This is nothing new. Three years ago, the Ipsos MORI Veracity Index 2017 revealed that estate agents were in the list of the seven most distrusted professions in the UK, in joint fourth place with journalists.
And, further back, in 2010, a Co-op survey had estate agents in fifth place in the list of the most distrusted professions.
Clearly, then, agency has an image problem – but why? The majority of people seem to be happy with what their agent provides. In a report carried out by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (DBEIS) in October 2017, titled ‘Research on Buying and Selling Homes’, it was revealed that satisfaction with estate agents was high (81% among buyers and 84% among sellers).
Meanwhile, fees – often the biggest stick to bash traditional agents with – are on the lower end of the spectrum when compared with other countries.
Rogue agents, while an issue, are very much in the minority, and as we see from our weekly Agents Do Charity column (and our Conquering Corona series during the height of lockdown), agents do numerous good deeds in the local community.
Why, then, is the perception so bad? Why are agents deemed to be greedy, pushy, lazy and incompetent?
The influence of popular culture
The portrayal of estate agents in nearly all TV shows is not a flattering one. Agents are often used as the butt of the joke in sitcoms and sketch shows, whether it be the creepy agent showing Gavin and Stacey around a shockingly dingy flat in the hit BBC sitcom or the drunk estate agent on The Catherine Tate Show.
In Friday Night Dinner, Jonny’s role as an estate agent is a source of laughter and put-downs, while Stath Lets Flats – the BAFTA-winning Channel 4 sitcom starring Jamie Demetriou – is entirely built around the ineptness of a Greek-Cypriot letting agent in London.
While expecting a favourable depiction on the small screen is fanciful, even less so in comedies where agents make for cheap, easy, stereotypical laughs, the portrayal of agents on TV as completely unprofessional and incompetent or dodgy charlatans with loose morals reinforces this perception in the public eye.
Estate agents in popular culture are rarely treated as human beings, with fully-rounded backstories, but rather one-dimensional caricatures entirely living up to the stereotype. While other disliked professions, such as journalists and politicians, may occasionally be portrayed in a favourable light on TV, this is almost never the case for anyone in the property world. And especially not estate agents.
We all know how powerful the influence of popular culture can be – and while the perception of agents in the fictional world is as something to be laughed at or hated, agents in the real world will continue to face an uphill battle to shift that long-established stigma.
Positive experience, bad reputation
Let’s return to the DBEIS’s October 2017 research paper on buying and selling homes. Despite satisfaction with estate agents being above 80% for both buyers and sellers, and any dissatisfaction with the process much more likely to focus on solicitors than agents, the research revealed that estate agents often come in for the most criticism about their practices.
“Indeed, the Homeowners Alliance reported that only 20% of homeowners and aspiring homeowners trust agents when buying or selling a home, a far lower level than for conveyancers, surveyors or mortgage lenders. They have also criticised the sector for the lack of transparency about their commission and other fees,” the report’s summary stated.
The two don’t add up. If more than 80% of buyers and sellers end up being satisfied with the service provided by an agent, why is it also the case that only a fifth of homeowners and aspiring homeowners trust agents when purchasing or selling a home? Why is there such a gap between lived experience and perception?
The popular perception of agents – which is very rarely the reality – must be playing a part in this lack of trust. The media and society in general have conditioned people to dislike, or at the very least distrust, estate agents – so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that this is played out in reality.
In fairness, it must be pointed out that agents are not perfect. The stereotype is deeply unfair, but there is a reason for it being there in the first place.
“Since 2008, estate agents have been required to register with government approved Ombudsman schemes, which uphold codes covering practices and transparency of fees. However, during the passage of the Consumer Rights Bill and the Consumer and Competition Landscape reforms during 2013 and 2014, concerns were again raised in Parliament and the media about estate agents,” the DBEIS’s report says.
“Anecdotal examples were given of misleading and aggressive practices designed to close a deal; agents encouraging gazumping by continuing to market properties after offers have been accepted and encouraging ‘ghost gazumping’ where the seller demands a higher price between offer and exchange.”
The Property Ombudsman (TPO) – the largest government-approved scheme – also continues to receive a not insignificant number of complaints each year. Its 2019 annual report revealed that it received 30,356 enquiries last year. Of these, 5,106 went on to be formal complaints, a rise of 20%.
Despite a significant increase in complaints, compensatory awards paid by agents to consumers only rose by 1.4% to a total of £2.2 million – which TPO described as ‘an effective barometer for the sector’ that progress is being made with agents complying with the TPO Codes of Practice.
TPO dealt with 2,518 complaints relating to lettings, 1,669 relating to sales and 780 for residential leasehold management. The biggest awards were £17,644, £20,200 and £21,439 respectively, and the average awards were £635, £742 and £273 respectively.
On EAT, we have also reported on a number of unforgivable and shocking price-fixing scandals, which only help to tar the whole industry with the same brush.
The numbers above, though, are still very low (relatively speaking), when you consider the number of transactions that take place each year and the number of agents operating in the UK.
There are areas where many agents could definitely improve – particularly regarding communication, explaining commission/referral fees and embracing PropTech and online solutions to a far greater degree – but it seems to me that, like politicians, agents are held to a much higher standard than other industries.
There is an expectation that agents must be flawless, which is just not the way the world operates – even more so in the midst of a global pandemic.
The DBEIS report is almost three years old now, but I doubt things will have changed much between now and then. If 2,000 people were surveyed again now, I reckon a similar number of people would be satisfied with the service of their agent, but trust in estate agents would still be low.
It is this perception/reality gap that somehow needs to be bridged. The vast majority of people still use a traditional agent when selling a home, so agents can’t all be bad, can they?
But the stigma is deeply, deeply entrenched. And I’m not sure, short of handing out free puppies, cookies and champagne to every household in the British Isles, that is ever going to change. Even if agents did do the above, they’d probably be criticised for a shameless and cynical PR drive! They can’t win.
Answers on a postcard, please, as to how agents improve their public image, because I’m a bit stumped. Then again, does it really matter if the vast majority of buyers and sellers end up satisfied?
Footballers get a lot of stick, but the millions earned are soon forgotten when a player scores a last-minute goal, just as agents are loved when they get a sale over the line in a fast, hassle-free manner.
Maybe a good rep is overrated. Ryanair, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Sports Direct – none of these companies have brilliant reputations, but all of them are phenomenally successful. Food for thought.
Landscape mode, please!
Virtual and video viewings have played, and are continuing to play, a crucial role in the property market’s new normal. But they’re not without their downsides.
My own personal bugbears, having carried out a few in recent times, are virtual viewings not being in landscape mode when recorded on a phone. Not a great experience.
Similarly, a lingering zoom-in on the toilet or shower is not needed. I’d rather not spend minutes discussing the finish and layout of the bathroom, either. In and out, please.
Floorplans with room sizes on are a must, too. Some have total size, but not individual room sizes. This is an important factor for buyers who want to know the spaces they have to play with.
Lastly, music is not a necessary accompaniment and spliced photos does not a virtual tour make. Apart from that, I think they’re great!
Until next time…
*Nat Daniels is CEO of Angels Media, publishers of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today. Follow him on Twitter @NatDaniels.