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The complete guide to choosing the best estate agent

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The complete guide to choosing the best estate agent
Choose the right agent and you will sell your home faster

If you want to get the best price for your property, you need to find the best estate agent to sell it. Our in-depth guide to choosing an estate agent covers everything you need to consider, including what makes a good agent, the pros and cons of online agents, and whether you should choose sole or multiple agents. We also guide you through how to negotiate fees, and how to switch agents if you are not getting results.

1. What makes a good estate agent?

Number one agent

Selling a property is a big deal, in every sense of the word, so choosing an estate agent you can trust to get you the highest price and the greatest chance of a sale is vital. At Movewise we believe there are three key qualities that a good estate agent needs:

A good list of potential buyers for your property
Any estate agency can put a photo of your home in their window, list it on Rightmove and then cross their fingers. But a good agent will be thinking of potential buyers as soon as they see your property. This is why it is vital to choose a firm that sells lots of properties similar to your own – they will already have the details of people who were interested in those houses and are therefore likely to be interested in yours.

A willingness to be proactive
That list of possible buyers is only useful if the estate agent is willing and able to put in the work to tell them about your property. Estate agents are only human, and they will tend to go after the easiest sales first – which might, for instance, be a property that has been drastically reduced in price because a seller is desperate. Similarly, while you will want to choose someone who has plenty of buyers on their books, you don’t want them to have so many properties that they can’t devote enough time to yours.

The marketing skills to show your home in the best light
You are relying on the estate agent to give a sales pitch for your home, so you need to make sure they can do a good job. This is where interviewing an agent is vital. Do they come across as sincere and knowledgeable? Recommendations from friends or neighbours will be helpful, but the best way to get an idea of how your shortlisted estate agents act with buyers is to pose as a buyer yourself. If you pretend you’re looking for a property similar to yours, what do they show you? What is their local knowledge like?

2. How do I narrow down my choice?

A confusing array of estate agent boards

You know what makes a good agent and you want to choose the best – so when selling your home, don't make the same mistakes many vendors do. A lot of people choose estate agents for the wrong reasons: this is a sample of popular reasons given by sellers, according to a government report on buying and selling homes:

"They are located very near to my home"
"They charged the lowest fees/commission"
"They gave me the highest valuation"
"They have a large branch network"
"I used them to buy this home"

Here is what you should really be taking into account when deciding how to choose an estate agent:

Find the agent selling the most properties similar to yours

This might seem counterintuitive – some sellers are afraid that their property won’t stand out if it is listed among lots of homes in the same postcode and price bracket. However, a local estate agency with lots of properties similar to yours is also likely to have lots of potential buyers for that type of property. The single most important question to ask yourself when deciding which are the best estate agents is: “How much interest in my property can this agent generate?” So, while you shouldn’t ignore customer reviews or personal recommendations, it makes far more sense to let the sales data be your guide. Do a certain estate agent's ‘For sale’ boards keep popping up in your neighbourhood? Search online for listings nearby at a similar asking price, and make a shortlist of the agents in your area with the highest number of matches.

The single most important question you should ask yourself is: “How much interest in my property can this agent generate?”

Interview the agent

Once you have a shortlist of agents based in your area, pick up the phone and ask questions. Get a feel for how proactive and enthusiastic the agent is: are they likely to motivate buyers? Ask them about interest levels in similar properties and whether they have applicants – in other words potential buyers for your home – ready and waiting. Make sure you find out exactly how your property will be advertised: which property portals does the company use? Do the photographs, floorplans and brochures look professional? For more advice, see our full guide to what makes a good estate agent.

Get multiple valuations

It’s wise to get at least three estate agents to value your property. Opinions can vary widely, but it’s not necessarily wise to go with the highest figure. An overvalued property is likely to stick around on the market, and price reductions (which show up on online searches) can be a red flag for many buyers. Similarly, a low valuation might mean you sell your home quickly but miss out on a higher price.

