'Estate agent' is the British term for what Americans might call a real estate agent or, sometimes incorrectly, a Realtor. An estate agent works on behalf of a seller (or 'vendor') to sell a property. They advertise the properties they have for sale to potential buyers, keeping them informed about new properties coming on to the market. By pairing buyers with sellers in this way, estate agents make a living.

British estate agents traditionally took a percentage (around 1%) of the sale price of the property, paid by the buyer. This percentage fee meant it was always in the estate agent's interest to find the very best offer for the seller. These days it is increasingly common for estate agents work on a fixed fee basis, so the final sale price is no longer as big an issue for them as it once was. Being professionals, of course, this does not deter them from ruthlessly seeking out the highest offer for their clients.

If you ever have any problems with an estate agent, or want to know exactly what your rights as a buyer or seller are, you'll find that the Office of Fair Trading (a UK consumer-rights agency) publishes a guide called 'Using an estate agent to buy or sell your home'. It covers England, Northern Ireland and Wales, and can be found at http://www.oft.gov.uk/Consumer/Your+Rights+When+Shopping/Estate+agent.htm

How to manage an estate agent

Estate agents are not always great at contacting potential buyers immediately after a suitable property comes on the market. Sometimes the buyer has to proactively manage the relationship. It is not unusual for a cheap property (of the kind that first-time buyers look for) to have an offer made and accepted on the same day it comes on to the market. Here are some things you can do to make sure you hear about a property before it's too late.

Don't rely on local property papers to learn about new properties. By the time they have been printed and distributed and you've had a chance to read it, the place you want has gone. Consider telephoning the estate agent a day or two before the property paper usually comes out. This way you might beat the crowd.

Do make a list of estate agents you've contacted, with contact numbers and notes for each. Here you can keep a note of which ones need you to phone them regularly and which are good at contacting you promptly and resent being hassled.

Do respond to estage agents whever they post property details to you. If you're not interested in a place that they thought you would like, tell them why. It helps them suggest more appropriate places in future.

Do ask estate agents to phone you when they mail property details to you. Even withouth a picture, you might like the sound of it enough to book a viewing.

Don't go dead. If you don't respond to an estate agent's mailing or telephone message, they might assume you have lost interest. By the very nature of their work, estate agents are always dealing with people who suddenly stop responding to letters and phone calls. Don't let them assume you've found somewhere else.

The Hot List

There is a strict order in which people find out about new properties on the market.
  1. Estate agents' friends and family
  2. People on the 'Hot List'
  3. People who telephone
  4. People who read the property papers
Short of being a friend or family member of an estate agent, the next best thing you can do is to get on the Hot List. This is a high-priority list for people who are able to move quickly and so deserve to hear about new houses first. Not all estage agents have such a list. Some won't admit to having one until you match their criteria.

Where they exist, the criteria for buyers joining the Hot List are...

  • being able to move quickly from your current home
  • being able to afford the amount you require

Being a first-time buyer, or having accepted an offer on your house for sale, is the first step. To make it on to the Hot List you also need to convince the estate agent that you are financially capable of affording the new house you seek. If you're not paying cash (frankly if you are buying a house for cash you don't any help), you'll normally need a mortgage. Ideally you'll have a mortgage agreed in principal already. If you don't, you may still make it on to the list if you can convince the estate agent you will be accepted by a mortgage company. A good way to convince them of this is to set up a meeting with their in-house mortgage advisor. Even if you think you have already found the best mortgage in the world, it's still worth arranging one of these meetings with a few big estate agents. As well as looking for the best mortgage for you, they will ask deeply personal questions about your financial situation in order to be certain that you really can afford to borrow what you need. This kind of interview is a chance for the estate agent to vet you prior to adding you to their Hot List.

Independent advice

Another note on in-house mortgage advice: look out for 'independent' advice. Every estate agent's in house mortgage service claims to be independent, but very few will reveal how independent they really are. They should provide comparitive quotes from all mortgage lenders. Some will have a preferred lender which pays them a particularly good finders fee. If they are doing a comparison for you, expect to spot this pretty easily. They will obviously be comparing them for you based on either the APR or the cost of monthly payments. They should also be happy to tell you how much of a fee they are paid by each lender.

What estate agents don't mention is that most are tied to a certain company for life and buildings insurance. The question to ask is "will you be recommending the assurance services of a particular financial company?". Two big estate agents in the UK are Enfields and Your Move. Enfields are affiliated with Legal and General, while Your Move use the finiancial services of Norwich Union. To be fair, Your Move do come clean about this relationship straight away, though I found Enfields were very quiet about their links with L&G. This kind of information is very valuable when going for a mortgage interview.

Some companies will actually offer a mortgage quote which is conditional on you taking one particular life insurance and/or buildings insurance policy. This behaviour is both cheeky and underhand. Look out for it.

ascorbic says This is a great list of estate agents' ploys and how to beat them: http://www.observer.co.uk/focus/story/0,6903,750790,00.html
(He's right. This is an excellent resource)

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