Going on the market

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So, you’ve chosen you’re estate agent…  what next? This article will help you prepare for the practical stages of getting your home on the market.

Home Information Packs

It is now a legal obligation to have a Home Information Pack (HIP) for every residential home sold in England. The basics of this must be available before a home can be marketed, even if you are selling privately without an estate agent. You will almost certainly need a professional to put the pack together for you – most estate agents and many solicitors can do this, as well as a number of independent companies. The cost of the pack varies, but expect to pay between £200 and £300 for an average home.

One compulsory element of the HIP is the Environmental Performance Certificate (EPC). This involves a qualified inspector looking at such things as your heating system, loft insulation and double glazing, and evaluating both the current condition and potential upgrade of the energy efficiency of your home. Fortunately, the HIP provider will be able to arrange this for you as a part of the deal, but as your home can’t be advertised until it’s done, the sooner you can make the arrangement for the inspection, the better. Getting the HIP is the first thing you have to do, and getting the EPC is the first part of the HIP. 

Creating Property Details

The property details that the agency creates will be the principle source of information for most viewers.  It’s not just those buyers who enquire directly that will be sent a paper copy of the particulars…  almost all automated estate agency systems also send the same information to the internet.   Getting the details right, then, is an important part of marketing your home.

Estate Agents are also under very stringent legal obligations to be accurate in their details, so expect and excuse the amount of time it takes to get things right.

Measuring, Photographing and writing descriptions

The agent will need to measure the property, and to take both internal and external photographs for the marketing brochure.

If you haven’t already, tidy your home for the camera!  You will know at what times of day the front and back of your property gets the sunlight – so make sure you tell the agent.

If there are any special details or characteristics of your home, do tell the agent.  The estate agent may not know that your bath-taps are engraved from sterling silver, or that the kitchen worktop was hand-carved from Dartmoor granite.  If you have guarantees or certificates to show the date and quality of renovations or extensions, have them ready, so that they can be mentioned in the particulars.

All buyers welcome any reassurance of quality.  If a prospective buyer sees two identical Victorian terraces in the same area for the same price, but one has a 10-year guarantee against woodworm and a 20 year guarantee on a recent re-roofing, then guess which one will sell first??!  Guess which one is less likely to make the full asking price?!  So, any information you have about the construction or interior of your home should be giuven to the agent before they write their descriptions.

Make sure you mention, too, all the local facilities and amenities nearby.  The agent will know about some of it…  the general area, the nearest shops, and so on… but it’s possible that there will be some local details that only residents are really aware of.  If there is a neighbourhood watch scheme, or a hidden alleyway for the rubbish bins, or a residents’ only parking bay, or a weekly visit from the mobile library…  any and all of these details and more might persuade the perfect buyer to arrange a viewing.

What should you include with the sale?

This is an often-asked question, and the final answer will vary from house to house.  As a general rule of thumb, if it is built-in, include it from the outset and say so in the details.  Integrated ovens and hobs, or inbuilt bedroom wardrobes, are good examples of things which should be left and should be mentioned.  Carpets should almost always be included – apart from anything else, they won’t necessarily fit a new home, and unless they are extremely expensive will be damaged by removing anyway!

You may consider mentioning other items, too..  but remember that if it’s written into the particulars, then it is legally considered part of the sale.  The likes of blinds and curtains are usually cut or fitted to the dimensions of the windows they serve, but their inclusion in the details makes a commitment to leave them with the house.  Equally, bulky items like freestanding white goods – especially dishwashers and washing machines – don’t always take well to being moved, and it may not be worth having older items moved…  but again, having them listed in the details is a commitment.

It’s generally better, with these kinds of item, to leave them out of the written details, but also to have decided in broad terms what you might leave behind.  This can be very important in negotiation, because of the very strong psychology that affects people in a bargaining situation.

People are very reluctant to give ground unless they feel they are getting something in return.  If you receive an offer for your home which is lower than you are prepared to accept, an outright ‘no’ can sometimes close the door on further talks, especially if the buyer has put forward what they consider to be a genuinely fair amount.

But if you are in a position to add more ‘value’ to the sale – by offering to include all the curtains and blinds, or even the white goods – then it is much easier for the bidder to justify an increased amount of money.  You may only be adding in things you’d have given away anyway, and the increase in bid might be far more than the value of those goods, but in negotiating terms both parties feel that the other side has made a compromise, and that both sides are working towards an agreement.