Negotiate on the fee...

The percentage you pay is likely to depend on whether you are appointing a sole agent. Going with a sole agency means a lower fee, but you only have one firm marketing your property. Appointing multiple estate agents generally means that only the successful one gets a fee, so they may be more likely to work harder to compete with each other to find a buyer – but because they risk missing out on their commission, they will seek a higher percentage. See the section on joint v sole agents below for more information.

...but don’t let the percentage be the sole deciding factor

It’s easy to see the percentage as the be all and end all, but remember that it is only part of the equation. You might be put off by Agent B charging a 0.5% higher fee than Agent A, but on a £1m property that represents £5,000, so if Agent B can sell it for £10,000 more than Agent A, it makes sense to choose them. Likewise, lengthy delays in selling can often mean spending far more than you save on fees (in rental costs, for example) – or even missing out on a dream property.

3. Should I use an online estate agent?

Online estate agents

Shopping on the internet is second nature these days, but while we are happy to buy groceries, clothes and even cars online, there seems to be a reluctance to go virtual when buying and selling our biggest assets: our property. Of course, we all look at the property portals (RIghtmove, Zoopla etc), and expect our homes to be listed on the web, but online-only estate agents, which a few years ago threatened to make high-street agencies a thing of the past, still only account for 5% of the UK property market.

On the face of it, online estate agents such as Purplebricks and Yopa seem to offer good value: usually with a fixed fee, paid upfront, rather than the 'no sale no fee' percentage commission charged by high-street firms. (See our article on estate agent fees for more information.) Some, such as Strike and Doorsteps, offer basic listings completely free of charge, making their money with extras such as hosted viewings, premium professional photography and promoted adverts on Rightmove and Zoopla, as well as from commission on mortgages, removals and other services.

However, the fee you pay is only one factor to take into account. To find out whether online firms offer good value for money compared to their high-street competitors, Movewise carried out a comprehensive analysis of UK property market data for almost one million properties. We compared the sales rate, the average time to sell, the percentage of listings that saw price reductions, and the average size of those price reductions, for each of three price bands.

The results are summarised below; for a comprehensive breakdown of our analysis, see the full article.

How the agents compare

Graph showing market share

Only 5% of sales are through an online estate agent. Of these online listings, the majority (4.3%) are with paid agents (predominantly Purplebricks). Online sales are rare at the top end of the market: for properties priced over £1m, just 1.2% of sellers used an online firm.

Graph showing sales rate

To calculate sales rates, we looked at how many of the closed listings were taken off the market because they had sold, rather than being withdrawn unsold. The fee-charging internet firms show a better sales rate than high-street agents in both low and medium price bands, although with higher-value properties, their sales performance falls significantly. The free firms perform less well than traditional agents, although on lower-value sales the difference is very small.

Graph showing time to sell

Paid online agents take a similar length of time to sell, on average, as traditional agents, with little variation across the price bands. The free online firms perform somewhat better, especially with mid-range properties, albeit with a considerably smaller number of listings. For high-end sales, there is not enough data from free firms to allow comparison.

Bear in mind that the “time to sell” metric only applies to those properties that did sell, and does not take into account those homes that were withdrawn or remain on the market unsold.

Graph showing proportion of listings reduced

Graph showing average price reduction

Out of both paid and free online listings, 35% see price reductions: significantly higher than the overall market average of 25%, suggesting that these properties may not sell for the best price. The average price reduction is 4.2% for paid online firms and 4.8% for free ones, both slightly below the typical 5.4% price cut seen in reduced listings, but all are considerably higher for £1m-plus listings.

What do the figures tell us?

  • For cheaper properties, an online agent could be worth considering.
  • The difference between paid and free internet firms is not enough to justify paying for one.
  • For more expensive properties, online agents do not tend to perform well.

