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Insider tips on selling your home, from our secret estate agent…

Insider tips on selling your home, from our secret estate agent…

Selling your home can be time-consuming, expensive and stressful. However, the more you know about estate agents and the process, the easier things can be. Working within a well-known high street chain in the south of England, ‘The secret estate agent’ is here to share her insider knowledge with you…

Also need some advice on buying your next home? Our previous interview with ‘The Secret Estate Agent’ can be found here.


Unni and Evans (U&E): “If we want to successfully sell our home, what’s the best starting point?”

The Secret Estate Agent (TSEA): “Before you even think about agents or going on the market, get your house in order – literally. Declutter your home as much as possible. If you don’t need something, dispose of it. If you still want it in your new home, put it into storage.

Equally, whilst I wouldn’t advocate redecorating the place, do apply superficial fixes where needs be, and address any damp patches, mould or the like.

It still amazes me how many people don’t make this initial effort when going on the market. Think of it this way – if somebody said they’d pay you several thousand pounds for a few days’ work, you’d rip their arm off. However, many vendors never invest the few days of effort that could make a few thousand pounds worth of difference to the eventual selling price. It’s crucial to remember that a well presented home sells quicker and gains a higher price.”

U&E: “Ok, so house in order. Where do we start when trying to find the best estate agent?”

TSEA: “Vendors often find this difficult, and it’s fair to say that with so much choice it can be challenging to find the right one. My suggested starting point is to ask friends, neighbours or colleagues about their experiences with local agents. However, do bear in mind that – wait for it – people generally don’t tend to like estate agents, and so invariably you’ll hear some negative feedback even about the better ones."

Selling a house

U&E: “Once we have feedback on a few, what next?”

TSEA: “Draw up a shortlist, but in doing so it’s important to ask the question “is my house the right type of house for this agent?”. Most mid-market agencies will accept a broad range of properties, as this gives them the highest chance of making a sale and earning commission, so it’s up to you to be selective and choose what’s best for you.

Research other similar houses for sale and who they’re with. Agencies will often target or want to dominate certain areas and so you can get a better deal and more attention if you know they’re more likely to want your home. In fact, if you’ve already decided the area you’re going to buy in, then think about selling your current home through the agency that specialises in selling within that area. These guys will have the most places you’re interested in, and you’ll become a ‘VIP’ with them.”

U&E: “What’s a VIP?”

TSEA: “Many agencies will adopt this attitude, even if the terminology varies between companies. A ‘VIP’ is someone who isn’t sold, but could potentially have their property on the market with you and is looking to buy in an area that your agency has property for sale in. Why VIP? Double commission for us.

Being a VIP could also extend you benefits such as being able to view houses that we have on our books ahead of ‘open house’ days" (U&E: this is explained further in our ‘buying a house’ interview with The Secret Estate Agent).

U&E: “Ultimately, if we can’t decide, is it advisable to go multi-agent?”

TSEA: “No, definitely not - always try to go sole agent. Going multi makes you look desperate and, more importantly, the agencies will be far less interested in making the effort to sell for you, because their chances of a sale (and therefore commission) are far from guaranteed.”


House valuations

U&E: “We’ll often see on home-related TV programmes various estate agents independently valuing homes for sale, and the estimates sometimes vary significantly. If we’re selling, presumably we go with the highest?”

TSEA: “Not necessarily. Before you even engage with agents about selling a house, do your own research online and see what other similar properties are selling or have sold for. Then, get three valuations (i.e. one from each agency on your shortlist).

We can all be forgiven for thinking we’ve got the best house, but how much you sell for should be what you consider to be the most realistic of the three valuations. Also, beware – agents will sometimes try to flatter a vendor by slightly over-valuing your property to try to get you onto their books. They give the seller a price that’s higher than they thought it’d be worth, the seller gets carried away in wave of optimism and signs with the agency. Then, just a few weeks later the agency call to suggest the price is lowered (i.e. because it’s been marketed too high and isn’t shifting).”

U&E: “Sounds as if we should be quite wary of valuations then?”

TSEA: “Yes and no. As I’ve just mentioned, some agents will inflate the price as a closing tactic, but if you’ve done your research it’ll be easier to spot this. Ultimately, the agent wants to sell it, so more often than not they’ll want to price it fairly realistically.”

New furniture store

U&E: “Is there ever a danger that a property could be undervalued?”

TSEA: “There is, yes, but it’s less likely. Again, if you’ve done your homework you’ll know the approximate value anyway and so will be able to protect yourself against this, and also don’t forget that the more we sell it for the more commission we get, so it’s in our interests to get the best deal for you.

