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A sense of déjà vu over OnTheMarket

There’s a distinct sense of déjà vu over the debacle of OnTheMarket.

I avoided joining two years ago because I couldn’t see what it would bring to my business, other than business from people frustrated that their agents had joined (I can support that with evidence of a £1.2 million sale) and I can’t see any advantage now if it demutualises. 

In fact it would lose its only USP, the fact that it is owned by and run for agents, as soon as shares in it are offered to outsiders.

Some of us have been around long enough, including, I’d have thought, the founding fathers of OTM, to remember the heady days of the 1990s when some estate agents got fed up with the monopoly of local newspaper proprietors screwing them over advertising rates and decided to become publishers themselves.

There were a couple along the south coast close to my patch but it wasn’t long before the biggest was back in the clutches of the publisher it tried to defeat with its ‘no other newspaper’ rule. If you were in it you couldn’t also be against it by advertising in the local paper, too. That, of course, was before it became the pull-out supplement in that very paper. Naturally, the non-supporters got the blame rather than the founders’ lack of publishing nous.

The only difference between that broken model and OTM is the technology. The ridiculous one other portal rule that OTM imposed was meant to see member agents choose between Rightmove or Zoopla as they joined. But no-one in their right minds should have given up access to the most important portals to back a start-up with desperate, crazy restrictions, whether or not it was run by an organisation called Agents’ Mutual. What will they call it now?

What worried me as much as anything was my duty to clients, who deserved to have their properties displayed in the best arenas. What RM and ZPG were costing me, or what OTM might save me, was irrelevant to them and still is. And were OTM members planning to keep the money or reduce their fees?

If OTM demutualises it becomes an also-ran with no reasonable excuse to demand support from estate agents – not that it had one before. Worse still, it now appears that it will breach its promise not to open up to online agents.

Vendors in my neck of the woods, many commuting to London by train, were aware enough to insist when OTM launched that they wanted to see their homes on Rightmove and Zoopla. That hasn’t changed. Nor has the amount of data you can get from ZPG in particular, built up over many years and probably impossible to match for a two year old start-up. Property owners use ZPG data when researching the value of their homes and ones they want to buy, and come to me as a Zoopla-using agent so I win their instructions.

OTM seemed like a good idea for the naïve in my view. It never appealed for anything other than letting some agents feel smug about stuffing the big boys with their own little venture, which is how it has stayed. 

Past experience warned that feeling smug would never be enough. We saw the sell-out with self-publishing in the 90s, now it’s back 20 years later with the only difference that it’s on a national, rather than local, scale.

I realise that I’m now going to be branded a ‘Zoopla troll’ in some website comments but if OTM had offered something better, rather than the vague promise of something better one day, I’d have seriously considered it even though I’d seen what happens with these agents’ mutual efforts before.

As it is, history has proved once again that mutuality doesn’t stay the course without bringing a valuable extra. Insisting member agents had to drop a portal was the exact opposite!

*Colin Shairp is director of Fine and Country Southern Hampshire

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