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By Graham Norwood

Editor, Estate Agent Today

Graham Awards


Industry Views - Do Online Estate Agencies Exist Any More?

Is there such a thing as an online estate agency any more?

A decade ago, about the time I started editing Estate Agent Today, there began the ferocious debate over the future of bricks-and-mortar estate agency.

In those days the agents that operated solely online were proud not to be tied down to the high overheads and geographical restrictions of offices.


Celebrity developer Sarah Beeny had created Tepilo, saying: “We don’t have high street branches or branded cars which means we can offer a top-notch service at a massively reduced cost.”

Purplebricks promised to revolutionise the house selling system (I know, I know - don’t laugh) and its corporate parent company at launch was called New Broom.

Founder Michael Bruce, when talking to Elite Business magazine about how physical agencies were allegedly such poor value for money, said: “The actual difference between what you’d offer for £500 and what you’d offer for £5,000 was so minutely small that we couldn’t justify it … That’s when we really fell out of love with the High Street model and felt that we could offer a much better alternative, change the industry and at the same time, meet all the needs of customers.”

Real momentum

At the launch party of easyProperty in early autumn 2014, founder Robert Ellice told attendees that the market “is in transition, no doubt about it - traditional agents have failed to evolve.”

Emoov - founded by Russell Quirk in 2010 with backing from a then-star of Dragons Den, James Caan - merged with Tepilo in 2018 before both disappeared in a puff of debt. Emoov proudly told the world in 2014 that: "The online estate agency sector is starting to gather real momentum, with eMoov leading the charge.”

An online operation which started even earlier - Hatched, launched in 2006 and taken over by Connells nine years later, with promises to achieve great things - but which turned to dust when it closed in 2015.

The common denominator of all these (aside from the fact that, er, they have all failed) is that each was happy to use the term “online agent” to describe their business model. That was even though several topped up their online offer with a rip-off from old-school agency, such as Purplebricks’ local property experts.

In other words, “online” wasn’t a dirty word when it came to marketing an agency to ordinary people potentially wanting it to market their home.

Fast forward a decade, and there is much more reluctance to use the term.

Strike, which nows owns Purplebricks too, does publish the word on its home page - perhaps because it has no choice if it is to publicise its ESTAS success as “Online Estate Agent of the Year for three years running.”

Yopa, by contrast, refers to itself at most opportunities as a “full service” agency.

Now the self-employed agencies (which not so long ago would have probably called themselves “online”) scramble for new descriptions. eXp prefers “personal agents” and Hortons goes for “a property agency for the modern world.”

So why has the term “online agent” all but disappeared - and why are the remaining online operators much more polite about their traditional counterparts than a decade ago?

Partly it’s because just about every agency has a significant online presence of course - website, social media, YouTube, and through the portals.

Find a buyer

But also, I’d suggest, because the long-term reputation of the early online operators is now so low that the term has become toxic.

Just as ‘timeshare’ has turned into Fractional Ownership and Destination Clubs, so ‘Online Estate Agency’ has turned into ‘’hybrid’ and “full service” and the like.

Many online operators were hauled over the coals by regulators like the Advertising Standards Authority for dubious claims in ads, while the case studies they used to show the media of ‘happy sellers who saved thousands’ quickly became stories about individuals who tried the online route and then were obliged to pay for a traditional agency in order to actually find a buyer.

While all this has been happening, the market share of online operators (whatever they care to call themselves) has remained stubbornly small.

After almost 20 years of online agencies, the share shows no sign of expansion.

My colleague Marc Shoffman, now editor of Estate Agent Today, reported just last month that Twenty Ci’s analysis of market share revealed online/hybrid operators having only 5.2% of business in the first quarter of 2024, down from 6.5% a year earlier. Even at its heyday, of 2019, the market share for this niche was just 8.2%.

Little wonder, then, that online agents are seeking a new and less tarnished identity. I’d suggest avoiding ‘snake oil’ …


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