By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
Do estate agents get a rough deal?
With the housing market slowing down, times are hard for estate agents. But given their reputation - however unfair - will people care?
"Sympathy" and "estate agent" are not words often found in the same sentence.
Characterised as pushy and insincere, the good ones, just like journalists and politicians, are viewed as the exception rather than the rule.
But given the doom and gloom headlines about the housing market, how badly are they suffering?
As they depend so directly on sales, the fall in mortgages does not make happy reading. Between November and February, the monthly figure for mortgages on new homes fell from 80,000 to below 50,000, according to the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML).
It's tough out there, says Peter Bolton King, chief executive of the National Association of Estate Agents, but save your sympathy because it's only the bad ones who are going to the wall.
"Estate agents offering a good service, qualified people who know what they're doing and employ quality people, they always rise above others in this kind of market. The cream rises to the top.
"So far the people closing offices [in the residential sector] and laying off staff, the feeling I'm getting is it's not our members - it's not the older established agents - it's those who set up in the boom period and thought 'Anyone can sell property'.
"I don't have massive sympathy for those who aren't doing a proper job."
Overall it's a mixed picture with some parts of the industry prospering and some not. Lettings are doing well but the corporate sector, which has to answer to the City, has wielded the axe, with big names like Countrywide among those closing offices in this sector.
"A lot of estate agents haven't seen this sort of slower market before, and it will come as a shock to them. But it shouldn't because it means it's a proper negotiating, selling market when you have to know what you're talking about."
He is confident the market could pick up again soon because - unlike in the crash of the early 90s, when interest rates and unemployment were high - there are plenty of people eager to move.
A bleaker picture is painted by Henry Pryor, a former estate agent and housing expert, who says that with sales falling so dramatically, it's a desperate situation for people dependent on commission.
"A lot of estate agents are paid a basic salary and a performance bonus.
"Through no fault of their own, they will not be doing the business they would expect to be and this will have very serious repercussions on relationships and marriages because they may be taking home less money than they need to pay the mortgage, with the obvious irony that entails."
HOW MANY ARE THERE?
It's unlicensed so no set figures
About 35,000, excluding those working in administration
About a third are members of National Association of Estate Agents
Estate agents will be looking at cutting costs in property and in staff, he says. Indeed, his friend who opened a new office in January closed it only last week.
And with banks reluctant to lend money and withdrawing products, even if an estate agent does his job and matches a buyer to a seller, it's still in the lap of the gods whether it goes through, says Mr Pryor, because the buyer may not get a mortgage.
Although some expect this tougher climate to soften the approach of agents, he expects they will actually become even keener to close deals.
"But it's highly unlikely we will change the public perception of the industry just because we should feel sorry for them. That would be a Damascene experience."
And we shouldn't forget the other professions affected, he adds, like removal firms, builders and joiners.
But estate agents are such optimistic people (or great actors), says property blogger Ben Brandt, that you won't find any of them feeling sorry for themselves.
"Nothing seems to bother them or get in their way, and they have this incredibly bullish view of the market which has them bouncing out of bed in the morning, even when Halifax index tells us prices fell 2.5% in a month."
Despite that, he says, it might be time to reassess their reputation because it's unfair.
"You quickly forget what they've done for you when you sign on the dotted line and then you're faced with the huge commission bill."
Make it up to them. If you see an estate agent this week, smile.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
We tried to buy in Hertfordshire, but the agent lied to us about the property and then did not pass information to the sellers (turned out they didn't own their garden and our offer was conditional on this being sorted out - estate agent told us it was being sorted out and didn't tell vendors there was a problem. Tried to buy a property 200 miles away, arranged appointment. Estate agent didn't bother to tell us that buyer had accepted another offer, so we travelled to a house that was already sold. Fortunately we'd also arranged another appointment for the house we ended up buying with another agent. They're not getting much sympathy from me.
Nathan Phillips, Utley, Yorkshire, UK
Having an estate agent on your side is a fantastic asset. Buyers have to understand that in order to get the estate agent working for you you have to also invest in the relationship. They also need your trust and see that you're not just a timewaster. I have an estate agent to thank for looking out for me.
Josh Dhaliwal, Brighton, UK
I have no sympathy for the vast majority of estate agents. Unscrupulous agents are responsible for vastly inflating the cost of housing simply to line their own pockets. Why should I feel pity for them because the bubble they helped to create has burst? Also, I used to have to deal with estate agents regularly in my work for a training company and many were among the most arrogant and unpleasant people I've ever met. That said, some agents are reliable, honest and hardworking - hopefully these agents will be the ones to survive.
Stevie Bee, London, UK
I shed no tears for Estate Agents who are now not getting as much commission. In the same way that self-employed people will put money to the side for leaner times, so should anybody largely relying on commission. They've earned loads of money in the last 15 years: they should have invested it, rather than blowing it on flashy cars, strutting around with ridiculous expensive haircuts and bling "Yeah, it's a real diamond in the earring" (and I'm just talking about the fellas!).
Steve Lockwood, Norwich
No, they are partly to blame for excessive house prices by years of over-valuing. They are now going to reap what they have sown.
We all have to make a living some how, few people leave school and think - I know I'll be an estate agent! It's just one of those things you fall into out of necessity. Estate agents are onto a looser from the off - caught in between buyers that generally lie to drive a good deal and sellers that use them to do their bidding (which is fine that's what they pay for) however ridiculous the demands. It's easy to be a hard unreasonable negotiator through a third party - which is often where the problems begin - and of course the blame is always laid on the estate agent. so....HUG AN AGENT TODAY they need all the love you can give them.
I have no sympathy at all for estate agents. When house prices were rapidly rising they didn't drop their percentage so have been making thousands of pounds more from each sale purely due to a bouyant market. We've just sold our house and the agent took 1.65% for doing barely anything - a complete rip off.
From my experience - five house purchases and four house sales since 2000 - estate agents are an expensive irrelevance. In every move, my wife and I have done the lion's share of the chasing, dealing, and indeed negotiating with our buyers and the people we were purchasing from. We have never engaged the same estate agent twice - what does that tell you? And we have always gone for the "established estate agents" - members of the National Association of Estate Agents. So don't come the old china with us. I know some estate agents socially and as a species they are simply out there to cream off a slice of cash when house buyers and sellers are at their most vulnerable.
Chris E, Southampton
Some sellers resent estate agents because of the commission. But you can negotiate that rate - in any case you should agree up front what service and marketing you are going to get for your money. Or you can try to sell your property yourself, but remember that with an estate agent you gain access to a pool of buyers. Some buyers resent agents because they perceive that the property description has been sexed up. Remember that estate agents work for sellers, not buyers - but there is a property misdescription act that binds agents. Lay off estate agents. As in any profession, there are good and bad and some sharp practices. Do your research and make sure you get a good one. There are lots out there. (I am not an estate agent!)
Nick Goodall, Southampton, UK