The landscape of the estate agency market in the UK is evolving to reflect changes in the way we live our everyday lives.
Service and personal relationships remain at the core of the sales and lettings process, but how we as agents carry out this work is becoming less rigid and more in step with a tech-centric world.
I've been working in the industry for over 15 years, so I have been a part of this societal shift and seen how it has affected the traditional estate agency model first-hand.
After working for several high-profile agencies across London, I now operate as a limited company doing lettings and property management under the Agent & Homes banner.
Agent & Homes is part of a new wave of agencies which is empowering agents by allowing them to lead a more flexible existence and take home a higher percentage of their commission fees.
I'm a huge advocate of this new model as it has changed my life and I passionately believe it represents a bright future for our industry.
A brief history of me...
I moved to London in 2005 with no agency experience. My first job was for Foxtons doing hardcore telesales at head office. It was very hard work and incredibly fast-paced, but it gave me an amazing foundation for a career in London property.
After a while, I was encouraged to move into sales and joined Foxtons' South Kensington branch. I was there for around three years, but then moved over to lettings when the credit crunch hit - working at the Sloane Square and Notting Hill branches.
In 2013, I moved to John D Wood & Co. to manage the Chelsea office.
After three years there, I became an area manager, which is when I started to become disillusioned with the world of agency.
All around me I could see an industry in decline, with all the big players just blindly doing the same old things they had for the past twenty years and wondering why it did not work anymore.
Until the point I became an area director for a corporate firm, I'd loved everything about my time in estate agency. Once I reached senior management - something I'd always aspired to - it turned out I hated it. I felt ineffective and grew increasingly tired of the useless and pointless meetings I had to be a part of.
I decided I needed to get out and left with no plans and thought I would take a few months off (nine in the end!) to really have a good think about what I could do. All I knew was property, so I had to stick to that. I had toyed with the idea of opening my own agency before, but the costs seemed high.
I had a few calls from some high street agencies I knew to see if I would be interested in working for them but, as any experienced agent knows, it does not matter which brand you work for, it is exactly the same wherever you go, so why go back? That just seemed depressing!
During my little career break, I considered starting up my own agency, but costs come in at about £4,000 per month. That is without renting an office or shop, besides which, you need to be doing deals straight away, not thinking about things like decking out premises, buying a printer or setting up an account with Rightmove etc.
It was Rollo Miles who contacted me through LinkedIn and asked me to talk to him about Agent & Homes. I had recently had a few meetings with Keller Williams, a similar model, which had piqued my interest but wasn’t for me.
It turned out this was the thing I had been looking for, the ability to start my own business with no outlay, no risk and all the support I needed. I started with them in October 2018 and in less than two weeks I had done my first deal on a four-bed house in Chelsea!
The challenges of the traditional agency model
There are now so many ways for people to buy, rent, sell or let property that I believe consumers (and many agent employees) have grown tired of traditional agents taking the exact same approach as each other.
When I started in agency 15 years ago, no-one had heard of social media, Google Maps did not exist, and the internet was only just starting to impact how we do business. The world is an infinitely different place now and that is illustrated by the number of huge national businesses that, in the last decade, have folded because they did not adapt quickly enough, punished by consumers that demanded change.
Alongside these challenges, there are the well-documented constraints of the traditional agency model in a modern world.
People don't walk into agency offices anymore and they don't want to walk up the high street wandering around agents' offices to register themselves.
They use the internet to search for property and they want to be contacted in a modern way. They want their agents to be flexible and available at times that are convenient for them.
I learned as an area director that the fixed costs of an agency are unsustainable.
The rise of hybrid and solely internet agencies are carving great chunks out their top lin. Meanwhile, their expenditure on salaries, office rents, car fleets and back offices are not only eye wateringly expensive but rising steadily.
Those same agencies are now competing on the same instructions against self-employed brokers with costs of £300 per month who are able to offer a considerably better service better level of service for a fee that a high street agent simply can’t match.
‘Bespoke’ is a word that is thrown around by so many high street agents. In fact, it makes me laugh whenever if I see it on an ad campaign or in their literature. How can a huge company ever be truly bespoke with such a rigid set of rules on everything that they do?
