Estate agents 'ripping off customers': how to find one who will look out for you


Updated on 13 June 2024

As it's revealed that some estate agents are hiding clauses in the small print that could cost people £1,000s, we show you how to find the right one to sell your home.

Estate agents "manipulating" the offer process

Some estate agents aren't passing offers to sellers when prospective buyers decide not to use additional linked services such as mortgage advice or conveyancing, for which they would receive a fee, it has been revealed.

The problem arises because many estate agents are paid a hefty commission for referring buyers to partner firms that offer services like conveyancing and mortgage broking. 

This can lead to an estate agent not passing on an offer to a seller unless the buyer opts for their in-house services.

James Munro of National Trading Standards said: "We view this practice – known as conditional selling – as unacceptable and are aware that it is a significant problem that can cause considerable financial loss and emotional turmoil to buyers."

He pointed out that the issue often goes unnoticed as offers can be turned down for many reasons, while most prospective buyers believe the process has been honest.

"It is crucial for us that people report any misconduct or manipulation of the offer process," he added.

"We encourage anyone who believes their offer was rejected purely because they chose not to use services recommended by the agent, to report it via Citizens Advice Consumer Service (England and Wales), advice.scot (Scotland) or Consumerline (Northern Ireland)."

The practice could end up costing buyers £100s, while sellers could lose £1,000s due to offers not being passed on.

Why use an estate agent?

The good news is that unscrupulous estate agents are in the minority and a good one can certainly take the hassle out of selling your home.

They will take care of the pictures, draw up the floorplans, organise the marketing, book the viewings, deliver the sales patter, field any offers, and deal with other issues that arise to make a sale.

But with so many to choose from, it’s hard to know where to start and who to go for. 

Build a shortlist

You should try to come up with a shortlist of estate agents to consider.

A good place to start is to ask for recommendations from friends, family, neighbours or even colleagues. They’ll be able to share experiences so you know who to look into and who to avoid.

Also, take a look around your local area for sold signs to see which agents are being used and getting results.

The National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA) website is also handy for finding agents operating in your area, as well as just taking a stroll down your high street.

It’s worth considering local independent agents as well as more well-known national names and if your property is high value or unusual in some way seek out a few specialist agents too.

Do your homework

With your list of potential agents do some initial checks before inviting them round.

It’s a good idea to take a look at their website to see how easy it is to use for buyers, the quality of the descriptions, pictures and floorplans and whether they use video tours.

Also, look into what other portals they use, such as Rightmove or Zoopla, and how well they operate on these platforms.

If you have the time, it’s also worth popping into a branch and pretending to be a buyer to check out how the estate agent presents and markets similar properties to yours.

You’ll be able to experience the quality of the service and check out the sales patter first-hand.

It is worth looking into whether an agent has any estate agency or sales qualifications and whether they're a member of a trade body like the National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA) or the Guild of Property Professionals.

Agents that do have these hallmarks will have to comply with a code of conduct, which should mean they are a cut above the rest when it comes to their service and diligence.

Get a range of valuations

Once you’ve whittled down your list of potential agents it’s time to invite them round to value your property.

Get at least three different agents from your shortlist to value your home and pitch their services.

Valuations are free and will give you an idea of what your home is worth and the information needed to compare the agents properly.

But remember to do your research on market prices to get an idea of what properties like yours are selling for so you can weed out the chancers desperate to sign you up from the honest and fair agents.

Ask the right questions

Quiz the agent about other aspects of their service. Here are some essential questions to throw their way.

How much experience do you have?

You should check how much experience the agent has in marketing and selling similar properties in the area and how long they’ve been established. Ask to see examples of what they have sold recently near you.

How will you market my property?

It’s important to find out how a prospective estate agent plans to market your property to buyers.

Will it just be in the window of their office? Will it appear in a local or national paper? Will it appear online on portals like Rightmove and Zoopla too?

Also are there any additional features they can offer, like creating a video tour of your property? Or doing things like sending out brochures?

Do you use Onthemarket.com?

Assuming the agent does list on online portals it’s also important to ask if they use Onthemarket.com.

This site has been set up by a group of high-street agents to rival the dominance of Rightmove and Zoopla. To that end agents that advertise with them are only allowed to list on one of the rival portals.

This means an agent using Onthemarket.com could potentially halve the exposure of your property. One benefit though is it could give you some leverage to reduce the fee they charge and the terms of your agreement.

What’s your policy on viewings?

You should find out if the estate agent will be present at viewings, whether they do open house style appointments and double-check their policy for carrying out evening and weekend appointments as these are prime viewing times.