So, in general terms – if it’s fitted, include it; if it’s not, don’t mention it but be willing to consider using it to make a deal.

The one exception to this would be if you are selling a rental property, or if your home is in an area where investors are the most likely buyers.  Then, if you can leave furniture, consider including it in the details.  Investors are often very happy to buy a home that can be let out straight away.  Even in this situation, though, if you are unsure, leave it out of the written details, but let the agent know that you would consider leaving furnishings for the right buyer, and at the right price.

Do the details make you want to see the house?

The property details are important.  The description of your home should paint a picture and create an emotional response, giving a person who has never seen the inside of your home a real sense that it is a place they might enjoy living…  or at least, that it is somewhere they’d like to find more about.

Agents who overlook this, and who write nothing more than ‘window to front aspect, radiator, tv point’, and really letting their clients down.

Signing off – don’t delay!

Once the agent has created their details, they will send a copy to you for approval.  Read them carefully and check that you are happy with them.  If there are factual errors, correct them.  If there are descriptive points that you feel under-state or miss out the best aspects of your home, then let the agent know, and do so as soon as you can.  The agent will want to be marketing your home as quickly as possible, and may already have begun sending information out, so the earlier you get in touch, the better it will be for you!

Viewing arrangements

This is another important aspect of the marketing that you should discuss with your agent at the outset.

When can viewers come around?  In general terms, the more time that you can make your home available for viewing, the better.  Your perfect buyer might work nights, or have young children, or live a long way from Exeter.  It’s possible they will only be able to visit at times that most people would find inconvenient, or most agents would be reluctant to work.

Who will conduct the viewings?  Any agent that doesn’t offer to accompany every viewing should be ruled out from the start, even if you don’t feel you need accompanied viewings, because it suggests that the agency isn’t willing to work hard enough for you.  Some agents may refuse ‘out of hours’ viewings on principle: this again throws real doubts on their ability to provide a commitment to service in all other areas, too.

If you are in any doubt, get the agent to do all the viewings.  Estate Agents are usually confident and competent at showing strangers around a house.  An agent will be more objective than the owner, and viewers understand this: while the owner might exaggerate features or downplay problems, a good agent will give their best, honest assessment when showing someone around.

This is just good business sense, because if the agent says something that turns out to be misleading or wrong, not only are they stepping close to breaking the law, but they also undermine a future sale should they be ‘found out’…  and, of course, the new buyer is moving into their area, so the agent knows their future reputation is in the hands of the new owners just as mach as the old ones.

If the agent is conducting viewings for you, it’s probably better to be ‘out’.  The viewers will be less inhibited, and might ask more open questions, and stay for longer.  Plus, of course, the more people in the house, the more crowded it will feel.

For second viewings, though, it is a good idea to be available, if the agent thinks it would be of assistance.  By the second viewing, the house-hunter is already showing serious consideration of a property, and they are more likely to have direct questions about living in the house…  utility bills, local taxes, the immediate neighbours, and so on.

Some sellers are occasionally reluctant to give the agent a key.  Don’t be.  Agencies all have systems to ensure that the keys are not obviously related to any given property, and all agencies have insurances in place.  Nothing bad is likely to happen while an agent has your house-key, but even so you should be reassured that the agency’s own policies will add some further protections above and beyond your own insurance policies.

One thing you should clarify, though, is the arrangements by which viewings are confirmed, and especially what the agent should do if they cannot reach you.  Viewings should be confirmed 24 hours in advance or more.  Let the agent know what to do, though, if they try and can’t reach you.  Is a message sufficient?  Should an unconfirmed viewing be cancelled, or should it go ahead??  Address these issues before they arise.  If you can, give the agent permission to go ahead if ever there’s doubt.  Also, it is not unusual for people to call in and ask to view that day.  Be clear, once more, what the agent should do in this situation.

When waiting for viewings to take place, please understand that not everyone is on time… and occasionally, it might be the viewing before your home that is late.  If the agent can let you know that they are running behind, they should, but it’s not always possible if one is showing clients around non-stop.  Alternatively, the people coming to your home might be seeing several different properties, and could linger in any of them (or alternatively reject them from the front doorstep!)  So, consider all viewing times as contingent, because (as with any appointment-based system), a single interruption to the schedule might move everything around a little without notice.