My current role allows me to move away from the challenges of traditional agency and provide my clients and applicants with a genuinely bespoke and vastly improved service.
What does my average day look like now?
Well, I no longer have to get up at 6am to beat the 7am traffic to get to my office for an 8am sales meeting every day that no one really cared about and had precisely zero benefit to my clients.
What's more, I’m no longer required to deal with depressing reviews of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), these surely need to be consigned to the 2000s now? I am not sure couniting someone’s viewings and berating them for inevitably falling short has even helped anyone sell a house, and how much time is wasted collating all these figures?!
Instead, I can take on a new property, book a viewing, arrange a dishwasher repair and carry out client calls from the comfort of my home (or garden in the summer!). If I want to go for a swim on Thursday morning, or have a lie in on a Monday, then I can!
Gaining clients is easier than you would think. So long as you can engage someone and explain the model to them, it is an absolute ‘no-brainer’. It is far easier than trying to take an instruction from a high street agent when you are a high street agent offering exactly the same thing for the same money.
I tend to leave the house three or four times a week, generally making sure all my work and meetings are scheduled together between 10am and 3pm. I mainly spend my time visiting properties, although the Agent & Homes hub is available if I need it and I am there twice a week at least as it is good to get into the office and mix with the other brokers.
Most importantly, as a new father I get to spend so much time with my baby boy! I can’t imagine what it would have been like with the standard two-week paternity leave and then straight back to a rigid ten or eleven hours out the house every weekday. Having now had a child this idea seems like it belongs in the dark ages!
The support of the Agent & Homes family
Although I work for myself, I have the support of Agent & Homes and its partner agents. I have access to Rightmove, Zoopla, OnTheMarket, PrimeLocation, a whizzy bit of software called Gnomen to run my business, insurance, access to a redress scheme and other support services for just £300 a month.
Some properties are managed under my own brand, but the most come under the Agent & Homes banner.
One of the key benefits of working in this environment has been the camaraderie between like-minded agents. We are not employees, there is no hierarchy.
This creates a great working atmosphere with no internal competition. Everyone is equal, there is no boss, no subordinates and no backstabbing to get a cut of someone else's deal.
A family feel is promoted through a company-wide WhatsApp group. This allows us all to communicate and share advice and recommendations.
What's more, the structure allows us to help each other in a very effective way. If I'm not available, I can ask one of the other agents - someone who has been doing agency for at least ten years - to help with a viewing or use their own expertise to solve a problem or help on a deal.
I'm happier, my clients are happier...
The advantage of working in this way is twofold - I'm certainly happier and my clients benefit from a much higher level of service and a huge saving in fees. All of which only take a few minutes, and my client is safe in the knowledge their own personal broker is taking care of even the little things for them rather than it being handed off to someone in a back office somewhere outside the M25 who doesn’t care and doesn’t know the first thing about the client or the property.
My clients generally save about 50% over the course of two years, with no admin fees or other annoying charges or mark-ups for booking a gas certificate or clicking a button to produce a statement.
I earn significantly more than I did as an area manager in Central London and work stress and anxiety is simply a thing of the past!
I take pride in personally managing all my properties. This allows me to speak to landlords and tenants about a property in-depth and look after them both from the viewing, through the tenancy right up until the deposit release. Because I take charge of every aspect of every deal, there is little margin for error because one of your team screwed something up.
I'm now able to build even better relationships with my clients. If I'm on holiday, I can let them know, take my phone with me to do any important stuff I need to and pick up the rest when I'm back.
My clients also love the flexibility I can offer them. I'll happily get up at 6am for a call to an Australian client from home as it works for both parties. If I had done that in my old job, it would have been begrudgingly...
I can also choose to communicate with my clients via WhatsApp because it's 2020 and not everyone wants to organise their lives through email.
Landlords and renters know that if they have a problem, they can come to me and that gives them great peace of mind and satisfaction.
To me, that's the purpose of the modern agent and working to a flexible structure allows us to provide a more comprehensive and personal service. Estate agency was absolutely ready for some disruptive innovation, finally it’s here and I am very proud to be at the forefront of it!
*Tim Lawler is an experienced London letting agent and part of the Agent & Homes partnership