Page last updated at 13:33 GMT, Thursday, 18 February 2010

Will house buyers embrace the internet?

By Kevin Peachey
Personal finance reporter, BBC News

Lock on computer
The internet is set to change the business of buying a home

Buying or selling a home is among the most stressful experiences in anyone's life, but it appears that estate agents are not at the heart of the problem.

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has given a clean bill of health to the industry, pointing out that satisfaction levels are up.

However, the watchdog has shed light on the increasing influence of the internet on the way we buy and sell homes.

Now it wants to free up businesses that match private buyers and sellers in order to encourage more competition.

What is the future for internet sales?

At present, online services are dominated by the traditional estate agents rather than so-called "introducers".

These introducers provide a website where buyers and sellers can find a property they like but are then left to conduct negotiations between themselves.

In the US, these currently have 15% of the market compared with only 2% in the UK.

The OFT wants to free them of the burden and cost of some of the regulations that come because each introducer is currently regarded by law as an estate agent.

They could be free from price negotiations and responsibility for ensuring that the property is described properly in an advert.

However, private buyers and sellers should be aware of the greater risks involved. For example, adverts could mislead a potential buyer about the state of a property, or the neighbourhood it is in, because those running the website would not have a legal responsibility to check that the claims are true.

What was this OFT review about?

The OFT has been studying internet property sites, price competition between agents and consumer protection for the last 12 months in a market study of the housing market in the UK.

Sold signs

The review does not include the rental sector or homes bought and sold overseas.

Its last review in 2004, which only covered England and Wales, found that there was widespread dissatisfaction with estate agents.

In between the two reviews the market has changed significantly.

Prices rose sharply until the credit crunch led property values to plunge throughout 2008 before recovering to some extent at the end of 2009.

And an increasing number of people have considered selling privately, selling at an auction, and using an online estate agent.

Are estate agents regulated?

It is a case of self-regulation - and will continue to be.

At the moment anyone can open up an estate agency without any qualifications or permission from any official body.

They can, though, be banned by the OFT if they subsequently break the laws about describing a property incorrectly, handling a client's money, not declaring an interest in a property, or engage in some other form of dishonesty.

Can I complain if things go wrong?

Yes, all estate agents must be a member of a free ombudsman service that deals with any customer complaints and can order compensation.

Christopher Hamer, a property ombudsman, has found that sales complaints have dropped away in 2009 owing to the state of the market.

However, complaints about lettings have been on the rise as reluctant landlords entered the market.

You can read a guide here about claiming in the lettings sector .

What else can I do to help myself?

Shop around.

The report finds that people who haggled over agents fees paid significantly less than those who do not.

It finds that only 30% of house sellers shop around among estate agents or negotiate on fees.

Those that did so paid 1.4% of the selling price instead of an average 1.8% to their agent. On a £200,000 home, that is a saving of £800.

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