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By Nat Daniels

CEO, Angels Media

OTHER FEATURES

Property Natter - perception vs reality - why do agents have a bad rep?

It’s fair to say that UK estate agents don’t have the best of reputations, often featuring in the lists of the top 10 most hated or disliked professions.

A survey carried out by CV Library last year, which polled 1,200 UK workers, revealed the top 10 least trusted professions due to their perceived lack of morals (66.4%), greed for money (62.1%), unreliability (56.5%) and irritating nature (26.6%).

Estate agents were in seventh place with 14.6% of the vote, well behind politicians and comfortably behind journalists (sorry Graham, Marc!) and car salesmen, but still with an unwanted role in the top 10.

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.

  • Chris Arnold

    "The stigma is deeply, deeply entrenched" and its not going to change unless the great agents disassociate themselves from the herd by virtue of a personal brand.

    When we trust people, we do so because of their character, as much as their competence. There are very very few agents willing to be transparent enough to share values, beliefs and convictions. Lest it pushes away potential vendors. Consequently, the sector is perceived as a commodity. Agents trying to be better - instead of being different.

    Corporate agencies must shoulder some of the blame. Trying to mould their employees into something acceptable, bland and boring. Requiring of them to be robots that do this, or that, without thought as to how that appears to homeowner.

    The fact is that the industry is broken and everyone is trying to fix it with incremental improvements rather than offering something different.

    Does it matter if the vast majority of vendors are satisfied? Only if there is a desire for higher fees and less competition.

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    I totally agree, the personal brand works really well. I did this recently with fantastic results, we became an estate agents people loved. I'm passionate about the industry, there are so many good agents out there I'd really like to see the publics perception change over the next few years.

     
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    It about the annoying characters you find in the industry.
    It stems from the 80's yuppie icon of get rich quick. Sadly some companies still solicit the standard 20 year old, sunglasses on an overcast day looking an idiot, BMW on finance driver to look successful, mobile phone whilst driving, giving advice about people's largest asset whilst renting themselves and spouting trash like a verbal machine gun, and 5 years later move on to "sell" telecoms because your "local exchange has been upgraded and you can take advantage of the offer" types......

    When certain estate agents put quality before money and stop recruiting people that can't spell GCSE but have the so called "gift of the gab" the image may change.

  • Matt Dilkes

    in any news report, BBC, SKY etc any mainstream media, there is no voice or balanced view when it comes to lettings, sales, landlords and vendors. Sensationalism sells, bad agent bad landlord is an easy win for news sources.

    Why ARLA is pretty much non existent when anyone seeks a professional opinion on the news is beyond me as our leading voice. The public should know how in depth our job role is in 2020, yet Shelter are seen as gospel to the government and general public. Baffles me that as an industry we're unable to represent ourselves properly and accurately and fairly.

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    It's far simpler than that. 10 people view a property, 1 can buy. 30 view a let, 1 can rent; in two transactions 28 people have had an agent choose someone else over them. Its the agent's fault.
    People struggle to accept runner up, also ran at the best of times so admitting the real reason for their resentment isn't something that will come easily.
    The opportunity to air an opinion about people who've done them wrong isn't one many will let pass them by.
    Acting for the vendor, negotiating the best deal for their client leaves a tinge of resentment with buyers too.
    Agents can't win because it's the job they do. Given the opportunity of 10 years to change the way they deal with agents 95% have opted to pay agents well over the odds and ignore the savings available to them from disruption.

    As soon as there is an opportunity

  • Angelo  Piccirillo CEO AVRillo

    A must article Nat, well done.
    Is it all down to white socks?

    It's undoubtedly historical. When I started in estate agency 30 years ago, estate agents were trusted advisers. Clients walked in with respect for our knowledge. The 90's house boom saw 'get rich quick' 'white socks brigade' of agents in flash cars, cute minis, over-inflating prices, cash cash cash with minimal work in a rising market!! Now is the time agents can prove their worth. Valuations, negotiation, helping with the sales progression, these are all things which the seller and buyer will find extremely hard to do alone.

    Communication more, show your knowledge of prices, the local market, explain the 63% abortive rate if they don't have someone like you holding their hand, post-offer acceptance, all the way to completion. Surely that will enable you to increase your commission fee. People want to know they are getting good value for money from their chosen expert. Not paying for something they think they can stick on Rightmove and sell.

  • Mark Walmsley

    Robert Mays point is spot on. In most industries where something is for sale a duplicate is possible (Cars/furniture/clothes/boats etc). Very rarely is one product that costs so much and means so much to so many people offered to all.

    By default when that one product is sold to one of 10 hopeful buyers, 9 customers are then left unhappy. If you have the ability to communicate properly you will explain this to the unlucky buyers in advance ensuring that they do not take it personally (and that you do not antagonise them with wrong advice along the way!). You can minimise risk as the estate agent, buy you can’t minimise the number of unsuccessful buyers. If you offer support, advice and assistance
    however the stereotype may change (do we care about stereotypes though if we’re not examples of them?).

    Matthew Payne

    Completely agree Mark. Most agencies focus is blinkered on vendors, local VIPs, chain building etc. Hunting and farming for sellers and landlords who pay their fees, which of course is very important, but it more often happens with no consideration, cultural standards, process or training on how to handle buyers or tenants whose experience is in large part is moulded by how they are dealt with when they fail to secure a property. The media stereotypes and the hangover from the 80s/90s on top fuels their cynicism and belief that they have been mistreated, wronged in some way by that Agent.

    When these are the sellers and landlords of tomorrow it is arguably making an agents job in winning instructions in the future more difficult for many, but a lot easier for the few who buck the trend. I have heard sellers and landlords comment 1000s of times that their own choice of selling or letting agent later on was heavily influenced by those experiences in the past, and why would anyone expect any differently.

     
  • Anthony Alex

    This is a perennial topic of discussion. There have been many working parties over the years, which sought to improve the transfer of property ownership and the means to achieve it. The late Julian Farrand headed one such working party which made a number of sensible proposals, despite which things remain largely unchanged. Home Information Packs came and went because, instead of speeding up the process and making it more transparent, they ended up impeding it. Even the regulation of agents won't make a difference if agents aren't fully engaged in best practice. The vast majority of agents do the job properly, but there will always be bad apples.

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