The term estate agent originally referred to the person responsible for a landed estate – they might also have been known as a steward or “receiver of the rents”. They would have been responsible for the various estates of rich folk, in the main. Not so long ago, of course, home ownership was a rarity among anyone but the elite. It was the preserve of the landed gentry, the aristocracy, the blue-blooded; the sort of people who lived upstairs in Downton Abbey, in other words.
If you were poor, working class, middle class or even part of the professional class – a doctor, a teacher, a lawyer – your chances of home ownership were still very slim until the 20th century arrived and things started to change. The old order started to crumble, new money replaced old money and the idea of owning your own home was no longer a far-flung fantasy. Around this time, "estate agent" started to enter the lexicon, used as a generic term for those involved in the buying and selling of homes.
A London affair
Like so much else, it’s London where we must head for the beating heart and early history of estate agency. Most of the oldest agents in the UK started life in the capital, with Chestertons dating back to 1805 (when Charles Chesterton established the firm in Kensington). Charles was originally the agent for the Phillimore Estate and the Phoenix Insurance Group. Over time, the business expanded and grew and the firm is still serving the upmarket neighbourhoods of London more than 200 years after it was first founded.
Felicity J Lord has been going for almost as long (although an actual date on its foundation is hard to come by), the roots of Chancellors go back to 1807, and high-end London agent Portico (formerly Edmund Cude) has been in business since 1818. Suffolk-based Flick & Son has been going strong since 1833, Winkworth was established in 1835, Humberts was founded in 1842, Savills first appeared as “Savill and Son” in 1855 and Reeds Rains can date its heritage back to 1868 (when it was founded as a rent collection business). Meanwhile, Hamptons’ estate agency business was established in 1890, Mann was formed in 1891, Knight Frank was founded in 1896 and Jackson-Stops started life in Towcester in 1908 when Herbert Jackson-Stops opened the first branch.
Bairstow Eves has also been around for more than 100 years, while a number of other agents – including Goldschmidt & Howland, Anthony J Turner, Bridgfords and John D Wood & Co – can trace their roots back to the Victorian age. Most of these early agencies acted as auctioneers, chartered surveyors and valuers as well as estate agents.
The 1930s was, too, a busy time for the founding of well-known regional agencies, with Surrey-based agents’ Curchods appearing in 1938, Connells opening its first branch in Luton in 1936, and Dixons, a large estate and letting agency firm in the Midlands, also founded in this decade. Andrews was established in 1946, the 1950s saw the founding of Douglas & Gordon, and KFH was formed in 1977.
Meanwhile, the 1980s – a decade swirling with money and the introduction of Thatcher’s controversial Right to Buy policy (which changed the property market forever) - heralded the arrival of a number of household names: Foxtons in 1981, Andrew Reeves in 1982, Northfields and Countrywide in 1986 and Your Move in the late ‘80s, as home ownership became a reality rather than a dream for many more people.
The ‘90s, a decade dominated by Britpop, the Cool Britannia vibe, England coming as close as they’ve ever been since 1966 to actually winning something at football, the slow but steady rise of the internet, and Tony Blair’s landslide victory for New Labour in 1997 to the backdrop of “Things can only get better” (hmm, how’d that work out, Mr Blair?), also saw the formation of many well-known estate agents, including Bradleys and Hunters in 1992, Dexters in 1993, Edmund in 1994 and Jacksons in 1995.
After the house price crash in the early 1990s, which left many homeowners in negative equity, the market recovered dramatically and the property boom kicked off in earnest, with average house prices rising by 281% in the UK since 1996 and up by 501% in London during the same period. From the mid-90s till the global financial crisis took hold in 2007-8, growth was phenomenal, with some people’s homes going up by hundreds of thousands or even millions.
The credit crunch in 2008 put things on hold, with the global financial crisis pushing the country into recession and sending house prices plunging. In June 2008, house prices fell by 2.4%, at that time the seventh fall in nine months. In the three months leading up to June 08, prices fell by 6.1% - the fastest in recorded history and the worst figures seen since the recession and property crash of the early ‘90s. A survey carried out by Nationwide at the time found that house prices had collapsed by 15.9% in 2008, with a massive £29,000 shaved off the average price of a property in the UK. After reaching a peak in October 2007, house prices fell for 14 successive months and global and domestic economic turmoil had the property market reeling.
Since the 2008 downturn, however, property prices have boomed again. They are now ahead of their pre-recession peak levels, with house prices soaring across the country, none more so than in London and the South East. Despite various challenges, the doom-mongering talk of another property crash has yet to pass. In the face of elections, referendums and global uncertainty, the property market has proved itself to be a beacon of stability and prosperity. That’s not to say it’s without its major issues and problems, but recent talk of disaster and cliff-edges has turned out to be fanciful at best.
Like any other industry, estate agency has had to keep up with the digital and technological revolution that has taken place in the last few decades. The internet, social media and portals such as Rightmove and Zoopla have changed the face of agency. Rightmove was founded in 2000 and, love it or loathe it, has had a huge impact on the property market ever since. Zoopla joined the party in 2008, while in recent years other portals – including Agents’ Mutual’s agent-owned OnTheMarket – have attempted to get in on the act.
Websites, too, have become absolutely crucial for any self-respecting, modern estate agency. Nowadays, most agencies have sites which are slick, user-friendly and highly interactive. Big firms have invested big money to ensure their web presence is up to scratch. Online valuation tools that help to convert website traffic into vendor and landlord leads – an idea that ValPal brought into the mainstream – have also become increasingly popular on agents’ websites. Social media, while still a fairly minor influence in the agency world, has proved itself to be more than a short-term fad and is increasingly being used to engage with and inform prospective clients. Recently, we also saw the first official attempt to sell a home via Facebook Live.
What’s more, online agents have grown in number and influence over the last 15 years or so. While they still command a very small share of the market, this is growing and the hybrid model is gaining considerable traction. In a previous Natter, I looked at the history of online agents and how they are getting on now. Purplebricks, only formed in 2014, is ruffling feathers more than most and seems to be competing with Foxtons and Countrywide for the crown of the “agency everyone loves to hate”.
Although the threat to traditional agencies from the online model is massively overstated – James Dearsley argues the case perfectly in his latest PropTech Today article – there has definitely been a slight change in the last 18 months or so and it would be foolish to completely write off the brand power and pull of the likes of Purplebricks, Tepilo and YOPA.
Last, but by no means least, the rise of PropTech is a further step in the evolution of estate agency. Whether you think it’s a gimmick or the best thing since sliced bread, it is here to stay and more and more innovative companies are coming up with solutions to very 21st century issues.
Estate agency is a thriving, constantly evolving industry, a fact backed up by the number of agencies operating. Back in November 2015, EAT revealed that there were more than 16,500 estate agents in the UK. While definitive figures are hard to come by - with new agencies opening up and others closing down - the figure now would probably be something similar and may even be higher. Despite overzealous talk of the death of the estate agent, the figures suggest otherwise.
Estate agents have been going strong since 1805 and there is nothing to suggest that won't still be the case in 2105.
Right, after that, I’m off for a lie down! Until next time…
*Nat Daniels is the Chief Executive Officer of Angels Media, publishers of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today