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Paul Smith

February 2009

Calls for licensing hot up

FOR a long time now, I have called for estate agents entering the profession to be licensed as a way of improving standards across the board and improving customer care.

It is therefore heartening to see that the chairman of the company that operates the Ombudsman for Estate Agents scheme, Bill McClintock, has reiterated his own calls for this to happen, citing recent legislation as the trigger for such change to be implemented.

Now that the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Act is in force, every residential estate agency handling property sales has to be a member of an approved redress scheme which, in most cases, is the OEA scheme, the alternative being the Surveyors Ombudsman Scheme.

Both operate a Code of Practice which he says could easily be altered to include a requirement for all member agents to use only registered staff to advise on property values or negotiate sales.

His thoughts — very similar to those I have often mooted in this column with regards to licensing — are that all existing agents would be registered and would have to demonstrate they had achieved a minimum standard in order to stay on the register.

He is in talks with the various professional bodies, many of whom already operate their own training schemes, and is also liaising with government departments.

A year after launching the scheme to embed the systems in place, he would suggest new entrants to the profession would be required to train and demonstrate they had attained a certain standard before being allowed on the register.

This register would then be accessible by the public, who would feel reassured at the level of competency of those serving them, and it would also enable employers to check out potential job candidates.

It seems a very logical solution, one that would be fairly easy to implement and costs could be kept down, as Mr McClintock says, by including them in the professional fees of membership bodies.

The Government has failed to listen to the industry over HIPs, so perhaps now it can start to make amends and we can return to the discussions we have long had over licensing, giving the public increased confidence in the services we all offer.

A return to tradition?

AS a keen advocate of the web and all that it offers to estate agents keen to promote their services, I feel now is the time to retrace our steps and put a lot more effort into traditional forms of marketing.

While property portals and search engine optimisation should remain a critical element of any estate agency marketing plan, we also have to ask what our customers want right now, when times are tough and houses difficult to sell. The answer is a resounding call for us to go back to basics and communicate far more loudly to potential purchasers and vendors.

For many years, newspapers held us to ransom with high fees for advertising our properties, leading to calls from ourselves at Spicerhaart for reduced rates. These calls were heeded and now, with much lower charges, we can see an improved return on investment.

Few of us will have failed to notice the much thinner property sections in the newspapers these days as our peers pull out of advertising, either through cost or closure. But the sad fact of these difficult economic climes is that if we don’t support our newspapers, they themselves will fold, leaving us with fewer outlets for promoting what we do. Use it or lose it, says the old mantra.

If you do invest in advertising, it is really important to assess response rates and reinvest where the best responses are coming from. My advice is that you don’t leave it to chance, particularly with limited budgets.

But it is not all about newspaper advertising. Talking to customers is about marketing to them directly, such as using leaflet drops in to local neighbourhoods. Now is the time to put the foot on the marketing gas, not take it off, if you want to win market share.

It is also crucial to keep marketing material and contracts up to date — as we’ve found to our cost. We’ve been rapped over the knuckles by the Ombudsman for forgetting to reinsert a clause into our contracts when they were redrafted. The clause — an important one for all estate agents to include — was about us reserving the right to withdraw a property from the market, should circumstances dictate.

The key to success during 2009 is to be innovative. Focus on customer service and conversion rates. Make sure those rates don’t slip and don’t accept 50 per cent valuations to instructions; push it to 60 per cent or 70 per cent.

We’ve had it good for so long but perhaps none of us realised that at the time. We should see this year as the time to get fire and passion back into our bellies and become really creative once more.

It may take some time but eventually things will stabilise and a good business will return. For now, each and every one of us must make the most of every opportunity — because everything has changed.

Using words that sell...

A NUMBER of studies have been undertaken in America to assess which words sell houses — and which ones don’t.

Words that denote ‘kerb appeal’ or general attractiveness helped a property sell faster than those that mentioned ‘value’ and ‘price’. Homes said to be ‘beautiful’ moved 15 per cent faster and for more money than those described as ‘good value’.

Surprisingly, neutral words such as ‘clean’ or ‘quiet’ had no effect and the likes of ‘new paint’ or ‘new carpet’ actually resulted in lower sales prices, prompting the conclusion that if you have nothing to say, it is better to say nothing at all.

So next time a developer asks you to market their luxury two-bed flats in a run-down area, you may need to think twice about the language you use. According to the US research, what you say needs to be extravagant, or the signal received by buyers is that it’s not worth talking about.