Finally, if a viewing is booked with you, but the person doesn’t show up, please don’t be too hard on the agent!  Sometimes, sort kind of person that doesn’t keep an appointment, is not the kind of person to give the agent advance warning.  Chances are that the agent has waited some time to see if they are coming, and has called to ask if they are still on their way.  This can have a disruptive effect on other viewings later in the day, so it might be that the agent doesn’t have the chance to tell you that the viewing didn’t happen until much later.  It can be frustrating, especially if you’ve cleared up or gone out especially, but it’s not something that the agent should be blamed for: they will be as fed up by ‘no-shows’ as you are!

Viewing feedback

Having people look around your home is one thing: finding out what they think is another altogether.

An estate agency business must regard this as a key part of its role.  It does two things – it identifies issues about the home in question, so that the agent can let the seller know what, if anything, needs changing.  It also updates the agent as to what their buyers are looking for, so bringing them closer to their own market.  Any agency that doesn’t chase feedback after it’s viewings is letting down buyers and sellers alike…  so ask your agent how their company ensures that viewings are followed up!

Most sellers are keen to know what people thought of their homes after each viewing.  The one difficulty that agents have, though, is actually getting the chance to find out.  Following up viewings is vital, but do bear in mind two things: first, that not everyone can be reached at once, and messages often have to be left; and second, that very few viewers that didn’t like a house ever actually return calls to the agent to tell them so.

In theory, events should happen as follows:

  1. Viewing takes place
  2. agent gets feedback from viewer
  3. agent tells seller

In practice, what very often happens is this:

  1. Viewing takes place
  2. agent leaves message with viewer
  3. agent leaves second and third message
  4. no response is effectively a ‘no’ but there’s nothing to tell the seller
  5. seller feels the agent doesn’t keep them informed

Sellers get frustrated, sometimes, if they feel and agent isn’t passing on feedback…  but in practice, it is frequently the case that there is no feedback to pass on, which itself is an indication that the viewer wasn’t interested.  Neither agent nor seller wants a succession of calls saying ‘still nothing to tell you’.

Establish that your agent has a good system in place for taking feedback and passing it on.  But, if you’re sure this is the case, give some leeway to the agent to call you only if and when there is a need to.

 

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When and why agents over-value

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One of the most common – and most harmful – problems that Estate Agents create for their clients is ‘over valuing’ a home.  In other words, the agent assures you they can sell your home for a really high price…. which in practice is higher than anyone is likely to pay.

Why is this harmful?

Because it means your house is on the market for a long time without selling.  Potential buyers might have visited, but they have used your house a the comparison to buy other houses…  they might like your place, but they can get a similar house cheaper elsewhere.

Worse, to find a buyer you’ll have to cut the price…  by which time, many buyers will know your home has been on the market quite a while, and will be suspicious that there’s something wrong with it.

Even worse than that, if buyers realise your home has been on the market for ages, they are much more likely to make a low offer, figuring (rightly!) that you’ll be getting more worried about ever finding a buyer.

So, an over valued house will take much longer to sell, and might well sell for less money, than one that is realistically priced from the beginning.

So Why Do Agents Do It??

The simple reason is – because they are desperate for you to choose their agency.  Many sellers choose the highest valuation…  it’s perfectly understandable, because we’d all like to get as much as possible when we sell!  And if an agent assures you that he or she can get more for your home than the next agent, well, it’s very tempting to believe them!

Add to that, many people will choose the middle valuation from three…   but people rarely choose the LOWEST valuation…  so many agents will tend to be overgenerous, hoping to be in the middle, because they don’t want to be the bottom valuation.

How agent’s commissions make this problem worse!

No estate agents will stay in business for long if they can’t persuade sellers to use them…  so in some respects its understandable that agents are keen to secure an instruction…  but many agencies make the problem worse by paying agents commission for getting instructions, regardless of whether the home sells at that price.

This means that the agent who visits your home has a personal financial incentive for ‘winning the business’, but not for getting the price right.  In other words, there’s a strong reason for the agent you meet to promise a really high price…  it might be persuasive enough to get the instruction and the commission, and it doesn’t matter financially to that agent if you end up selling for much less!

Some agencies even make matters worse still… by offering bonuses to staff members who persuade buyers to cut their price.  For the agency, a cheaper house is easier to sell, and the agency wants to sell things as quickly as possible.  But for the customer…  that’s YOU…  it means an even stronger incentive to win your business by promising a sale price that the agent knows you won’t get, meaning even more commissions when you have to reduce the price later. 

