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Property Natter: Why Uber’s troubles are reflected in estate agency

As those of us in the industry know, there is a fine balance to strike between disruptive technology – and the positives this can bring – and trampling on the toes of regulation. New technology must play by the same rules as everyone else, and shouldn’t be to the absolute detriment of what has existed before it.

Which, of course, makes the recent news story about Uber losing its license to operate in London all the more interesting. Such a battle – which pits new, revolutionary technology against tradition – has parallels with estate agency and the battle between online, hybrid and traditional agencies. It also harks back to the arrival of Rightmove and, later, Zoopla and OnTheMarket, as well as the rising influence of PropTech.

As question marks are now being raised about Uber, which has grown at a phenomenal rate in recent years and is used regularly by some 3.2 million Londoners, similar question marks have been raised about Purplebricks and other ‘hybrid’ models which have – whatever you think of them – made an impact on the existing landscape, helped by big money investment, expert PR teams and strong brand awareness. 

Originally, Uber met the demand for cheaper taxi fares, quicker service and a cashless transaction – a very modern, 21st century company, relying on the smartphone boom to grow exponentially. At the same time, though, it has been accused of being unregulated, of failing to protect its staff and customers and of exploiting the so-called gig economy for its own gains. 

It has now been given a very public telling off by one of the world’s major global cities, having faced similar bans and boycotts in other parts of the world, and will be expected to buck up its ideas and get proper Ts&Cs and workers’ rights in place.

In the world of agency, new regulation is forever being introduced and tinkered with – and it can be exhausting at times to keep up with it all. At times, too, new lettings regulation is not always clear or well-publicised enough, which leads to rogue landlords slipping through the net and agents being fined or imprisoned for misdemeanours. I think every agent in the country accepts the need for regulation, but what they don’t want is endless bureaucracy, red tape and confusion. 

It’s the difficulty faced by any industry – regulation needs to be put in place, to protect consumers, staff and the industry’s reputation, without turning things into a bogged-down minefield, which might deter new landlords from entering the market, agents from opening up a new branch or expanding, or tech innovators from developing their products.     

In the case outlined above, traditional agents might find they have more in common with black cabbies (higher costs but the promise of a better service, years of experience and knowledge, tradition), while online agents and hybrid models are likely to be more sympathetic to Uber (smart technology, cheaper prices, trying to break the status quo, offering a less bespoke service, etc).

Wherever you stand on the Uber debate – and the petition to ‘save’ Uber in London has reached over 820,000 signatures, suggesting many are on its side – it’s a very modern issue; regulation versus freedom of choice, the fine balance between strong workers’ rights and the flexibility of the casual, gigging workforce, and the battle between online disrupters and those taking a more traditional approach. 

A changing landscape?

In the last year or so there has been a marked shift in direction from many major traditional agencies towards offering online as well as traditional services. Whether it be Countrywide brands such as Bairstow Eves offering an online-only service, Savills pumping money into YOPA or GPEA (parent company of the Guild and Fine & Country) acquiring easyProperty, the previously unthinkable – traditional agencies adopting an online model – is slowly becoming the norm.

Not for Hunters, though. The agency has ruled out offering an online-only service to sellers, but it will spend more time emphasising its new digital tools and how these can help customers improve the service they receive from the firm. This includes a ‘vendor portal’ – which allows those selling a home to go online 24 hours a day and check the progress of their sale – and software which allows them to book a valuation directly into the office diary. 

Glynis Frew, chief executive of Hunters, told Estate Agent Today in an interview earlier this week that online agencies are now an established and valid part of the landscape “but you can’t beat a local person - a really local person, who knows neighbourhoods and streets - and that can only be provided through a locally based branch.” 

She also urged online agencies to advertise in a trustworthy and transparent manner to ensure the industry remains in good health. 

Solutions to non-existent problems?

I read with interest James Dearsley’s latest PropTech Today column, looking at whether there are now too many solutions for problems that don’t exist, following on from an article by Bob Scarff – former managing director at Countrywide and current chairman of Callwell – about how too many people are now trying to get in on the PropTech act, eager to grab a piece of the profit pie. 

I’m in agreement with Bob and James here. While entrepreneurial spirt, new ideas and innovation is all well and good, oversaturation isn’t. You can, after all, have too much of a good thing – and, in some cases, you just get copycats and poor imitators, who bring nothing new to the table. As James said, too many companies all promising to do a number of different things is only likely to befuddle and confuse the industry as well as consumers.   

I also met with Bob this week and he’s promised to do another Q & A for us – and a controversial one at that. Keep your eyes peeled. 

Live chat time

Speaking of PropTech ideas, The ValPal Network has come up with its latest – a live chat facility. It’s necessary and useful, though, allowing clients to attract or drive traffic, convert it into leads and then monetise those leads. Win-win-win all round. 

An example can be found here

That’s enough from me this week…Until next time.

*Nat Daniels is the Chief Executive Officer of Angels Media, publishers of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today. Follow him on Twitter @NatDaniels.

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