In summary, it’s important that you don’t just choose your agent based on which one gives you what you consider to be the most realistic asking price. Ultimately, choose based on their reputation, the portfolio of properties they currently have on their books, and the deal that they’re offering you in terms of commission etc. The asking price can then be settled upon with the agent that best meets all of the aforementioned criteria.”


Estate agent's advice on selling your house

U&E: “Are estate agent fees negotiable?”

TSEA: “Not always, but often yes, they are. However, you’d be surprised how many people pay the quoted rate without quibble. It pays to remember the old adage – if you don’t ask, you don’t get, and so don’t be afraid to try to haggle.

It’s important to be aware that agencies’ margins vary greatly. The average high street estate agent fee is 1.3%. The well-known agency I work for will never go below 1.2%, although we’ll usually start at 3% (which many people then just accept without question). With a smaller, local agency, you might be able to get them down to 1% or maybe even below, but you do then need to consider how effective – and motivated – that agent will be to sell your property.

The agent will usually ask you who else you’re getting your valuations from, as they know roughly what their competitors’ margins will be. That’s why, as I said earlier, it pays to get three comparative valuations, as it also gives you leverage when it comes to negotiating fees. Of course, you’re not obliged to tell the agent who else is quoting – it’s your prerogative to decide.”

U&E: “Anything else we should be aware of?”

TSEA: “Yes – make sure you’re comparing apples with apples. By that I mean be clear on what the quality of photography will be like, and whether floorplans are included. Professional photographs and floorplans can make a significant difference to buyers browsing online, but they’re not always included as standard.

Elaborating on the photography point, even if it costs a bit more money, get the best quality photos you can. Some agents will take the photography themselves, but this isn’t always ideal. We actually offer professional photography as a separate service, and hire a photographer for the job. They’re experienced at portraying your house or flat in the very best way, and use tricks such as enhancing filters, or wide-angled lenses, to make your place look bigger. I’ve got personal experience of this – I used our photographer to help sell my flat, and he made it look enormous! With better photography, you’ll get a lot more interest online, more viewings and bidders, and therefore generally a higher price, so it’s well worth it.

Oh, and also ask if the agent has a dedicated sales progression team or whether there’s somebody who is specifically responsible for this. Beware of small, high volume agents – they’ll be focused on the sale but not on the progression of that sale, with obvious consequences for the vendor and their chain.”

U&E: “What are your thoughts on these new online-only companies that will sell your house for £500?”

TSEA: “The obvious benefit to the vendor is the saving, but it’s important that people are aware that they’re making a compromise in other areas. I appreciate I could be accused of bias here, owing to the fact that I work for a high street chain, but my personal feeling is that you get what you pay for.

Yes, you’ll save money, but there are drawbacks, including:

  • Often you’ll pay whether the place sells or not, whereas a ‘real estate agent’ doesn’t get paid if they don’t sell for you. 
  • With a website service, the vendor often has a little bit too much control over what the property is priced at, which can lead to artificially high or low valuations, and the consequences that go with that. 
  • A traditional agency will give you feedback from potential buyers, so that you know what people are saying about your property. This is often invaluable.
  • With a website, you’ll be doing all of the viewings, which isn’t to everyone’s taste.
  • Finally, many agencies have a dedicated sales progression team that keeps the whole chain going, chases solicitors etc, which you don’t usually get with a dotcom.” 


House viewings

U&E: “What tips can you offer us about viewings?”

TSEA: “Firstly, I mentioned earlier that you should present your property really well when you invite an agency and subsequently the photographer into your home, but you also need to keep it that way throughout the viewing phase. I’ve seen some real horror stories, and have shown people around houses with a week’s worth of dirty dishes, laundry strewn everywhere, and even a ‘present’ from the cat on the stairs! I’ve had to apologise in the past and forewarn people about what they’re about to walk in to. Obviously most don’t go to that extreme, but as I said earlier, a decluttered and clean house can make a world of difference to people’s perceptions, and therefore their level of interest.”

U&E: “What are your thoughts on the recently emerging trend of ‘open house’ viewings?”

TSEA: “They’ve grown in popularity quite quickly, as generally they’re a good thing for the vendor and the agency. The trend has come over from the States, where it’s been popular for a few years now. From the vendor’s point of view, they haven’t got the hassle of viewings spread across various days and times. From the agency’s point of view, it’s also easier on us logistically, plus everyone looking on the same day usually creates a certain ‘competitive buzz’ and gets bidding going.

Do be mindful though that agencies could try to get your property onto their books by offering to give you an advance preview of a place you’re interested in and they’re selling, before the official open day. That’s fine if you’re happy to comply, but don’t choose your agency primarily for this reason, because you should take a broader view than that and, on the balance of probability, you won’t buy the open house anyway.”