How to avoid agents that over-value

First – do your research!  The section in this magazine on ‘How Agents Value Your Home’ should help you through this.

Second – ask the agent to justify their valuation by showing you their research.  If an agent’s valuation seems high, demand to know what their evidence is for suggesting that their price is achievable.

Third – ask agents to explain EXACTLY how their commission structures work.  Knowing an agent gets commission if you sign up with them doesn’t necessarily mean their opinion is wrong…  but it’s important to know all the factors that might affect what they tell you.

Last – if one agent values much higher than others, ask them to explain what their company does that the other agents’ don’t do..   and then watch out for answers are just hot air.  Most buyers find homes online, so a very strong internet marketing presence will give one agent a real advantage over another. But having lots of ad-space in the local paper makes no difference – what does it matter if an agent takes out 6 pages in colour instead of 1, if your home is just one of 24 houses on each of those pages?  Having two offices in town does help, because it means that an agent will pick up prospective buyers from different suburbs. Fulfords, Bradleys and Underhills are the only companies currently with two offices in Exeter.  But having offices in other towns is totally irrelevant…  as if people buying in Exeter would go to an estate agent in Tavistock to search for property!

Think very carefully if the explanation you get sounds right… of course you want the highest possible price, but over-valuing is not the way to get it!

Summary – avoiding the trap of over-valuation

Don’t be tricked into going with the highest valuation, unless you are absolutely certain it is not an over-valuation.  Understand that all agents are under some pressure to err on the higher side of their opinions, and most agents have commission structures that encourage over-valuing.

Do your own research, so you know roughly how much your home might fetch in the current market.  Demand to see the agent’s own research, and insist they explain and justify their valuation.  Ask them how their own commission works, so you understand their motives.  If an agent does value highest, it doesn’t mean they are wrong…  but ask them to explain why their agency thinks it can get a higher price than the others, and work out whether their ‘reasons’ stand up to scrutiny!

Selling your home is a big decision; the more information you have to begin with, the more likely you are to make the best decisions when it comes to choosing an Estate Agent.

 

What’s is worth?

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The methods by which Estate Agents arrive at a valuation are a combination of research, experience, knowledge of the current market, and intuition.  At very least, you can match the agent on research, and you can find out lots about the current market…  though you will need to use the internet to get the most accurate picture.

The more information you have, the more likely you will be to choose an agent who is being honest, diligent and realistic in their valuation.

Researching Past Sales

It is now extremely easy to find out exactly what the houses near to your have sold for.  You may need to exercise a little local knowledge to know which houses are most like your own, because price information is sorted by street, and of course not all streets contain identical homes.  But the information for all house sales is available online, usually within three months of the sale being completed.

The information is held by the Land Registry.  Their excellent website is at www.landreg.gov.uk.  This site allows you to map out market trends by area, and can be useful in reading the current state of the market.

It’s usually easier to find information about your immediate location via a site like www.nethouseprices.com, or www.ourproperty.co.uk.  You may need to register to use these sites, but generally you can find about the most recent sales in your area just by typing in your postcode.

This is exactly what an estate agent will do.  It gives a pretty good indication of the price range that your kind of property might expect, between a highest and a lowest figure.  Of course, if nothing has sold recently, then the information might be less useful, but if there are a number of sales within the last 3-6 months, you already have a guide range from which to value your home.

Reading the Current Market

House-hunters that might be interested in your home, will also be interested in similar homes that are for sale at the same time.  If you are selling a two-bed home, for instance, try to find out which other two bed homes are currently for sale in your area, and how much they are on the market for.  The most effective research tool is the internet site at www.rightmove.co.uk or http://www.zoopla.co.uk, but any of the internet sites will do. Act like a buyer, and see what else the buyers will be looking at.

Your home will be vying for the attention of buyers against these other, similar properties.  You – and the agent  – should consider what else a buyer can get for their money, before agreeing a marketing price that gives your home a good chance of selling for a high enough value.

How the agent decides a value

Remember, in both cases, the agent’s information will be slightly more up-to-date.  The agent is likely to know about the most recent agreed sales, even if they have not yet gone through to the land registry.  The agent should also know about other recent valuations, or properties about to come on the market.  Even so, the information that you have will give you the same broad price band that the agent has to work with.

Then, the agent will consider where your home fits into that range of possible prices.  If your home needs extensive renovation, the agent will consider its value at the lower end of the scale, subtracting the cost of the works needed, and an intangible amount for the disruption that such works would cause, from the highest achievable price.  If your home is perfect, and has a neutral finish and a minimalist amount of furnishings, then your home may be valued at or even slightly above the ceiling price for your locality.