What are your fees for sole agency and what is the tie-in period?

Sole agency is where you grant one agent the exclusive right to market and sell your property for a set period.

Commission fees tend to range between 1% and 3% of the final sale price plus VAT and typically will have a tie-in period of four to 12 weeks.

What are your fees for multi-agency?

A multi-agency agreement allows several agents to have a go at selling your property and you pay the one that manages to do it first.

This sort of arrangement will cost more than a sole agency deal with fees ranging from 1.5% to 3.5% of the final sale price plus VAT.

Does the fee cover everything?

You should check whether the fees the agent states cover all marketing and other costs like preparing the property details and For Sale boards.

Consider an online estate agent

You may also want to consider an online estate agent.

Unlike high street estate agents that charge a commission based on the selling price, online estate agents normally charge a fixed fee, making them a lot cheaper.

They value your home based on online data, as well as take care of the marketing and booking viewings. But few will be able to accompany buyers on viewings, meaning you will have to handle the viewings yourself!

There are several online estate agents. Purplebricks and SellMyHome are two of the biggest names. Read The best online estate agents for more.

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Making a decision

Once you have all the information you need you can compare what the agents are offering and try to decide on who to go for. Here are some things to consider.

Sole or multi-agency?

One of the first decisions should be whether you want to sell your home through a sole agent or go down the multi-agency route.

The benefit of going for more than one agency is that your home will be marketed to more people, which in theory will improve your chances of a speedy sale. However, this flexible agreement typically costs more.

One option is to start out with a sole agency and expand to more agencies at the end of their tie-in period if it’s not working out.

Who’s offering the most competitive deal?

Most estate agents will charge a percentage fee as a commission based on the final selling price of your home plus VAT.

The fees will vary depending on whether you go for sole (1%-3%) or multi-agency (1.5% to 3.5%) deal. On a £200,000 sale that means handing over at least £2,000 plus VAT.

Make sure you haggle to get the fee down if you think it is too high but like the agent. It's a good opportunity to test their negotiating skills! Chances are the agent will be keen to sign you up so will be flexible on the fee and vital deal arrangements like tie-in periods.

This won't be the case with an online estate agent. They tend to have the choice of a fixed upfront fee or a fixed fee on completion. You should compare packages to find which makes sense for you.

Many of them will offer a range of packages with the cost increasing as you add extra features.

For example, you can sell for free on Purplebricks and benefit from a valuation report and a listing on popular property portals.

However, you can add digitally enhanced photos, a professional floorplan and expert mortgage advice from around £149.

An all-inclusive package, meanwhile, is available or around £299 that includes hosted viewings. 

Read The best online estate agents for more.

The highest valuation doesn't mean the best agent

When deciding on the agent or agents don’t be seduced by the highest valuation.

Go for the agent that most impressed you overall. If they gave a lower valuation than rivals, you can push it up as ultimately the price your home goes on the market for is up to you.

You should already have an idea of what properties are selling for in your area from your research, so go for the realistic agents.

Agents that start high may have overvalued the property and will likely try to talk you down once they’ve been hired and the property isn’t getting much interest.

Study the contract carefully

Make sure you go over the terms and conditions with a fine tooth comb before signing an agreement with an estate agent.

Don’t be scared to ask about things you don’t understand or aren’t happy with.

Pay particular attention to the tie-in periods on sole-agency deals and look out for hidden fees like marketing (which should be included in the commission fee) or penalties for leaving a tie-in period early.

Steer clear of agreements stating the agent only has to find a ‘ready, willing and able purchaser’ as it means you have to pay an agent for finding a buyer, even if you decide not to sell. Stick to a ‘no sale, no fee’ deal.

Review the commission rate ensuring it’s clear whether or not VAT is included and is what you agreed. Also, check you have not been signed up to any in-house services like conveyancing or surveying without consent.

Review performance

After a few weeks, you should review how your agent or agents have performed.

Think about how many viewings you’ve had, how they went and whether you received any offers.

Ask for feedback if you haven’t had anyone come round to look – or lots of viewings but no offers. They might suggest lowering the price or sprucing up parts of the property to encourage a sale.

How to complain about your agent

If you are unhappy with your experience with your estate agent, you can complain.

The first step is to go through the firm’s complaint process. But if they don’t deal with it to your satisfaction you can go through their redress scheme.

Since 2008, all estate agents have been required to register with an accredited Estate Agents Redress Scheme like The Property Ombudsman or Property Redress Scheme.

They will consider your complaint and will be able to decide on your case.

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