How to sell your home: online agent vs estate agent vs private sale
Who you chose and how you sell your home can end up making a big difference to your outcome and experience
During the past four years, I've marketed my property on three separate occasions and bought too, using an online agent, an estate agent and also through a private sale. I'm able to offer my experience of all three and highlight the best and worst of using these different options when it comes to selling your home.
The Online Agent
Back in 2016, I was working from home for four and a half days out of seven. As a family, we'd decided it was time to put our house up for sale and as I was home so much, we looked into marketing the house ourselves using an online agent. Ever a frugal soul, I weighed up the pros and cons of using this method. Obviously, much cheaper. Also, I believed that the days of people searching through the paper or in a shop window for their next home were numbered. Surely, everyone did their searching online these days? I was also tempted by the very good offer of no sale, no fee and as online selling was relatively newish at the time the price was excellent at around £495. As the website is keen to point out, this could be a saving of potentially around £3400.
I settled on eMoov as my weapon of choice. The reviews seemed fairly confident and in much better fare than the purple main competitor. The website was clear and straight-forward and the pricing was little I could argue with. They did offer to take photos and value the house as part of the package but I felt I could handle both these aspects myself. I was always a little sceptical of those super-wide angled shots the agents take and as my house wasn't the largest of properties, I wanted to maintain a level of expected realism. I felt I was also fairly savvy as to the current prices and after discussion with Mr B, we settled on a price a little above our expected asking price. His opinion was that people always go in under offer anyway, so they would feel like they're getting a deal and we would feel like we're not being cheated. Huzzah!
We plumped for May as our golden marketing moment. Spring was in the air. The grass was green and the flowers in bloom. It was warm and the sun was shining. I put together a little marketing blurb as a takeaway ready to hand out for my prospective buyers. I would greet and smile and be the host with the most while the smell of fresh bread and coffee hung in the air. Of course.
I uploaded the information regarding the rooms and opportunities the property presented, entered my preferred times for availability then sat back and waited for the bookings to come in. It's a straight forward process. All the property search websites are used including Rightmove, Zoopla and Primelocation so the potential buyer simply clicks on 'book a viewing' and then a suggested time slot comes up. It's easy to respond and before you know it, you have your first viewing booked.
How to sell your home, from your home
After going through what seemed like a very large amount of viewings and with the benefit of hindsight, I can offer a few pointers before you begin to sell your home yourself.
Go on a recce - or three. Book yourself on to a few viewings of properties that are similar to yours. Watch how the agent conducts the tour and pitches the sale. Make mental notes of elements you like and dislike. This will give you much more confidence when showing others around your home.
Be clean, be tidy. This one may sound as obvious as mud, but remember the buyers are there to see your space not your collection of Warhammer miniatures. They don't care about how many pairs of DMs you have or your DVD collection from 1996. Declutter, tidy and clean. Shut the toilet seat, close the bedroom drawers and tuck the sheets in. In my experience, they won't look inside wardrobes or kitchen cupboards so shove as much stuff away as you possibly can. They will want to see under-the-stairs cupboards so try to keep these looking like they offer room. Remember you are selling a lifestyle!
Don't leave the radio or tv on as 'background noise'. This is a big no-no. You may feel as if you're offering a warm and inviting atmosphere but the opposite is the case: it actually feels intrusive going around someone's home while their personal choice of sound is playing. It's important to keep the viewing objective. The viewers aren't looking around your property as a copy of OK magazine, they are viewing their next potential home.
Offer a little background story to break the ice. "Let me tell you a little bit about my situation". Most viewers want to know what stage you're at in the sale. If there is a chain, if you are keen for quick progression, whether you can afford to take your time. This is your opportunity to tell them what you think they need to know. Be open, polite and friendly. This is also the perfect time to find out about them: are they serious buyers, do they have the funds in place? Your interest in them shows that you value their time.
Showing them around isn't always necessary. Some properties offer little necessity for a guided tour. They are too small for a bundle of adults to walk from room to room, getting in one another's way. It's also worthwhile noting that a fair majority of your viewers will be just that: viewers and not potential buyers at all. This is part and parcel to the game (see point one for example). I would always offer the following: "I understand home buying comes from a personal point of view and in my experience, you usually know within minutes whether the place is the right one for you. Would you like me to show you around, or would you rather take time to view the property yourself? If that's the case, please start upstairs and I'll meet you in the garden/lobby/balcony for questions'. It soon becomes clear who is interested and who is in it for the lolz.