At first glance, the sales rates of online estate agents look pretty impressive, especially in the lower price bracket. Paid online firms have a better sales rate than traditional agents on properties priced under £1 million, and even the free firms can almost match the high street in the lowest price band. However, the sales rate is calculated on closed listings: either they sell or they are withdrawn from the market unsold. People who have paid an upfront fee to an online firm will probably be less inclined to withdraw the listing than those who only pay a fee on completion.

Therefore, the sales rate should be viewed in combination with the other data. The figures show that, when properties do sell, there is very little to choose between the traditional and paid online firms: a few days make little difference when the typical time to sell is over five months. Based on this data from the past 180 days, free internet agents actually tend to close a deal considerably faster than traditional firms or their paid online rivals.

One area where online agencies do perform less well for sellers is in price reductions. Listings with internet firms are 40% more likely to need a price cut than the market average (35% of listings, compared with 25%). The average reduction is, however, slightly smaller than with high-street firms.

What is clear from our analysis is that online agents are not well suited to selling more expensive properties. Few sellers in the £1m+ range choose them, and those who do are likely to do less well than they would with a carefully chosen local agent. However, for cheaper properties, using an internet firm could be a good option. Our view is that if you do decide to go down the internet route, there is little advantage in choosing the paid option, as the free firms also perform well at the lower end of the market.

4. Should I use sole or multiple estate agents?

Are two (or three) heads better than one?

Is it best to use more than one estate agent, or choose one and stick with them? It’s a frequently asked question, and it may be tempting to think that two (or more) heads are better than one. However, it’s not necessarily as simple as that. Here are the main points you should consider when choosing between sole, joint or multiple agents: for more information, see our full guide.

What do the terms sole, joint sole and multiple agents actually mean?

Sole agents means just that: a single estate agency has the sole right to sell your property. When signing up with a sole agent you will usually enter into an exclusivity agreement, typically lasting 12 weeks or more. If you sell your property within this time – even if the agent didn’t find the buyer – then you have to pay the agent commission.

Alternatively, you can instruct multiple agents: in this case the various firms (three or more) will be competing with each other to sell your property, and only the successful agent will get the commission.

A halfway house between these two methods is appointing joint sole agents. This means choosing two or three firms who work on a more co-operative basis. Often they will agree to share the commission between them, with a greater share going to the firm that secures the sale. A typical case when this system might be appropriate is selling a prime country property, when the vendor may choose to appoint a local agent as well as a high-end national agency.

What are the pros and cons of using a single agent?

The first advantage is cost. Because the agent is not competing to sell your house (at least for the duration of the exclusivity period), they are likely to agree to a lower fee (see below for our guide to fees). Using a single agent also makes life simpler – you don’t need to co-ordinate viewings from multiple firms, provide several sets of keys, complete multiple anti-money-laundering checks, and so on.

On the downside, only listing with a single agent is likely to mean reaching fewer potential buyers, and consequently waiting longer for a sale. This is less true nowadays than in the past: most agents will list on Rightmove and/or Zoopla, which means a lot more eyes on your property. However, the portals are still no substitute for an agent with a good list of potential buyers. In fact, we estimate that 50% of the interest in your property is likely to come from the existing applicant list of the agent rather than people who see it online.

Another thing to bear in mind: if the agent turns out not to do a good job, you are stuck with them for the duration of the agreement. Even if you turn to another agent or sell privately during this time, you will still be liable for the original agent’s fee. Make sure you study the agreement carefully before signing: it’s not unknown for agents to specify sole selling rights for as long as a year.

What are the pros and cons of using multiple agents?

One advantage of using more than one estate agent is that the firms will be competing with each other to secure the commission. This may mean they will work harder and faster to sell your home than a sole agent who has the safety net of a long exclusivity agreement. A second benefit is that each agent will have their own list of applicants, which means more potential buyers. A good estate agent will send details of your property to buyers who might not have thought of searching in your exact area – so they are unlikely to find it in online searches.

