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Are estate agents really that bad?

Estate agent offering keys

New research shows that complaints against estate agents are at their highest levels ever. We just don’t seem to like or trust them – but do estate agents really deserve their poor reputation?

It may be the Minis with logos splashed all over them. It could be the over-enthusiasm when you first meet one. And it could be the extraordinarily high fees that some charge to sell your home. Despite the fact they’re not actually selling your home – you are.

No matter what it is, people just don’t seem to like estate agents. Talk to almost anyone selling, buying, letting or renting a home and they’ll have a story about an agent – and few of those tales will have a happy ending.

We don’t trust estate agents

A poll released last year showed that estate agents ranked fifth on a scale of professions the public doesn’t trust – just below politicians, bankers, journalists and car salesmen.

More tellingly, figures released by the Property Ombudsman state that the number of complaints against agents was ‘unacceptably high’ with record levels of disputes during 2010.

The Ombudsman received 1,338 new referrals against property professionals – that’s 28% higher than the previous peak recorded in 2008.

The problem is that in a time-poor, property-obsessed society, estate agents are pretty much a necessary evil. It is very possible to market and sell your house yourself, but while this will save you a fortune in fees, it’s also time-consuming and you need a certain level of online savvy.

They’re a necessary evil

Estate agents should be professional salespeople who serve a useful function – they are there to make money for themselves but also to get the best price for your home. They are the middlemen (and women) in a stress-filled marketplace that’s fraught with problems.

However, too many are letting their profession down. And, ultimately, that’s why their reputation has suffered.

So what do you think? Are estate agents noble property barterers trying to keep the wheels of the property market rolling, or sharp-suited profiteers who are after a quick buck?


What gets me is when they charge full whack for a house they know they can sell with little or no effort. If you know you live in a desirable location or the catchment area of a good school, you should consider going it a lone. Perhaps use a site to list your house for free and judge the market. You can always bring in an estate agent when you are good and ready… if you really want to!

[This commented has been edited to align with Which? Conversation guidelines]

Smart Estate Agency let’s you do that for £75. Pretty good

Jon – Are Smart Estate Agency especially successful? Do their properties sell faster than others? Do they usually get a better price?

The age-old problem with selling houses is that the seller does not know how the market is going to behave with their particular property. The agent has a commission level and terms which has to suit a range of scenarios – quick sale, slow sale, complications, changes in government policy, and so on. Getting the price right in the first place is the tricky bit, and there are a lot of agents out there all trying to do the same thing, including now the on-line only agents.

We had a flyer through the door the other day from a ‘local ethical investor’ who was offering to buy any property in our district and complete the purchase within a month with no solicitors’ or agents’ fees as well as paying out £250 to pay off the last instalment of a mortgage. All done discreetly with no adverts, no ‘for sale’ board, and no other viewings. Is it credible that the price obtained will be in line with the real market value obtained through competitive marketing?

No doubt a quick and convenient service for those who need to turn a property into cash quickly but the traditional agents still seem to have the market under their control – that’s not to say that a great deal of reform would not come amiss.

One local estate agency operates 15 offices across the area, each staffed with qualified people. They visit and value properties, discuss owners requirements and how they see the property positioned in the market to get the best possible price, advertise, approach and vet prospective buyers, help with price negotiations and then formalities and shepherd through purchases and sales. They also manage a very large number of let properties for landlords. They are, at the present time, in good shape as a business. Good traditional estate agents must be doing something right.

Hannah cooke says:
15 October 2014

Just in case anyone has sold their flat to a buyer who is using the home wise scheme – DON’T DO IT. I cannot speak for their home equity release side of the business, but I will share my experience to give you an idea of how this ‘business’ works and in my opinion, what bunch of liars this lot are.

I was offered a great price for my flat in June – was put under quite a lot of pressure by the pushy negotiator who insisted that they could close the sale and complete in 6 weeks, as this was a cash purchase with no chain.

‘Great’ I thought – hassle free chain free fast sale, just what I wanted.

LIE 1…….

After wondering when the surveys etc would take place and after a but of badgering a month later as to why we hadn’t heard anything, it turns out that the ‘cash sale’ is in fact being funded by the sale of buyers property. I don’t know which planet that constitutes a cash sale!

Now, I think I should have walked away at this point as I’ve clearly been mislead, but at the same time, the high offer was still very appealing, and was higher than I was likely to get from another buyer, so decided to hang in there, albeit with a question mark on the morals of Homewise to blatantly lie in writing about the cash sale/ chain situation.

