From where I’m standing there’s a lot in common between the debate between online and traditional agents, and the argument over Brexit.
The most obvious similarity is the divisiveness caused by both debates, and the fact that there seems - even after years of discussion - little common ground.
Just as Brexiteers brand any negative assessments about the effects of leaving the EU as Project Fear (even when some of those assessments have been drawn up by depart-ments run by Brexit-backing ministers), so Remainers cling to the possibility that another vote of some kind will inevitably produce a different result as the public come-to-their-senses/realise-their-errors/accept-the-view-of-their-betters (delete as applicable).
Similarly, many onliners have no respect for traditional agents (“unregulated pocket-lining thieves” was the term used to me this week by the head of one online agency). That pas-sion is reciprocated by the other side (“liars” was the single word used in the comments section of Estate Agent Today to sum up an online company’s entire annual report.)
So there’s much heat in these debates and perhaps not much light.
But whatever one’s view on Brexit or Online Agencies, I was struck by Purplebricks’ glob-al chief executive’s comment a few days ago when he announced the expansion of his company’s activities in the US.
Leave aside whatever pre-conceived views you may have about Purplebricks, and read this statement by Michael Bruce: "We are seeing a total cultural shift favouring complete transparency as Americans' faith in a number of professions, including real estate, has dwindled. Our recent research suggests that only 11 per cent of Americans ‘completely trust’ real estate agents.”
I have put in emphasis what I regard as the two key phrases in Bruce’s comments - that there’s a total cultural shift, showing dwindling faith in professions.
The comments were made about America but they might just ring a bell if you recall the comments in this country in June 2016 by then-Justice Secretary and now-Environment Secretary Michael Gove. When he couldn’t name an economist in favour of Brexit, in re-sponse to a question, he said: “People in this country have had enough of experts”.
Let’s not get distracted with the pros and cons of Brexit but look at the mood music it has created in this country - Gove, and many now in government in the UK, are for good or bad creating a sentiment that is critical of expertise. Jeremy Corbyn may be moving in the same direction in his, and his party’s, attitude to many journalists.
In the US, Trump is doing the same (with more passion) by criticising everything from the mainstream broadcast media to top sports stars who don’t agree with him.
Michael Bruce, in his comments about dwindling faith in the estate agency profession, is drilling into the same very contemporary seam: he seems to be saying “don’t trust what’s gone before… the experts will only try to blind you with knowledge and facts.”
He hasn’t quite said “completion rates don’t matter - they’re the old way of measuring ex-pertise” but you get the point I’m making. If you knock expertise enough, something a lot less expert suddenly becomes acceptable.
It’s a clever tactic for an agency to try to mirror growing scepticism with experience and proof in the US and UK - that doesn’t make it right and proper, of course, but it is clever.
The experts who disagreed with Gove lost the Brexit debate two years ago: so far at least, expert agents haven’t lost the debate amongst sellers and landlords in this country who still hugely favour them over onliners.
But will it last? Is a Brexit moment going to come? Michael Bruce seems to think so…
*Editor of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today, Graham can be found tweeting all things property @PropertyJourn