Be clear in your descriptions. So, so, SO MANY people do not take in, process or read the room dimensions before attending. They do not read the blurb you've spent a day elegantly constructing. They will be angry at you for 'misleading them and wasting their time' because of this. It will be your fault they didn't know the bedroom was 3m x 3.2m and not 5m x 8m as they were willing to believe from the photos (this also goes back to the point about using a wide-angle lens).
Don't take it personally! This is your home, of course, you've put your heart and soul into it. But the buyers don't see it that way. They see bricks, windows, peeling paint, broken locks. They see the cracked drive or the ivy creeping its way from next door. They see the carpet they hate the colour of or the kitchen units that they can't wait to change. It makes no difference to them that you spent your mother's inheritance on those granite worktops. Most people will not tell you what's wrong. They silently process it all and then thank you politely and let you know they will be in touch. Some people can't help themselves. Ignore these morons. Part of the online service includes the agents contacting viewers post-visit and obtaining feedback. Use this to your advantage and keep your chin up.
How are your negotiation skills?
I was fortunate in the respect that I managed to secure an offer within two weeks of the house being marketed. The buyer was a single man in his late twenties, looking to relocate from London. He took in one sweep of the house in all of about a minute and a half before saying he'll be in touch and what's the next stage. I then received a phone call, as a regular agent would from eMoov, and an official offer was made. In the meantime, another buyer placed an offer - we were in a bidding war! The agent wasn't particularly helpful - he wasn't unhelpful either. He was exactly what I'd paid for, an agent, in an office, somewhere... being paid probably just above minimum wage to admin his way through my sale. I pretty much had to negotiate the sale myself but I was ok with this. Just bear this in mind as it is a rough end of the stick if you shy from confrontation.
To online or not?
You will need to have time and flexibility to sell your own home.
You will need to put on your most 'like-me' hat every time people come through your door and be presentable and neutral.
Treat each customer as if this is their first-ever home viewing.
Be mindful of people's personal space and how comfortable you can make them feel.
Bear in mind that they will know within a few minutes whether this is the right home for them and avoid 'selling' each room as you go by - it's easy to become caught up in personal tales of how much your Adulcian tiles mean to you.
They will surely ask plenty of questions if they want to know if the fireplace is original or whether your windows were replaced in the last five years.
You will need to be someone who has a certain ability to read people and understand when to talk and when to not.
When it all goes wrong
Unfortunately, our sale fell through two weeks before we were due to move. It was devastating. We were lucky to pick up where we left off and within another week of being back on the market, a further offer had been accepted. However, four weeks in, this was also retracted. And this is why I wouldn't use an online agent again. The issues that both buyers had were to do with the searches of the local area. They pulled up the fact that our house sat in a high flood risk area and the online agents were completely out of their depth with trying to negotiate with our buyers and put their minds at ease. The agents couldn't offer anything to help as they did not know my area and could only act as a go-between. I feel that both of these sales could have been saved if I had been using a local estate agent to act as mediator.
In the end, I pulled the plug on the online agents. I paid nothing, but seemed to have lost a great deal.
The Local Estate Agent
Okay so what's so great about using a local agent? They charge a fat percentage and do very little, right? Well, yes and no. It depends on who you chose to fight your battles. I still believe that the majority of home buying searches are conducted online with people scouring the apps for the latest releases. But...having experienced searching myself, it's the estate agents that can give you a heads up on properties before they're released to market. This means that they get to vet those that are viewers and those that are potential buyers and help sort the wheat from the chaff.
Finding your perfect agent
The first time I employed an agent, I had moved from the area. My failed sales meant that I was forced to become an 'accidental landlord' and rent my property while it was on the market. This had its own set of pitfalls and perils but in my mind, I was sure we would see a fast sale once again so I wasn't selective about my agent. I honestly can't remember why I picked who I did - but I know it wasn't my finest decision. To be fair, I was now living the other end of the country so going through a selection process wasn't the easiest - but it may have helped me in the long run.
Needless to say, this agent did not sell my house. He was not the right person to handle a house sale while it was occupied with a slightly uncooperative tenant. He did not communicate with me, he did not let me know when I had viewings and I only found out about the tenant's reluctant nature through one of his assistants during a chasing phone call. I was still trying to save money and so didn't have a management company for the rental - although I was now getting income from renting the house, neither Mr B or I had jobs due to our recent move. It's simple to find the agent that's going to work for you. Remember you will be paying them around £3k -£4 for handling your sale. It's a lot of money and you need to be in charge.
Have at least three agents over to your house to evaluate
Look at their mannerisms, their turns of phrase - is this a person who you feel comfortable with?