The chief disadvantage is cost: multi-agent fees are typically about double what a sole agent would charge (2.5%-3% plus VAT). Of course, if you can sell more quickly or for a higher price using multiple agents, you could still come out ahead, but you need to consider the cost versus the benefit. Another downside can be the hassle factor of dealing with several agents. The competitive nature of a multi-agent sale might also result in them pressuring you to accept a low offer, rather than wait and see the sale go to another agent.

What about joint sole agents?

A joint sole agency agreement tends to be used with more unusual or high-end properties: for example, a prime country house in the Cotswolds might be marketed with a local agent but also with a big national firm that can generate interest with press coverage and by targeting overseas investors. For more run-of-the-mill property, this approach is less likely to be useful.

The fee is likely to be higher than for a sole agent but lower than for multiple agents. Generally, the two agents will agree to share the commission, because they are working together, rather than in competition. Although the successful selling agent may get a greater share of the fee, there is still the risk that the agents might work less hard in the knowledge that they will still get paid if the other firm secures a sale.

So which approach is best?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer. It will depend on a number of factors: the uniqueness of the property, the state of the market, and whether you are in a hurry to sell or can afford to wait for the best offer. For many vendors, going with a sole agent at the outset is a good option, provided they can secure a competitive fee and an exclusivity period that is not too long. Once an agent has made the initial push to sell your home and exhausted their contact list, they may lose impetus and focus their energies on newer listings; typically, high-street agents only sell 50% of the properties on their books. If you are unsuccessful with a sole agent, then consider relisting with multiple agents.

5. How much should estate agents charge, and how do I negotiate?

Work out the cost of selling a house

We have already seen that fees shouldn't be your primary concern when choosing an agent, but with the average property in the UK now costing a quarter of a million pounds, even a fraction of a percentage point can add up to a tidy sum.

At Movewise, we negotiate fees with estate agents on behalf of our customers on a daily basis. That, plus the fact our team are mainly former agents, means we’re in a position to give you an honest take on this key concern for home sellers. Below we list the key points; for more information see our full guide to estate agent fees, updated for 2021.

  • The average estate agent fee in the UK is 1.18%+VAT for a sole agency agreement. In London it is usually higher.
  • Watch out for hidden costs when speaking to agents. All the key services, such as photos, floorplans, marketing and managed viewings, should be included in their fee.
  • Be suspicious of estate agents charging less than 1% – there’s usually a reason they’re cheap.
  • You should always choose no sale, no fee – estate agents only sell about 50% of properties on their books, so don’t flip a coin on such a significant spend.
  • Always negotiate on the fee: see our full guide to negotiating for more on how to do this.
  • multi-agency contract (which generally delivers better selling prices) can be more expensive with a traditional agent – but that’s not the case if you use Movewise.

The basics of estate agent fees and contract terms

The vast majority of estate agents charge a fee based on a percentage of the price your home sells for. This can be anywhere between 0.75% and 3.0%+VAT, depending on the type of contract you opt for with your estate agent.

According to TheAdvisory, the average estate agent fee for a sole agency contract is 1.18%+VAT, or 1.42% including VAT. That means if your home sells for £275,000, you’ll be paying the agent £3,905. In our opinion, this is reasonably good value for money. However, for higher-value properties – such as those over £500,000 – agents are often prepared to accept lower fees.

If you’re trying to sell in London, it’s also worth noting that, like most things in the capital, estate agent fees tend to be more expensive.

There are exceptions to the percentage fee model. Particularly for cheaper properties, agents may charge a set fee instead.

As well as asking agents about fees, it’s really important to review their contract terms. In particular, pay attention to the sole agency lock-in period, which varies dramatically across agents and can be very long. These terms can prevent you from going to another agent if things don’t go to plan (which unfortunately happens more often than you’d think).

In addition, you also need to look out for sole selling rights. If your contract gives the agent sole selling rights, think carefully before signing. If you sign it, the estate agent in the contract is the only one allowed to sell your home during the period stipulated. You will have to pay that estate agent even if you find your own buyer.