The agent will also weigh their understanding of market trends – particularly important if prices are falling, because the higher prices of an earlier time may no longer be realistic in a down market.  Finally, the intuition of the agent, based around the many properties that they have seen in their careers, will be added into their consideration.

When the agent advises on price, they should consider both a realistic sale price, and the marketing price likely to achieve that.  Some homes can be priced slightly over the expected sale price, safe in the knowledge that suitable buyers will be attracted, but with room for negotiation.  Do not assume, though, that this is always the best policy.  Pricing high can mean putting off potential buyers from ever viewing.  Sometimes, it is better to fix a lower price, and then to ask for it in full.

Balancing time and money

Even once the agent has offered an opinion as to the value of your home, that is not quite the end of the story.  A significant consideration in the marketing price will be your specific circumstances.  For some people, a quick sale is essential.  For others, there is no rush.  The agent should discuss with you exactly what your priorities are.  If you need to sell as soon as possible, it might be advisable to have a lower asking price, to make sure that your home stands out from the crowd, and sells as fast as possible. As one industry consultant says, your ten pound note might be worth ten pounds, but you aren’t going to sell it to someone else for ten pounds! If you want to sell a tenner very quickly, sell it for nine pounds and you’ll have no end of takers!

If, however, time is of no concern, then you can take the chance of asking for the very highest price the market might bear.  Again, knowing what you are trying to achieve by selling, and communicating that to the agent, is an important factor.

Try to be objective

In some respects, your home is priceless.  You can buy a house, but you can’t buy a home.  Your home is as it is because you want it that way.  It’s full of your stuff, and it is uniquely special to you.  Please, then, don’t be offended by the idea that it is not special to house-hunters, and that the Estate Agent who gives you a valuation has to take this into account.

Remember how strange it can feel staying as a guest in someone else’s house.  The little squeaks and groans of the floorboards, that are so comforting in your own home, seem alien when you are in an unfamiliar place.  Little quirks that you may not even notice – the way you have to lift the handle when opening the lounge door, the dent in the kitchen wall where your kids tried to play indoor cricket, the scratch patch in the carpet where the cat sharpens its claws…  all of these are different in your eyes than when a stranger sees them for the first time.  Your brilliant, hot-pink bathroom might scream ‘redecoration’ at a prospective buyer.

As a general rule, the more personal character you have in your home, the fewer buyers will appreciate it.  When an agent suggests a marketing price for your home, don’t be offended if it is a little lower than something a few doors down that you don’t consider to be as nice.  Of course you think your home is better… that’s why you made it that way.  But the buyer won’t want to live in your home, they will want to make it into their home… and the agent has to see things as a stranger will see them.  It’s very hard to do, but you should try it, too.

Not all agents work to the same policies

There is another consideration at play, and this one is harder to quantify.  Different agents operate to slightly different business models.  Some agencies price things on the low side.  They hope to sell properties quickly, and so turn ‘For Sale’ signs rapidly into ‘Sold’ signs.  The fast turnover and apparent success brings them a fast-flowing income and a lot of new business.

Other agencies tend to price very high.  They win lots of instructions by promising top-dollar prices, so they get lots of signs up around town.  If the sales happen more slowly, and prices have to be reduced to more realistic levels, the agent still benefits from a continuously high profile from all of the boards staying on view for longer.

Such trends may or may not be company policy – it could just come down to the individual experience of specific valuers, even within the same company.  An agent may have found one method to be successful, and may stick with it throughout their careers, without even necessarily realising how their own pattern of success is achieved.

Summary – Valuations and marketing prices

The tools and techniques used by agents are honed by experience, but the raw data they use is available to everyone online. Find out what else is on the market comparable to your home, and know how much other homes nearby have sold for. The more research you do, the better idea you will have of a realistic marketing price. If the agent’s valuations differ from your expectations, ask them to justify the price they suggest, and insist on seeing their research. Remember that your needs and circumstances will influence the marketing price, too. If you need to move quickly, you may need to settle for less money to make your home stand out from the others. Be realistic, and avoid the temptation to go with the highest valuation unless you think it is broadly accurate – your home might be worth that much, but it may also be that the agent is trying to impress you.

Customer Service is King!