We get to august – past the 6 week completion date, and I find out no legals have been issued yet. Cue panic, moany phone calls etc. Finally come September all legals completed bar a few nitpicky bits which seemed to be raised purely for the purpose of holding things up. What part of this is in line with the 6 week completion date?

Lie 3
Finally lose my rag in October, as after being told for 3 weeks that we would be ready to exchange ‘next week’ we find out NOT from homewise, but from the agent down the chain – i.e. people buying homewise customers property that he is no longer continuing with the sale of his property, nor the purchase of mine. So looks like they had no intention of bothering to tell us that the sale had fallen through.

So in conclusion, what started in June and should have been done and dusted by late august latest has been dragged on and on, and eventually ended in a chain collapse for 5 people.

Don’t risk selling your property to anyone using homewise, they will lie to your face to get your property and then cease communication as soon as an issue arises.

Doesn’t say much for how they do business, and is not a surprise that they are not selling a registered product via their ‘Equity release’ wing.

Scam artists through and through, don’t waste your time on these clowns.

S holliman says:
22 July 2015

We instructed an estate agent to sell our house at the beginning of June. It started off good but soon deteriorated. We were not getting any feedback for up to 2 days after the viewings and one viewing with one adviser from the Estate agents wouldn’t show prospective buyers the garden because she had the wrong shoes on! We feed this back to the agents and said is was unacceptable and should be prepared for this kind of thing. Then the viewings slowed down. We asked what was wrong with our house and to generally get some advice from their point of view. We had the Branch Manager come for a meeting with us to discuss an she acknowledged that our pictures and details on the particulars was incorrect and in one case our Workshop was completely missed off the details.. He suggested a plan and we said we would like to think about it and then contact him back about it. But when we called and left a message for him to say we would like to proceed we never heard from him for 4days in that time they had removed our house from the website. We raised an official complaint to their head office and they acknowledged by letter and email but since then it’s gone silent.
We then had a call from the Branch ?Manager who then proceeded to tell us that he won’t terminate our request to stay with them or even entertain the idea of multiagency and even if we remove our property from sale we cannot put it on with another agent for 20 weeks which at the initial start we were told 12weeks. My husband is going down to the offices today in person for a second time to try and resolve or at least get a reasonable answer from them on how to proceed or get our house keys back at which they are reluctant to hand over.? They are our property! We are now suffering a great deal of stress and upset over these agents and we cannot even go with another agent who is at present, trying to help us by offering advice on how to proceed. My husband will try and talk to them again today and see what happens.
Is there any advice that Which can offer us to try and resolve this horrendous experience?

Estate agents don’t get their fees until after completion of the sale so they are desperate to protect their commission by having long tie-ins for sole agency and no quick escape clauses if the sale drags for any reason. This state of affairs is bad enough, but when it is accompanied by an inflated valuation, or misleading statements on the saleability of the property or on the ‘readiness’ of a prospective buyer, it becomes almost unmanageable for the seller because there is more going on out of sight to do with the negotiator’s bonus, the branch’s sales performance, an invisible chain of interconnected sales behind the immediate prospective purchaser, potential mortgage and insurance sales commissions, and possible cosy deals with buy-to-let investors [on which the agency can look forward to future management fee income].

The whole process can be far from transparent and although agents are under a duty of care to their instructing sellers it is hard to avoid the conclusion that sometimes they are acting on both sides of the fence. The law requires an agent to declare if there is a conflict of interest [possibly because another member of the firm is involved] but compliance with these rules is frequently done in a virtually incomprehensible manner so it goes unchecked. It is almost impossible to find out from the internet what the terms of business and commission levels of the agents in a district are so it is vital to see them in their offices and get all relevant information about their sales process and meet the actual staff who will be handling the sale. Bear in mind that before an agent can sell the property he or she has to “sell” their firm to the seller of the property so there are two types of sales technique going on during that first interview. Personally, I would only instruct an agent with a lengthy track record in the district, seek the opinion of my solicitor/conveyancer [who deals with many different agents all the time], and who has a substantial street presence with real bricks and mortar with an active approach to marketing through several media. Estate agents’ adverts in local newspapers probably don’t sell many properties these days and they are more about recognition and presence in the market place, but tracking the adverts over a period of weeks before choosing an agent will show up which firms are really on the ball and working conscientiously for their sellers; those that stuff the pages with unsold properties or are constantly promoting ‘new’ [i.e. lower] prices for the same old stock should be regarded with caution. It’s also worth pretending to be a buyer and seeing how you get treated, and the quality of service and response that they provide.