What's included? What about hidden extras?

Are there hidden costs?

The services included in the basic fees vary by agent – which is why it’s so important to ask. In particular, online estate agents often offer cheaper (or free) packages, but these may not be nearly as comprehensive in terms of the services provided. (See above for more on online agents.)

In general, you should expect that the fee to include the following:

  • Valuation of your property, based on researching the local market, looking at trends and past sales data.
  • Drawing up floorplans.
  • Taking professional photographs of your home.
  • Producing an enticing written description of your property.
  • Installing a For Sale sign.
  • Drumming up interest from their own list of appropriate buyers – this is really important.
  • Marketing the house on property portals like Rightmove and Zoopla, plus through more traditional outlets like their own windows, newspaper adverts, and so on.
  • Organising viewings (and usually managing them too).
  • Negotiating a sale price.

And of course, the fee is intended to cover their own operating costs too, including office rental, fleet cars and so on.

When comparing fees, it’s vital to check for any hidden costs or ‘added extras’ that you would expect as standard. The first 'gotcha' can be VAT, which is charged at 20% on top of the basic commission. Estate agents are supposed to clearly state whether their fees include or exclude VAT. But if the agent doesn’t say upfront, be sure to check this point.

You should also be aware that in their contract, agents must express their fee as an actual amount, based on the asking price, as required by The Property Ombudsman – but the actual commission you pay will be calculated on the agreed selling price, which may of course be different..

The estate agent is required by law to tell you what is included in their fee – never assume what’s included, always ask. Shop around if you’re being quoted additional up-front registration fees, fees for photos, fees for advertising or marketing incentive fees. You shouldn’t need to pay these.

Additionally, there should be no "withdrawal fees" – in other words, if you change your mind and decide not to sell your property, you shouldn’t be charged.

One extra you might have to pay for is an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC), which costs between £60 and £120 (including VAT). However, you may not even have to get one as part of your sale. EPCs have a 10-year shelf life, so if you have one that’s dated within that period, you’re already good to go. If not, you’re required to commission one before an estate agent can market your property.

How to negotiate fees

Once you have checked what the agent wants to charge, and what the fee includes, it's time to negotiate. Here is a brief guide: see our full guide for more tips.

Talk to the agent either during the valuation or shortly afterwards. Once they have seen your property in person they will have a better idea of the target market and how easy it may be to sell. If the agent is keen and thinks the sale should be straightforward, they may be happy to negotiate on the fee, but this is not always the case. Be wary of agents who immediately offer a substantial discount, as this might mean they are desperate for business. You want to pay enough to motivate the agent to put in the work: there is no benefit in negotiating a 0.25% discount on the fee if you end up having to reduce your asking price by 5%.

Get valuations from around three local estate agents, and play them off against one another to see if they will match a lower quote. If an agent doesn’t want to reduce their fee outright, you could suggest a sliding scale, where they get the full commission if they achieve a sale above a certain threshold.

Most agents will want to tie you in to an exclusivity period, during which they the sole right to sell your property. A typical exclusivity period is 12 weeks: agents are more likely to be willing to negotiate on this if you are selling a prime property.

If you can’t reduce the exclusivity period, consider what will happen at the end of it. Would the agent reduce the fee, perhaps in return for a reduction in the asking price to make the house easier to sell? Or could you bring in another agent, while keeping the fee the same? Once the agent has done the work to list your home, they won’t want to lose the listing, so you will be in a stronger position.

6. When should I change agents?

Thumbs down to poorly performing estate agents

An estate agent not performing is one of the key reasons that house sales falter. So the reality is you probably need to change your estate agent. That sounds like it should be simple, but sellers often find it more complex than they first thought. Here's how to go about it: for more information see our full article on changing estate agents.

