentive. The online agents charge a fixed fee - great if you're looking to keep down the cost of selling but arguably a disincentive to getting the best price possible instead of plumping for the easiest deal.

'Agents have a very crucial role to play, acting as that Chinese wall between buyer and seller,' says Pathak. 'Our job is to get them the most amount of money possible.'

OTM excludes online agents from its platform entirely - though Springett insists this is more about consistency for consumers than hobbling the competition. 'I don't really care about them to be honest, because I don't think they're going to work,' he says. It's a move that's not gone down well with the startups.

'It's sad, it's a little bit regressive, it's anti-competitive,' says Gosling. 'It's a slightly depressing demonstration of just how hard they are fighting to keep hold of the old approach, which has always had its unwritten rules. There's always been a sort of boys' club that has controlled the high-street estate agency world. I think it's slightly depressing they've taken that approach rather than being a bit more progressive.'

'I'm not a fan of anything that's not in favour of the customer,' says PurpleBricks chief executive and founder Michael Bruce. 'Ultimately, everybody who runs a business should run it for the advantage of their customers, and OnTheMarket for me doesn't have the right principles.'

The traditional agents might have a point. Local knowledge is vital in the property market and, while the online agents have regional specialists, it's no substitute for the street-level knowledge of a local agent. Post-crash, high streets have become saturated with estate agents, especially in London, so they must be doing something right.

So there are elements of the process that benefit from having a human face on them. But then the same could be said of retail, film rental and all the other industries that have been massively disrupted by the web. Even if OTM does succeed in supplanting Zoopla, the traditional high street estate agent can't escape the digital maelstrom that is surely heading its way.

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