In recent years the traditional estate agency business model has been challenged by competition from cut-price online start-ups in the same way many other types of business have. In sectors such as travel agency, for example, for the majority of people the savings offered by businesses with no virtual presence have far outweighed the benefits of those that cling to their high street shops. Last year an ABTA report revealed that 76 per cent of Brits were now booking their holidays online, compared with just 19 per cent doing so in-store.
Thus far, however, despite all the posturing in the media, online estate agents have yet to make a significant impact on the UK estate agency market, with Rightmove data putting their market share at only 5 per cent. Many believe this is because estate agents still need to have a physical presence and online agents simply can’t compete, even with their ever-increasing number of ‘local experts’. Indeed, the largest of the online agents, Purplebricks, was recently exposed by BBC programme Watchdog for having ‘local property experts’ who exaggerated their number of local listings and in one case, lived almost 30 miles away. Purplebricks’ CEO Michael Bruce did appear on the programme and the company issued a statement to the London Stock Exchange the next day apologising for any errors and stating that, “The Group has committed to ensure through its ongoing training that LPEs are clear about the statistics that they use and the territories and postcodes to which they are referring”.
If you have an office, however, a client knows exactly where you are and how many listings you’ve got, so on a trust basis you’ve got a head start on a so-called ‘local property expert’ without a base. In a high end area such as West London, Amin Omidi, CEO at Haus Properties, says this is a must. “Having physical offices for meetings has certainly helped build customer confidence in Haus Properties,” he says. “It also allays any fears or concerns that both buyers and sellers might have by allowing us to address them directly in person. Not only are our clients buying or selling their property, they are also buying into us. It’s therefore imperative that they have a rapport with us and trust us to do a good job for them.
Our clients are not only buying or selling a home, they are buying into us, so it is imperative that we have a good rapport and they trust us to do a good job. Amin Omidi, Haus Properties.
“Having high street offices in Fulham, Parsons Green, and now in Chelsea, some of the most desirable areas of London, means that we are easily accessible and within walking distance of the properties we market.”
Alex Tarry, director at Best Estates, the Suffolk agent that won last year’s New Agency of the Year category in The Negotiator awards, says his business could never have achieved the success it has so far — opening three branches between 2014 and 2016 — without its offices. “Just having a physical presence in a community is important and everything comes down to the question: ‘Are people going to trust us to get them the best possible price in the shortest possible time for their probably most valuable asset and for them to enjoy the whole process?’ For us to earn that trust they’ve got to know us a bit and if we’re in the community — we’ve got a physical presence, we’ve got a door they can come through, we’ve got a table they can sit around, we’ve got a coffee they can share with us — then I think we’re much better placed to attract that business.
“I know there is a whole world moving online but I think as an estate agency you need premises. Although I do think that the patch you can cover from one of those offices is perhaps larger than it was before.”
Jeremy Leaf, principal of Jeremy Leaf & Co in north London, agrees there have been changes in the function of estate agent’s office, but argues they are still a vital part of the business, “The status and use of our estate agency offices has certainly changed considerably over the past five-ten years. A reduction in buyer/seller and agent office meetings has coincided with greater use of the internet.
“Nevertheless, many customers – both old and young – value face-to-face contact and are more comfortable coming to our offices to discuss their property issues. We try to promote the offices as meeting points to better understand their requirements as messages and conversations can be misinterpreted in emails or texts.”
SERVING MULTIPLE PURPOSES
He adds that it’s particularly important for agents with a lettings arm. “Nearly all tenants come into the office when agreeing or completing rentals.”
It’s important for landlords to be able to come to the office – to speak to us, or drop off keys. A smart office is also a reflection of how the business is run. Richard Barber, JLL.
While some might rightly point out that when it comes to sales, negotiators tend to visit prospective vendors at their homes and sometimes vendors never set foot in an agent’s office, this is hardly ever the case with rental properties, says Richard Barber, director of residential agency at JLL. “It’s particularly important for our landlords to be able to come into the office — they might want to drop keys off or speak to the property manager.
“A smart office is also a reflection of how the business is run, which gives clients piece of mind.”
Savvy agents are also leveraging their office space not just as an example of how they run their business, but also as venues from which to establish themselves front and centre in the local community’s minds so they’ll get themselves on the radar even with those who are not currently thinking about moving house.
Parking is a practicality – we have space for 70 to 80 cars. We hold evening receptions with champagne and nibbles – with up to 100 guests! Martin Walshe, Cheffins.
Martin Walshe, Director at Cambridge estate agent Cheffins, says his agency takes full advantage of sharing its site with a fine art sales room. “A lot of our agency clients will also be interested in going to fine art sales and wine sales, so we hold evening receptions with champagne and nibbles and invite sometimes 100 guests to the showroom to look at that and also at the same time offer our residential brochures.”
Tarry says Best Estates regularly gets involved in local community events. “We open our doors as often as possible. Each office is open for the Christmas lights. We’ve got big kettles full of mulled wine, face painting and mince pies.
“Using your space for hospitality purposes as well as business purposes is very powerful. All three offices had big receptions upon opening. We want to make them centres of activity, not quiet, forlorn places where most people don’t understand what is going on.”
THE PERFECT LAYOUT
With so many purposes, today’s estate agents need to be mindful of their design and layout. In recent years, many have moved away from rows of negotiator desks towards a more casual, social design with sofas and the like. “We pride ourselves on our friendly ‘no hard sell’ approach, which is reflected in our open-plan offices with coffee shop-style décor and central tables where we can speak to customers, whether buyers or sellers. We want our offices to be appealing and welcoming, as for most people this is the largest financial decision they will ever make, so we want them to feel comfortable and at home,” says Omidi at Haus Properties.
This type of approach is popular with clients, but agents need to remember that it won’t work in all situations, says Harry Simons, partner at MPL Interiors.
“Open plan definitely has its place because there has been a big departure away from sterile offices that come across as too corporate and there has been quite a lot effort to shake off that image. People are selling a lifestyle, a new place to live, and many agents are trying to go down the more living room look to make people feel welcome. However, I do think there is still a place for a more formal meeting space where people can discuss the real finer details, whether it is to do with mortgages, money, divorces, probate.
“The most successful layouts that MPL has done have had the informal section at the front, which is public-facing through the window. Then there will be a more formal desk arrangement, some client seating in the middle, and maybe to the rear of the office they will have a glass-walled office, which is where they can take people for formal chats or staff for internal meetings as well.”
Tarry says this is similar to the design Best Estates has gone for, and he thinks it works well. “Our offices are designed in a way that the desks are at the back. Visitors come in and the first thing they encounter is a round table with chairs around it and what we do is our reception will meet and greet the person coming through the door, ideally before they’ve cleared the doormat, say hi and ask if we can help. Then to have a conversation we sit down around that table, never across a desk. And next to that table there is a glass-fronted drinks fridge with a wide variety of nice drinks. On top is a nice espresso machine, so we can have a coffee and have a chat about whatever they’ve come to see us about.
“In two out of three of our offices we also have a closed meeting room where we can conduct the more private discussions.”
Martin Walshe says that it is important to think about the practicalities as well, such as parking. “There is virtually none in Cambridge and we are very lucky with our premises. They are the largest premises in Cambridge for an estate agent and we’ve got parking for 70 to 80 vehicles as well.”
Estate agents are going to great lengths, it seems, to leverage their offices to their full potential and so far, they seem to be doing a good job of keeping the online agents at bay. Whether or not they’ll be able to continue to do so remains to be seen but based on current evidence, it appears the majority of vendors will only believe you’re a local expert if you’re in a location to prove it.