 

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This is absolutely and utterly crucial.  It makes no difference how many potential buyers see an advert in the paper, or request details by phone, or click on an internet link, if the agency is poor at following up leads and enquiries.   If buyers’ needs aren’t established, if details aren’t sent, if calls aren’t returned or viewing appointments not made, then all the will in the world won’t sell a house.

There are four questions to consider.  How much information does the agent take from people who enquire about buying property?  How well does the agent follow up each contact?  How does the agent market new properties to its existing database? And how effective is the agent at dealing with its customers?  We’ll consider these questions one by one.

How much information does the agent take?

The agency should find out as much as it can about each and every house hunter to make sure its database of potential buyers is as detailed as possible.  After all, today’s enquiry might be the perfect buyer for tomorrow’s new instruction…  and that instruction might be your home.  The agent must know what buyers are looking for and how to contact them when a suitable home comes on the market.

How well does the agent follow up each contact?

This would seem straightforward: if a new homebuyer calls to register, the agent should match and send them details of suitable properties.  If a potential buyer calls for details of a particular house, they should receive them within a day or two.

If someone wants to arrange a viewing – even if it is on a weekend or an evening because the viewer works late, or is from out of town – then the agent MUST make arrangements for them.  Sometimes, the best buyer is the person who can only view at 7.30pm, or on a Saturday afternoon, or even a Sunday morning.

At very least you should be asking the agent about these things before you put your house on the market with them…  but, fortunately, all of these things are easy to check!  Simply call an agent that you are considering using, and make some enquiries about the homes they have for sale.  Then wait and see what kind of response you get!

How does the agent market new properties to its existing database?

This, again, is a crucial question.  Many homes will sell to someone who has already registered their details with the agent.  Indeed, if an agent sell a home quickly, it usually means they have a great database, and have been running the business effectively for some time.  So it’s important to know how, and how quickly, an agent starts to promote a newly listed home.

Far and away the quickest and most effective method is email.  Emails can be sent to all prospective buyers as soon as the new home has been taken on.  These days, most people in general and house hunters in particular will have email accounts which are checked several times a day.  Even if you don’t use it yourself, remember that nearly everyone else does!

Some properties, in some streets, have a particular appeal and scarcity.  Again, a good agent should know if any of their existing house-hunters – those who have been on viewings recently – might be interested in a new house.  If there are such ‘hot prospects’, then the agency should telephone them.  This is particularly relevant if the agent you are thinking of using has sold a home similar to yours in the recent past.  That agent will, most likely, have a list of people who showed an interest in the first house, that will also be interested in yours.

After email and telephone, a number of agents are using SMS text messaging to alert buyers to new properties.  This can help, but a few words on a text message can’t do too much to sell a house.  It might encourage an enquiry, though, which once again throws the emphasis onto the quality of the agent’s follow-up.

These days, posting out new property details is almost ‘passé’.  Compared to email, printing and posting details takes at least a couple of days longer… in which time, ever-busier house-hunters may well have seen and agreed to buy a different home emailed to them a day or two before.  Of course, some mailing of details is required – to buyers who don’t have email addresses and don’t want SMS text alerts.  But if an agent uses mail-outs as a first choice, then their sellers’ homes are the last ones that buyers will see.

How effective is the agent at dealing with its customers?

This could be said to cover a multitude of issues, all of which point back to an essential customer service ethos within the agency.  Most of all, this demands the flexibility to adapt the agency’s service to the personal needs of each individual customer.

This can include the systems and practices of the agency.  For example, for many people, accompanied viewings conducted by the agent are a pre-requisite… though others prefer to do the viewings themselves, or at least to be ‘in’ when a viewing takes place.  Some agencies open late, or at weekends.  These are ‘systematic’ issues regarding a company’s policies.

Other, ‘softer’ skills may be harder to evaluate.  Will agents conduct viewings out-of-hours when required, or at weekends… particularly if buyers have difficult shift patterns, or are from out of town?  In general, the more time you spend talking to an agent – on the phone, in their office, or on viewings – the more you will get a sense of how much that company actually values its own customers and clients.

Summery -It’s all about service!

Great marketing, a clean office in the middle of town, pretty logos, newspaper adverts… all amount to nothing if the staff aren’t up to the task. In many ways, the staff are the biggest and most important part of a company’s marketing. When you deal with an estate agent, you are not dealing with a corporation, but with an individual sat at a desk. When an email comes in, or the phone rings, it is answered by a human, not by a system or a colour scheme. Customer service drives the success of any agency, so look for it in the manner and attitude of the people you meet and talk to. It will make a difference, both to your experience of selling your home, and to the level of success you are likely to enjoy.