There are good estate agents and bad estate agents, and it’s hard to tell them apart – but hopefully this guide will have helped. We have also shown you the clauses to look out for in agents' terms and conditions, which can make it difficult to extricate yourself when selling doesn’t go to plan.

But even when you take great care to choose an agent, things don't all go to plan. Perhaps you started the sales process full of optimism, the agent was really enthusiastic and got you a spate of viewings right away. Plus they gave you lots of thorough feedback on how it was going. But now you’re a while down the line and they’re not calling you. It’s been some time since the last viewing and when you contact the agent they make you feel like you’re being a nuisance. It's a familiar scenario.

How do I know it's time to switch?

If you answer yes to some or all of these questions, you can be pretty sure your estate agent’s not performing:

  • Are you getting lots of excuses?
    Common ones include: "The market has become very slow"; "It’s the wrong season to sell. Things should pick up in a few months"; "The weather has caused everyone to stay home rather than make viewings"; and so on. At times, these excuses may be valid, but it’s vital that you don’t simply nod at everything they tell you.
  • Have viewings dried up?
    You should be aiming for multiple viewings every week. If that’s not happening, something needs to change.
  • Have you been told to reduce the asking price?
    This is usually an agent’s go-to solution to your problem. This is frustrating when they’re the ones who advised you on the asking price in the first place, and it’s also not the best solution.
  • Do you find it hard to get hold of them?
    If they’re constantly "out of the office" or not picking up their mobile, then you know things aren’t working. If it seems like they’re trying to avoid you, they probably are.

Am I free to get rid of them?

The first thing you need to do is check your terms and conditions. It’s unlikely your agent will have pointed this out to you when you signed, but you could well be stuck in an exclusivity period, If so, there's not a lot you can do immediately. But you can certainly make a plan for when it comes to an end. If you’re one of the lucky ones who isn’t trapped, then don’t delay any longer. It’s time to think about your next move.

And make sure that when you do switch agents, you don't make the same mistake twice. There is a better way to sell.

7. Choose a better way to sell, with Movewise

Movewise has pioneered a better way to sell property. We help customers sell their homes faster, and for more money, because we’ve figured out how not to fall into the estate agent trap. And our results speak for themselves: we outperform traditional agents on every sales metric.

Movewise performance

Here’s our tried and tested process to get a quick sale at a good price:

  • Choose the best estate agent based on independent data. As discussed above, this doesn’t just mean choosing the agent who has the lowest fees, or the one that was recommended to you by a friend. This means changing to an estate agent who has a proven track record of selling homes like yours and interviewing them to make sure you’ve got the real deal.
  • Negotiate a good deal on the fee and make sure there’s no exclusivity clause. You can negotiate estate agent fees down quite considerably if you have the right know-how. We find that even with our fee added on top, our customers usually pay less in total than they would have managing the process on their own (we play hardball!). In addition, getting rid of that exclusivity clause means you can take advantage of the other tips coming up.
  • Monitor activity. If viewings and offers aren't at the expected level, immediately take action. This could be to relist or to bring in a second agent straight away. What you do will depend on your individual situation, so it’s important to get advice from experts.
  • Bring in a second agent rather than reduce the price. We can’t say this enough – reducing the price of your house shouldn’t be the first approach to getting it sold. Bringing in a second agent after 4-6 weeks if the house is unsold exposes you to a whole new set of buyers (it’s not just about Rightmove, remember). This keeps the energy and momentum up, and also creates competition between the agents to bring in more prospective buyers.
  • Push through to completion once you have an offer. This means chasing local searches, keeping on top of your solicitors, and making sure all questions are being answered as fast as possible.
  • Never assume that under offer means job done. You’ve got to keep pushing things through, right to the very end.

Doing all this would be hard work on your own. That's why our founder, Tom, realised there had to be a better way, and set up Movewise using the lessons he learned (and frustrations he felt) when trying to sell his own property.

Avoid the estate agent trap and talk to Movewise today.

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