U&E: “Do agents enjoy viewings?”

TSEA: “This will surprise many, but often no, we don’t. Obviously a small local agency doesn’t have a lot of choice if they’re not much more than a one man band, but especially in larger agencies, if we can get out of it, we will. If, for example, we can get the vendor to do it, then that’s usually welcomed by us, as it frees up more of our time to focus on other aspects of selling.

The reason why some agents don’t like viewings is that often there’s nothing in it for them. Sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but here’s why. Some agents – including the one I work for - get a significant proportion of their commission based on who’s booked the viewing in. So, if someone phones in and says they want to view, it can be the person who books in the viewing, not the person who shows you around, that gets the majority of the commission. So, it pays to be in the office most of the time, or going out to do valuations (we’re also commissioned on getting more properties on the books).

Accordingly, we’ll send the newer members of staff out on most of the viewings. That’s why some agents that show you around a property might have that distinct air of ‘really can’t be bothered’.”

U&E: “If our property is not selling, how long should we wait until we drop the price?”

TSEA: “In very active markets such as the south of England, the agent might try to push you after only a few weeks if there’s no interest, or certainly if there’s been no interest after an open house day. It depends on your circumstances, but generally I’d advise to be a little more patient than the agent (who probably wants to get you off the books, earn their monthly or quarterly commission and move on).

That said, properties in active markets tend to sell quickly at the moment and so if yours doesn’t after a month or two, you do risk the agency losing interest. They’ll continue to go through the motions (including it in email newsletters etc) but they know the likelihood is that it won’t sell (or at least, not at that price).”


Making an offer on a house

U&E: “What’s the best way to evaluate an offer?”

TSEA: “The answer to this is based on so many variables, but in short it goes back to what I was saying before. You should already know in your own mind what a realistic figure is. If this is met, then it’s up to you to judge whether you can achieve more, based on the level of interest in your property. You should also consider the circumstances of the buyer – if, for example, they’re sold, or a cash buyer with no chain, then they’re a much better prospect than someone who’s making an offer without being sold….or in rare cases without even being on the market!

On a side note, the agent is legally obliged to pass on any offers that are made to you, but just be wary of something – it has been known for agents to advise a vendor to decline an offer (even though it was full price) because they have concerns about the buyer. These might be valid concerns and do hear them out, but equally they might simply dislike the buyer because they wouldn’t use the agency’s conveyancing or financial services (which would have earned them extra commission). Whilst instances like this are rare, it is a reminder that you need to keep your wits about you, as there’s a lot of money involved and the various parties all have different agendas.”

U&E: “Once the price is agreed, is the buyer committed to paying that price?”

TSEA: “No – it’s not always a straightforward path to exchange and completion once a price is ‘agreed’. Even when it gets to the stage of you accepting an offer, that offer is ‘subject to contract’, which will of course include a valuation survey. With most properties this survey will identify some issues, as no place is perfect, especially if it’s decades old. However, on an increasing basis I see prospective buyers using these surveys to leverage a discount on the previously agreed price.

My guidance to vendors here would be to take a balanced view. Consider what’s been discovered in the survey against what the buyer is proposing to take off of the price. From your perspective as a vendor, it’s pointless to lose the sale over a relatively trivial amount in the grand scheme of things, as invariably the next buyer’s survey will pick up the same issues. However, if you think the buyer is asking for too much then stand firm, and remember that it’s also in the interests of the agent to get the highest possible price for you, so we’ll usually be on your side.”

Selling a property in London

U&E: “And if we go on to buy through the same agency, should we take up their additional services?”

TSEA: “It’s useful to know that an agent’s Key Performance Indicators, and commissions, are usually based on a range of things, including valuations booked, properties placed on the market and properties sold. We’re often also targeted on selling additional services like conveyancing, financial advisors or mortgage brokers. On the whole it’s a very reputable industry, and often the services offered by agencies are very good, but do remember to shop around before deciding on who to use for these services.”

U&E: “Thanks for sharing your experience with us today TSEA. Finally, could we ask you for your closing advice on selling a house or flat?”

TSEA: “Present your property well, choose your agency carefully based on the criteria I’ve given, and accept that it can be a protracted and difficult process at times. Many sales run quite smoothly, but equally a third in the UK fall through – that’s sadly just statistical fact. Therefore, if you accept the possibility of a rocky road, you’ll be prepared for tough times, but will hopefully get a pleasant surprise.”

Please note that the views expressed in this article aren’t necessarily the views shared by Unni and Evans.

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