Hunting for house hunters

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– why marketing is the key to choosing the most effective agent.

The job of an estate agent is to sell your home, to the right buyer, for the highest possible price.  That seems straightforward enough…  but the agent’s ability to do that depends upon how many ‘potential’ buyers get to know that your home is for sale.

Imagine, for example, there are ten potential buyers in the market for your kind of home…  but only two of them can afford to pay the asking price.  Will your chosen agent be able to tell every buyer about your home??  Or will they miss a few…  including, perhaps, the buyers able to pay the best price!?

The answer depends entirely upon two things – the advertising and marketing strategy of the Estate Agents, and the quality of the follow-up of enquiries by that Agent.

Different ‘potential’ buyers look for houses in different ways.  A good agent covers as many bases as possible for each home they are selling.  You should know how and where an agent’s advertising works, and how they follow up each enquiry.

This is a broad summary of the principle forms of advertising and marketing.

The Internet

This is far and away the most important part of any agency’s marketing plan.  More than 85% of house hunters use the internet as part of their property search, and it’s estimated that over 70% of buyers find their new home online.  The reasons are straightforward – a house-hunter can specify detailed criteria as to what they are looking for, and can look for houses at any time of the day or night.

A second consideration is that agents who advertise online get lots of email enquiries, and so have an active and ‘live’ database of house-hunters that can be reached by the click of a mouse when another suitable property comes on the market.

There are two basic components of internet marketing.  The first is the agency’s own site.  The second part of online marketing are the ‘Portal’ websites.

The agent’s website

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Every agent worth dealing with has a homepage.  Most of all, this should be simple to use.  Go to the agent’s home page, and see how easy it is to search for property.  If it’s straight-forward, that’s fine.  If it’s a struggle to find how to search… or indeed, a struggle to find the agent’s home page at all…  then you should seriously consider rejecting that agent straight away.  An agent that has a clumsy home page…  or no home page at all…   may miss out on the best buyers.

Property Portal Websites

These are websites that hold many properties from different agents.  Advertising on these sites costs each agency a good deal of money (which is why not all agents are n all sites).  Finding out which sites an agent is on should be a significant consideration in your choice of estate agent.

There are new portal businesses being launched all the time, though there are a few which dominate the market.  These are the most well-known and commonly used sites:

Rightmove.co.uk

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This is far and away the dominant site.  It has, by its own reckoning, 85% of the property portal market, and is the 7th most popular website of any kind in the UK.  It’s success is down to the user’s ability to search by location, price, and minimum number of bedrooms, plus some other criteria.

Your first question to any agent should be, ‘are you on rightmove?’.  If the answer is no, then don’t use them.

Your second question should be, ‘what other sites are you on?’.  Rightmove has, at most, 85% of the market.  So what happens if your ‘best’ buyer is one of that 15% that doesn’t use rightmove??!

zoopla.co.uk

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Zoopla is the UK’s most comprehensive property website, focused on empowering users with the resources they need to make better-informed property decisions. Launched in 2008, Zoopla has since been one of the fastest growing websites in the UK, now attracting over 40 million visits per month and has collected numerous awards and accolades along the way, including being named one of the Top 10 UK Tech Companies (Guardian) and one of the Top 10 Most Innovative UK Companies. It is another well-known website used by estate agencies, future buyers and tenants.

Zoopla grew dramatically when it purchased Findaproperty.com, Primelocation.com and Propertyfinder.com…. the third, fourth and fifth largest portal sites at the time!

One of the more interesting facts is that, while Rightmove is the top site and Zoopla second, and nearly everybody uses one or the other, there aren’t that many buyers who search on both. So, only by advertising on both Rightmove and Zoopla, can an estate agent reach all the buyers in the market

 

 

Primelocation.com

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This site is now also owned by Zoopla, and is the only brand they have decided to keep after buying out their major competitors (see above).  It was founded by a group of independent estate agencies in London, and originally covered expensive properties only within the M25.  It still has market kudos for the upper end of the market, and is still used widely by buyers in the south east, so may be important if you are selling a home worth upwards of £300,000.

All Zoopla properties are advertised here, but its brand origins make it even more important if you are hoping to sell more expensive properties to a wider geographical market.