I have no experience of dealing with on-line agencies and at the moment there is very little objective information about their performance. In the four years since this Conversation was started there have been seismic shifts in the property market and the conditions affecting it, and on-line agencies and new marketing platforms are appearing all the time. They all say they have the fullest market penetration and universal expertise but we know that can’t be true, so it is advisable to tread warily and not be lured by the unrealistic hyping of valuations, exaggeration of the selling potential, and optimistic market forecasts presented in a pseudo-scientific style. The problem is that once you have signed the terms of business you are stuck for a lengthy period. If I could change anything as a priority it would be the long exclusivity terms which are not equally balanced between the interests of the seller and the agent.

Deen Jones says:
17 August 2016

Estate agents are leeches who do nothing and blame anyone, only to come out of the situation caused by their incompetence! I worked as a supervisor in a company for residential services, many times agents accused our workers incompetence because of problems in houses / apartments arising from old age. In one case – the estate agent charge 800 GBP previous tenants for old carpets /over 5 years old/ damaged by natural wear and tear, the tenants had lived 1 year in the house, this is ridiculous! Another case – whole bathroom is in mould, ruined paint, damaged by limescale shower head /cheap new is 5-6 gbp in store/ and again – our workers are unproffecionals because they couldn’t restore it with cleaning! The bathroom and the whole property is crying for refurbishment and decorating but the estate agents have different opinion!
Not so dear “estate agents” – you are entrusted you to care for them, not only to dispose like a boss and wondering how to lie, to steal a deposit to someone, and not to invest and 1p in any houses. If you think that is not your job to make something for your customers – may be is not the right job for you!

haart is the most worst !!!!
they so crafty and give wromg wrong information, there is no communication.

Are you speaking as a seller, or buyer, or landlord, or tenant, Rev?

Mrred says:
25 February 2017

I signed up with EA1 as sole because my offer was accepted on a property they were selling. This was on the terms I can sell my property quick from the sellers because they have another buyer on that property with another estate agent.
The owners of that property then went with the the other estate agent after 2 week as they had completed exchange of contracts.
I was with EA1 for 2 weeks then verbally told them I no longer want to use them as the property got sold with the other EA and I did not get any viewings of my property during the 2 weeks with EA1.
1 week later my offer was excepted on another property with an online EA and I place my property back on the market with EA2.
Now EA1 has called me to inform if I sell my property with EA2 within 8 weeks I am liable to pay them a fee. And I should go back to EA1.
I did sign a contract with EA1 but he did not give me a copy and I have asked him to send that copy by email but got nothing.
Please could anyone give some advise on this.

You are in a difficult position, Mrred.

You state that you did sign a sole-agency agreement but did not keep, or were not given, a copy of it. The estate agent has told you that the agreement gives them exclusive selling rights for eight weeks from the date you signed it. You have accounted for three of those weeks and I presume therefore that you are tied in for a further four or five weeks but they will not produce a copy of your contract with them. My view is that you should write to the firm to state that since they have not responded to your e-mail request for a copy of your signed contract you regard the sole agency terms as inapplicable, and for that reason and also because they have not introduced any potential buyers since you engaged them, you are no longer bound by such terms and have placed your instructions with a different agent.

However, the first agent might now be able introduce a prospective purchaser and require payment of their commission. They might also be able to produce the sole-agency agreement you signed. A complication is that your second agent is an on-line agency that will charge you a set fee whether they sell your property or not and from what you have written I take it that you have already confirmed your instructions and that they are in the process of marketing your property. If the on-line agency manage to find a buyer for you before the eight weeks expires I think the first agent will be able to claim commission from you and although you might have a good defence for not paying it you could still be held liable as they will have done some work on your behalf albeit without success.

You will not have much control over what happens next because your first estate agent will submit a bill to your solicitor or conveyancing executive for payment of their commission which would normally be deducted from the sale proceeds before the remainder is available to put towards the purchase of your next property. The on-line agency will also expect full payment of their fee.

My advice is to speak urgently with your legal representative and explain the situation and ask them to negotiate with your first estate agent to seek a reduction in their commission on the basis of reasonable expenditure only. Since the commission on a sole-agency sale is lower than on a joint-agency sale the first agent might demand that the commission is payable at a higher rate [since you have breached the exclusivity agreement] so this will require some tricky negotiation. There is considerable animosity within the estate agency world between high street agents and on-line agents so I would expect resistance.

