Estate agents – the good, the bad and the ugly

The real victims of the inter-bank lending crises in the financial services sector are not hedge fund managers and bankers, nor property developers nor even investors.

No, the real suffering is being experienced by ordinary people who looked to bricks and mortar as a safe haven when stock markets were producing few returns, and who hoped capital appreciation would fund their old age in an era of pension poverty.

But now we are told some of the victims, in the United Kingdom at least, are estate agents. And the story surrounding this offers a lesson to new property markets like that of Dubai.

With house sales badly down – official UK data shows the number of mortgages for home buyers has fallen 44 per cent in 12 months and new home sales have dropped by 26 per cent in the same period – the people in the front line of job losses are estate agents.

Some 150 of their offices are closing each week, with up to 10,000 individual agents predicted to lose their jobs by the end of 2008.

Do they deserve sympathy? I say yes, of course they do.

That may be because I am a journalist, whose reputation in the eyes of the general public shares the moral foothills along with those of politicians and estate agents. But the property industry would get a lot more sympathy if it insisted agents had to be qualified, were regulated and simply provided a better service than they do today.

Because of their poor image and shoddy practices, they get little sympathy. These UK newspaper readers' blogs give a flavour of the response of the public:

"They will find themselves on the unemployed list where they should be. Estate agents deserve the forthcoming hell. They are nothing but liars."

"Good riddance to the vermin that were probably one of the worst offenders in inflating the housing bubble over the past 10 years."

"Estate agents are parasites, they feed off the market. Thousands of them had over a decade of booming prices in which they had large salaries and flash cars."

In the United States, where realtors have been going out of business in much greater numbers for the past year or more, the story is very different.

Despite charging up to seven per cent commission in the US, in contrast to the 2.5 per cent or so in the UK, the typical US estate agent is broadly respected by the public. His plight in the country's housing downturn is seen as a tragedy, not a cue to gloat.

Why? The answer is simple.

In the US estate agents must compulsorily qualify through a series of exams, must be an expert in valuations, financial management and business practice. In the UK anyone can set up as an estate agent with no formal qualifications and no experience or know-how.

In the US an estate agent works extensively for a client, investing in new technology, sharing information with other agents via 'multi-listings' of sale properties to make life easier for buyers and to sell homes more rapidly. In the UK, agents often act as little more than shop windows for photographs and cursory details of homes on sale – the rest is up to the buyer. And, in my experience, they are rarely well-informed about the conditions of the local market.

In the US some 20 pieces of federal legislation and numerous state laws, govern the activities of realtors. In the UK there are only four major legal restrictions on agents, and these concentrate on the accuracy of property descriptions and the accessibility of documentation – not on the quality of the service offered.

In an age of increased accountability, the performance of the UK estate agent is simply not good enough. New economies like Dubai's, heavily reliant on property, must not make the same mistake. A poor estate agent is as bad for the industry as some of the off-plan problems now surfacing in Dubai and elsewhere.

Emerging property markets around the world, beginning to sell properties not just directly from developers but through estate agents as resale volumes grow, must adopt a model based on qualifications, regulation and competition – as in the US – and not based on 'anything goes' which seems to be the UK's way of selling homes. Will it help avoid a downturn? Of course not. But history shows that, for most of the time, property markets are not in a downturn. They are moving gently upwards, acting as a barometer of a national economy and a national sense of well-being. The agents, who do the leg work in the market, should get our respect by being professional experts. Instead, in the UK, they get our derision. And they have brought it upon themselves.


-- Graham Norwood is property correspondent for The Observer

 

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