Can you put your trust in estate agents?

Published by Esther Shaw on 14 April 2011.
Last updated on 15 April 2011

William Adams, 69, from East Grinstead, learned about some of the tricks estate agents can pull the hard way. He found himself on the receiving end of an estate agent's sharp practice when he tried to sell a family property in Worthing last year.

"I was granted probate after my cousin died intestate in 2009, so was responsible for handling his estate," says William, a retired businessman. "The property had fallen into disrepair a little, but was still a nice 1930s three-bed detached house in a good street."

Despite this, each of the agents that William contacted tried to undervalue it on the grounds that it wasn't in first-class condition; eventually the property went on the market at £250,000.

However, William soon became aware that all was not right. "I had to insist on the agent revising the literature six times, there were no 'for sale' signs, no internet listing, and despite the agent claiming they had many interested potential buyers, we received just one offer of £250,000."

Things then went from bad to worse after solicitors' details were exchanged, with a reduced offer of £220,000. "My agent had gone behind my back and told the solicitor that I should accept a £30,000 reduction on the verbally agreed offer - well below market value," William says.

In the end, he decided to give up on estate agents completely and sell privately instead.

"I produced my own literature and photos, which went onto sites such as Tepilo and Zoopla, and got private 'for sale' boards in place," he says. "We had more than 20 enquiries within a month, and were able to proceed with a quick sale at the original market value of £250,000."

Tricks of the trade

William is not alone in having problems with finding an agent who can be trusted to value property accurately.

While it's true that making a valuation is not a precise science, as the price depends on several factors including supply and demand and wider economic conditions, it is not uncommon that estate agents will chance their hand by employing one of many tricks of the trade.

"Those estate agents who come in with a high valuation are often trying to bowl you over with their confidence in being able to sell your property," says Mark Desvaux, managing director of private sales portal

"But if you go with the agent who promises £50,000 more than the others, you may find that just two weeks into a three-month contract they tell you that the market has slowed and you need to drop the price."

As William discovered, another trick commonly employed by less scrupulous agents is deliberately under-valuing a property to make it easier to sell. This is particularly prevalent where a property falls on the stamp duty threshold, according to David Dalby, director at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS).

"An agent may undervalue a property at, say, the £250,000 mark, valuing it at £249,999, rather than £255,000, in order to reduce stamp duty," he says.

Desvaux adds: "This means sellers miss out on the true value of their property and the market gets skewed. Also, as agents take on the costs of selling at the outset, they may come in with a very low valuation to secure a speedy sale for their own cashflow reasons."

At the same time, some estate agents have mastered the art of asking seemingly 'innocent' questions to ascertain how desperate you are to sell. "If, for example, they find out you've seen your dream house and need to sell in three to four weeks, they'll base their valuation on this," warns Dalby.

Read: How to negotiate estate agent fees

While some claim most dodgy estate agents have been squeezed out by the downturn, not everyone agrees. One estate agent who has worked for both national chains and independent firms for the past eight years, but who wishes to remain anonymous, says there are still many underhand practices.

"I've known people who have taken backhanders for up to £45,000, agents who have deliberately down-valued, and large chains that have over-valued and tied people into long sales contracts," he says.

Lack of regulation

Given that certain sharp practices are still rife in some areas, just what protection is in place to protect consumers from unprofessional agents?

Unlike most European countries, the UK has never required its estate agents to have any kind of licence, although the National Association of Estate Agents has recently launched the first voluntary licence to regulate the industry, and a 'licenced agency' must now have at least one agent within its branch who is qualified in residential property sales - either through a formal qualification, or through length of service.

Nonetheless, despite this - and the requirement for agents to be signed up with the Property Ombudsman - concerns remain over the lack of regulation.

"Redress to the Ombudsman is the ultimate safety net, but this only happens after the event," says Dalby. "Professional standards in the industry need to be raised and greater transparency is needed."

In the meantime, however, what can you do to check you're not getting taken for a ride?

"You can access house price data by postcode on the internet to see what properties have actually sold for," says David Hollingworth, broker at London & Country. Useful sites include the Land Registry (, and

Armed with this information, you then need to choose an agent. Ask neighbours for recommendations and check 'for sale' signs in the area to see which agents get results. Also try websites, such as, which include customer reviews.

"Get at least three agents to give their opinion, as this will help give a better feel and open your eyes to any disparity in valuations," says Hollingworth.

Ask them also to explain how they arrived at their valuation. "Get each estate agent to justify their price," says Dalby. "Ask for evidence, such as details of similar properties sold in recent weeks."

And as a seller, don't forget you can also seek independent professional advice from a chartered surveyor. "A private survey and valuation will be carried out at arm's length by a chartered surveyor who has no obligation to any party except you," says Sexton.

Finally, if you don't want to use an agent, you could save yourself thousands of pounds by doing the job yourself through a dedicated private sales website such as,, or

But don't forget that going it alone is not all plain sailing, as you will have to do everything yourself, from marketing the property and showing people around to negotiating with potential buyers - as well as ensuring you get the price right.

Information you should never share with your estate agent

• You need to sell quickly
• You have seen the house of your dreams
• You have a price in mind below which you will not go
• You are not in a rush to sell
• You are thinking of moving to another agent

Information you should insist on getting from your estate agent

• Find out how and where it will market the property
• Ask how it arrived at its valuation, and ask to see details of similar properties it's sold recently
• Find out what it will charge. According to the Office of Fair Trading, the average is around 1.6% of the eventual sale price
• Find out how you can get hold of your agent, and how often it will update you
• Check the contract to see how long you are tied in for, and whether you'll be charged withdrawal fees

Leave a comment