I think you are stuck with paying the on-line agent’s fee and at best could hope for a reduction in the first agent’s commission. The fact that they appear not to have achieved much in the first three weeks counts for little if you gave them eight weeks to act for you. There is a possibility that they over-valued the property or did not apply themselves to marketing it with sufficient duty of care and due diligence but arguing those points could take for ever and get you nowhere but your legal representative will advise. Bear in mind that fees will be payable on top of everything else for such further advice, negotiations and additional legal work. With any luck the first agent cannot turn up your sole-agency agreement and hold you to it, but that is a long-shot.

W Johnson says:
10 May 2018

I’m not sure what “exorbitant” fees you are all talking about. From what I have seen, the UK market has the lowest agency fees in the world which are generally 1-2%. Worldwide (Europe, North America, basically everywhere else) fees are in the 5-6% range. If an agent can ensure a 10-15% higher sales price than doing it on your own, and facilitate the process, why not use an agent?

They are evil organisations. Simple as that! They charge a bunch that people can barely afford on top of their moving expenses, and then stiff you at the start/end of your business with them through their own incompetence. And if you are not financially/judicially/electronically super savvy, you will be helpless to the situation and end up out of pocket because of them not doing their job properly or blatantly misleading you. Honesty and courtesy are not THAT hard to do! And the landlords are no better. There are many exceptions to the rule, but the majority seem to be horrid. You wouldn’t mind paying the extra if it were followed by honest and courteous service. I honestly don’t know how they sleep at night. At my own job, I would feel horrible if I misled someone, or forgot to follow up with a client. I always try to make amends (of course within the confines of not throwing my employer under the bus).

You can sell your house without an estate agent.

Ian Beck says:
5 May 2022

We’re in the middle of a sale/purchase at the moment.

Observation of a long and complicated chain shows me that some agents are pretty good, some are dire, and the rest sit in the middle dealing with too many clients and don’t share enough vital information with their clients.

If you add in solicitors/conveyancers : the best ones have a relatively small client list and provide responsive personal attention, the middling ones are juggling far to many instructions and it’s a lottery as to if and when they come back to you in a timely fashion. The remainder appear to be working in sweat shops : hundreds of clients, no clue what is happening on an individual basis and a tendency to overlook information sent and to keep requesting the same stuff over and over. Some of these also hide behind web portals and might as well be, and possibly are, web bots.

Generally, the more you pay, the better chance you stand of getting good service. The less you pay, the less service you get. If you pay peanuts, you get …

The important thing is to get your property up on a site like rightmove. You cant really do this without an agent.

Generally, if you pay a bit more than base, you get better than base support. Base being an online agency. If you pay for a bespoke service you may get one. Equally, the flattery that you receive when they try to convince you to offer them the instruction, is often targeted toward customer greed and the service you can end up with is far short of what you expect and often, the final sale price falls far short of what they initially suggest you market the property at.

The problem is, buying a new car for example, you can pitch one dealership against another knowing what you ultimately get because it comes from the manufacturer and the negotiation is generally just about price.
With an estate agent and conveyancer, your situation is totally unique and it will only be at the very end that you will know if you chose well – and often, that’s far too late.

Reviews can be misleading because they reflect a personal sale journey with a unique set of operating constraints – yours will be different.

Having not moved for over 20 years, we were willing to think about agents and conveyancers with an open mind. Our experience, so far, doesn’t endear us to praise their efforts.

One way of getting good service from an estate agent is to use the agent you are buying through to sell your own property for you. They will usually work that little bit harder because their commission on your sale is dependent on their support during your purchase. It can only work, however, where the two transactions are in the same locality or with a multi-office agent that covers both areas.

Personal recommendation is, in my view, the best way to get good legal support. Almost everything is done on-line nowadays so you don’t have to use a local firm and can stick with one that provided a good service before. Personnel changes are a problem with conveyancing work, though, because it is just a step on a career path for many lawyers or legal executives.

In my opinion, conveyancing fees are much better value than estate agency commission. The amount of work that a good legal practitioner does, and the responsibility they carry for the transaction, far outstrips the effort made by the agent — and because the agents recover their fees as a deduction from the sale proceeds and the client does not pay them directly the real cost gets lost in the documentation and doesn’t register strongly enough.