Page last updated at 22:07 GMT, Tuesday, 9 September 2008 23:07 UK

What is it like to be an estate agent?

By Anthony Reuben
Business reporter, BBC News

"Smile? Not really at the moment," says David Smith as he is photographed.

David Smith
It used to just be a question of throwing properties out there and seeing who catches them
David Smith, Martyn Gerrard

In a small, glass-fronted estate agency in North London, an agent who has seen downturns before, is trying to educate colleagues who have not.

Mr Smith has been with Martyn Gerrard for 30 years - Tori Rebec joined a year ago.

"I came in when it was booming and then it slowed down for the holiday season and never really picked up again," Ms Rebec says.

"It's all her fault - I've just realised," jokes Mr Smith.


Estate agents in the UK sold an average of just 12.7 properties each in the three months to the end of August, according to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, which is about one a week.

"Since the credit crunch first hit the headlines approximately 12 months ago this job has become more and more dispiriting and more and more difficult," says Chris Brown, an agent in Derby who is also president of the National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA).

"The optimism and upbeat nature of most estate agents has been kicked out of them," he adds.

The situation is not identical around the country. Mr Smith says his counterparts in other city centres have been worse hit than London. While the NAEA's Mr Brown says that Scottish agents, especially those in Edinburgh and Glasgow, are faring better than those in England and Wales.

More rentals

He says that many agents are finding themselves relying more on other sources of income such as rentals to stay open.

At Martyn Gerrard such a change is certainly visible.

Tori Rebec
It's all been a bit of a shock
Tori Rebec, Martyn Gerrard

The shop has a mezzanine, where the rentals department used to be, back when it was the less busy part of the business.

Now the rentals desk is right next to the entrance, with a phone that actually rings occasionally.

New methods

The real problem facing estate agents who have never worked through a downturn is that the methods they used to use are no longer enough.

"Back in the old days..." Mr Smith begins, before realising that he is talking about last year.

"It used to just be a question of throwing properties out there and seeing who catches them."

"It's all been a bit of a shock," says Ms Rebec.

They both have little blue index card boxes of serious buyers, which are about a quarter full.

"This time last year they would have been full," Mr Smith says.

They are calling everyone in the boxes to keep up to date with them and they are not getting called back.

"It's not down to the work you put in at the moment," Mr Smith says.

Advertising aspirations

Some agents have been trying new methods.

Martyn Gerrard in Kentish Town
Martyn Gerrard has been cutting back on some of its advertising

"One chap was not so much advertising the house that he was selling but the aspirations of the people that were moving," Mr Brown says.

"He was saying 'my people have a two bedroom semi for 150,000 and they'd like to move to a three bedroom detached for 250,000' to see if anybody wanted an exchange."

"Some agents are running adverts saying 'if you are looking for a house we'll find one for you', even if they haven't got the right one on their books they'll go and find it for you."

Marketing budgets have been under pressure, and at Martyn Gerrard they have had to concentrate on online advertising and a smaller number of newspapers - some of the local magazines have been dropped.

"A few staff have had to go as well - thankfully not many," Mr Smith adds.

"If you took a normal town in the middle of England there are probably 10% fewer agents than there were a year ago but that's just a guess," Mr Brown adds.

'Mightily upset'

Mr Brown also says he is having to spend much longer with prospective sellers, explaining the state of the market.

"I probably spend an hour explaining how I've come to a price figure and the problems and the dramas that are in front of them," he says.

Some people are put off selling at the moment, but there are people who cannot wait.

"They're mightily upset some of them when I explain the facts of life to them."

Better news

But it is not all bad news for estate agents according to Mr Smith.

"The public are now getting pretty well educated and know that they have to have financing in place before they make an offer."

He says that most of his colleagues do not remember when interest rates were in double digits and reckons that some of them need to gain some perspective.

But there is no doubt that the process is taking longer.

"It used to be days or weeks and now its weeks or months because there is no urgency from buyers."

"Vendors are thinking about last year's prices and buyers are thinking about next year's prices," he concludes.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2020 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific