Could we do without estate agents?

With everything the internet has to offer, do you still need estate agents to sell your home, asks Merryn Somerset Webb. And John Stepek looks at how to go it alone.

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We should all admit that we need and love estate agents, says Lucy Kellaway in the Financial Times. Kellaway is moving house. When she started the process, her main question was, "Why do estate agents still exist?" We used to need them just to tell us what was for sale and where, and to take viewings. But "now the internet does this".

Anyone can list their house for sale. Anyone can then look at the outside on Google Earth, while the seller can let anyone view the inside with a few online videos. As for the price to charge or to pay, setting that "could now be done by an eight-year-old". The only hard bit left (showing people around) could be done by an "Uber of house showers" at £10 an hour rather than the £20,000 most people end up paying estate agents to sell. So why do they still exist?

It's not about logic, says Kellaway. It's about the way we go mad when it comes to buying and selling houses: houses are where "all our money lives", so "even the sanest people become unhinged". They dither. They change their minds. "Chains break and everyone gets stuffed." It is all very frightening. That's why we should learn to love estate agents.

I agree with Kellaway on almost all of this. But the mystery to me is not that estate agents still exist, but why more people don't bring sanity into the market by using buying agents. Estate agents don't work for buyers. Theywork for sellers. That's quite right: they clearly can't have the interests of both at heart at once, so must fight for the side that pays them.

So given that buying and selling houses is not just an emotional roller-coaster, but also complex and very time-consuming, why don't all buyers hire an expert to be on their side? Someone who knows every house on their patch, when it last sold and what for, what its price per square foot should be given the price of the house next door, and where its damp patches are. Someone who knows the ebbs and flows of buyers and sellers (is it near a closing army base? Are the schools improving? Is it near the Scottish border?) and can then negotiate the right price based on these factors.

The usual argument against buying agents is price. Buyers don't want to pay the 1% or so a good agent costs. I think that's a mistake: a house is the biggest purchase anyone ever makes. So why do it without advice? It seems to me that, for all the reasons Kellaway lays out, we could easily do without estate agents as long as the buyers started used buying agents.Where do you find one?

Laura Silverman in The Daily Telegraph suggests Greengrass Property in London or BrightonMove in Brighton. MoneyWeek roundtable regular Henry Pryor operates in much of the south, and my own house in Scotland was found by Saint Property.

How to sell up without one

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If you want to sell your house via the DIY route, writes John Stepek, first you need to set your price. You could ask some local estate agents for a valuation the best ones will have a good understanding of local factors, such as school catchment areas and other important features, and if you have an unusual property or one that's tricky to compare with nearby properties then it might be useful to get a local agent's opinion.

Alternatively, you could just do what many agents will do, and go on a property site such as zoopla.co.uk and find out what's been happening to prices in your area (is the market rising or falling?), and what similar properties have sold for.

Before you put the property on the market you'll need an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC), which tells a prospective buyer how energy efficient your house is. You can find an assessor at epcregister.com. According to Which?, it'll cost in the region of £60 to £120. In Scotland, you'll need a Home Report, which includes an EPC and is more expensive closer to £600, says Which?. Then you need to advertise.

You won't get it on Rightmove, but don't assume that this is the only way to get exposure advertising in the local paper and on its website still makes sense (most buyers are local) and sites such as houseweb.co.uk offer various packages, including your own "for sale" board. You'll need to vet applicants, organise viewings, and handle negotiations yourself. If the market in your area is particularly robust, you might be able to organise an open house where several viewers come at once. Also take sensible precautions don't show complete strangers around your house alone.

When the sale is agreed you'll need to instruct a conveyancer or solicitor to deal with the transfer process (bear in mind that the sales process in Scotland is different from that in England and Wales). There are several online conveyancing services available shop around before you start the sales process.You want your conveyancer to be easily contactable when you need to get hold of them, and make sure you get a detailed, itemised quote, with no hidden extras.

If this all sounds like too much hassle, an intermediate option is to use an online estate agent, such as tepilo.com (brainchild of DIY guru Sarah Beeny) or housenetwork.co.uk. There are several of these now HomeOwners Alliance (hoa.org.uk) has a good comparison table of online estate agents. These offer various packages, including organising conveyancing and photos, and you'll be listed on Rightmove and other major "estate agent only" property portals.

They charge a flat fee compared to the average 1.5% or so a high-street estate agent charges, so generally work out a good deal cheaper. In most cases, you'll still have to show people around yourself, though some may even be able to cover this for you subject to extra costs, of course.

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