It used to be so easy.
Around 20 years ago there were what we now call full-service estate and letting agencies, and just about nothing else aside from a few classified ads in local and national papers by individuals trying to sell their own properties.
Then, of course, some property entrepreneurs worked out how the internet could list properties - the online agency was born.
Online’s first incarnation, many will recall, was as a For Sale By Owner service: individual vendors uploaded their own photographs, wrote their descriptions and hoped for the best. No agent of any kind, virtual or physical, was involved and (like those classifieds in the newspapers) there was arguably little attention paid to the Property Misdescriptions Act.
Now there are few such FSBO-style sites in existence (but there are some) and in our era of EPCs, CPRs and other regulatory requirements, a completely self-service online site seems scarcely viable. Hence the birth of what we call Hybrid agency - online with a hint of human involvement.
Yet life has quickly become much more complicated and now there seems a plethora of agency business models - a new variation pops up every few days, it seems.
So here is my personal summary of the different models - a few of the terms are those commonly used across the industry, but I’ve created a few to help differentiation.
1. Full Service: there seems broad industry understanding of what this means, even if individual firms operating the full-service may vary in their approach to, say, accompanied visits or weekend office opening;
2. Hybrid: The best known example here is, perhaps inevitably, Purplebricks: it offers a broadly online service to the customer, topped up with a level of human advice from a locally-based representative;
3. Cross-over: My guess is that we’ll see more of this in years to come, with established High Street agencies offering an online option which can be ‘upgraded’ to full-service with the same company. The obvious pioneer of this model is Countrywide which claims it is a success;
4. Chain Breaker: I wrote a story about Nested, the most obvious ‘chain breaking’ agency, just a few days ago. It offers a guaranteed price and a guaranteed purchase to the vendor, backing it up by purchasing the property itself if necessary. Arguably this is as much a financial product as an estate agency - but it still sells homes for vendors;
5. Quick Sale: These have been around for years and, perhaps surprisingly, received a relatively clean bill of health in a detailed 2013 investigation by the Office of Fair Trading. There are many highly successful examples, like Quick Move Now, but like part-exchange this kind of ‘agency’ is seen as a last resort by sellers - and it’s a sector that claims to be growing.
6. Regional Digital: This is an agency which operates online (perhaps with, or without, local experts to advise a vendor) but chooses not to use the internet to broaden its customer base outside a specific regional area. An example of this is the relatively new ispymyhome.com which restructed itself to Derbyshire, Lincolnshire, Staffordshire and Nottinghamshire.
7. Digital Platforms: These are digital services which allow existing full-service agencies to have an online outlet too. The business-to-business outlook of the new easyProperty platform appears like this for Guild and Fine & Country member agents; meanwhile some Proptech products like those from OneDome do a similar job.
8. Cheap Online: There may not be many around but those that exist are reminiscent of the early ‘ultra-budget’ FSBO online companies. 99Home, for example, will market your home on Zoopla and Rightmove for £99 “if a seller knows how to use the internet, can host house viewings and have a good knowledge about property sale process”. House Tree, another newcomer, promises to market your home on portals for free so long as you buy into its partner mortgage and conveyancing services too - the fees it earns from that covers its charges to a vendor;
9. Competitive Full-Service: This is an interesting one - full-service agents who are happy to charge online-style prices for their traditional service. The website Agent Locator has discovered that hundreds of branches of full-service companies are happy to be listed as ‘Purplebricks Price Beaters’: that is, if they get a lead from Agent Locator, as a named ‘price beater’ they will match Purplebricks’ charges, while still charging locally-sourced vendors the usual percentage commission.
Life will be simpler again in a few years as the online-based companies merge and consolidate but, for the moment, that’s nine models I can think of. I’m sure there are more, especially with the glut of narrowly-different digital companies now coming out of the woodwork. If you’ve come across some, please add a comment below.
*Editor of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today, Graham can be found tweeting all things property @PropertyJourn