How do they pitch their business to you? Are they open, honest, pushy, too laid back? Do they come across as sincere and believable?
What is their professional approach?
How do they intend to use marketing material? They will likely show you some sample of how they present the information - does this appeal to you?
When will they conduct viewings? Are they flexible over weekends and evenings?
Local reputation - this goes a long way - especially with other house hunters and sellers. Try joining a local community board and sniff out who's best to avoid.
The second time around, we did a lot more research. The one agent we settled on was warm, genuine and open. She didn't babble on about how great she was and how wonderful her company is, instead she told us about how she loved selling houses and how all her staff are long-serving and committed. She told us how the company went through a bit of a rough patch and they were all working hard to build back the reputation they had lost. She introduced her team to us, which we felt was a lovely touch and let us know we could depend on her to get the job done.
What you get from an estate agent that you can't get from an online agent
The answer to this is simple: you get personal assistance. My new agent was great - I didn't just get one agent, I got the whole team. I knew who each member was and their role within the company. When I had a viewing, I would know about it and they would do their best to obtain constructive feedback. They were on hand to offer advice and information and more than once helped out with service people attending the property and maintenance too. They were great at acting as a mediator and helping both me and my buyers negotiate the sale. Yes, the bill was expensive. But, after all the losses (it had taken almost four years in total to sell my house, on and off) I feel that this side of house buying was most definitely worth it. Even though on the face of it, it might appear that estate agents are a dying breed, I think they do actually have a whole heap of experience on all the highs and lows of house buying and when you find a good one, they are invaluable.
The Private Sale
So finally, to the private sale. How does one go about obtaining a house through a private sale? Well, we found ours through word of mouth - a house was likely coming up for sale and we approached the vendors and asked the question. They had already had an evaluation they were happy with and they put this to us as a suggested asking price. We didn't think the offer was fair and came in with something much lower. This was rejected but a counteroffer made. After a little too-ing and fro-ing we settled on a price we were both happy with. It was pretty straight forward and nothing that an agent could have helped us with. We shook hands and the sale was agreed.
Now here is where things come a little unstuck. It seems that without an agent, the inexperienced vendor did not know 'what to do next' and just waited. While I was diligently signing and returning paperwork, securing mortgage offers and conducting the building survey, they were doing...nothing. Not their fault, they didn't know. And I didn't know, that they didn't know. So almost two months went by before their solicitor was instructed to process the sale.
A private sale relies heavily on constant communication between both parties - after all you are now both acting as agents for yourselves. My naivety led me to believe that once I had informed my solicitor of the instruction to buy, they simply contacted the vendor's solicitor using the details I had provided to them and the rest is easy. Of course, if this action was mirrored by the other party, then it would be.
This is not the case and both parties need to be invested in their own journey and to also keep one another informed. If you are not organised, experienced at property purchasing or feel communication is important, then a private sale is not for you.
If both parties are as experienced with house sales as one another, then absolutely, this is a good option. The only people benefitting (financially) from not having an agent are the vendors – these are the people who 'employ' the agents. As buyers, this part of the service is for 'free' anyway. Buyers don't pay for agent services.
Going it alone
If I was to go through a private sale again I would need to know:
How experienced are the other party in the property market? It's a tough ride finding out you are going to be carrying the other side.
Who is the primary person to communicate with? Often a sale involves more than one person and it can become confusing if all, or the least responsive person ends up being in charge of correspondence.
How comfortable you are with sensitive negotiation? This often goes well beyond the initial price agreement. After the building survey, many new issues are brought to light that may not have been known previously. These may need to be renegotiated to help bring the sale price more in line with perceived value. There may be appliances and furniture to remain or be removed. During a highly stressful time such as a property purchase, it's worth considering whether you feel you are able to deal with queries that may appear difficult and awkward without a mediator.
I think I would have felt comfortable bargaining for a better price if an agent was involved. Without someone to bounce 'reasonable queries' off, we were left very much on our own to get on with the sale.
What can go wrong?
There's certainly a lack of professionalism that comes with a private sale and the gel that keeps the two parties connected. If there is a break down in communication, then I can imagine the process can become deeply uncomfortable. Likewise, if you simply do not like one another, it can make for a difficult and awkward exchange.
The solicitors process the sale purely from a legal and financial perspective. The bank want assurance that the property they are purchasing will stand the elements and will be sellable during the course of the mortgage term. They will not help with negotiations.
Aside from the initial hiccup with lack of instruction, the rest of the sale proceeded with ease. My experience was overall fairly positive. However, both Mr B and I are fairly relaxed and forgiving with many areas that others may not be so accommodating with.