On the Market

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On the Market is an interesting tale of a good idea that didn’t quite go to plan. Started by a group of estate agents under the name ‘Agents Mutual’, Onthemarket was supposed to challenge the dominance and Rightmove, and therefore to lower costs for estate agents and their clients. In order to do that, they introduced three controversial policies; first, that OTM agencies could only advertise on one other portal; second, that agents were signed up for long periods, often five years; and third, that OTM would advertise properties exclusively for a couple of days before other portals got to see them.

So, what went wrong? Well, for starters, the ‘one other portal’ rule means that Rightmove remains unchallenged, and virtually all OTM agents are also on Rightmove (a very small number chose Zoopla)… so there’s not much point in looking at OTM, because you’ll find those properties elsewhere.

This, in turn, meant many OTM agents found they lost a lot of custom from the site they dropped… but were locked in to those long contracts. Some chose to break the ‘one portal’ rule  – OTM is taking them to court (see OTM Ordered to pay court bond). Others agents have combined to take OTM to court for lost earnings and broken promises (see Rebel agents explain the case against OTM).

The third point of the plan, giving OTM exclusive marketing for a couple of days, actually works against seller, because it means the major portals – and so the majority of buyers – don’t see newly listed homes straight away.

All in all, OTM has been beset by problems, and one can only pity those agents locked in to long contracts with a site that isn’t helping them…. Pity… but avoid!

Other websites

There are a growing number of other websites around, too.  Bubbling under are the relatively new players in town- nestoria.co.uk,  and globerix.com. Some, like ukpropertyshop.co.uk and email4property.co.uk, are used to advertise the agents, rather than the specific properties.  Finally, some agents use known sites like Google, Yellow Pages (yell.com) or the Thompson Local, to advertise their own sites.

Any and all of these sites might be of benefit in bringing in buyers, making sure that your home is seen by everyone who might possibly be interested in it.

The Local Newspaper

In the ‘olden days’ (ten years ago!), this was perhaps the key way that house-hunters would find suitable properties.  But the local paper is a very clumsy form of marketing.

First, it’s reckoned that over 90% of ‘readers’ of the property section AREN’T planning on moving home.  They are just browsing, seeing what’s available.  I know I’ve done it (even before becoming an Estate Agent!), and I’m sure you have too.

Second, there is no real organisation of the properties within the paper.  If you want to look at all the three bedroom houses with a garage, or at all the homes priced between £150,000 and £160,000, or at all the homes near Ladysmith Road School….   Good luck!  You’ll have to browse each and every advert to see what you can find…  with no guarantee that the ads will contain enough information for you to know.

Third, very few of an agent’s properties are actually advertised in any given advert. Many people think agents advertise everything, but in practice a single page advert costs over £400 per week, and may only have space for two dozen properties, when the agent has two hundred up for sale.

In fact, very few buyers actually see the home they buy advertised in the local paper.

This actually raises a very important issue about adverts in the paper, which, perhaps, not all sellers realise.

The adverts that each agent runs are not necessarily about marketing your home directly…  but they ARE about attracting all possible buyers of your home to contact the agency…

In other words, if an agent has four 2-bedroomed terraces for sale, in the same area for around the same price, it isn’t necessary or helpful to advertise them all.  An agent might well just advertise one in the paper.  What is essential, though, is that the agent takes the correct follow-up information, so that any enquiries about that property are also informed about the other, similar homes on the market.

Moreover, if potential buyers call an agency in response to an advert, the agent must find out the kind of property they want and add them to the database.  Then, if another suitable property becomes available, that prospective buyer should be informed immediately!

Sellers tend to over-estimate the importance of the local paper, even if they themselves are using other sources of information to house-hunt.  In practice, as long as the agent is advertising regularly, there is almost nothing much to choose between agents in terms of their newspaper advertising!

The Office and its Shop Front

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This is the second major part of a traditional estate agency business.  Its importance is changing.  Once, it was a principal site of passive ‘advertising’.  The shop front is – literally – a window on the properties available inside.  Even so, the number of buyers who ‘walk in’ to enquire about a house in the window and then end up buying it, is relatively small.

In fact, the principle value of ‘walk-in’ customers is in giving the agent the chance to talk through the house-hunter’s specific requirements.  In this case, the value of the office is dependent entirely upon the quality of the agency staff, and their follow-up marketing.

An office lends credibility to a business, and provides a constant marketing presence on the high street.  More than that, though, it brings the agent in personal contact with the ‘market’… the buyers and sellers in the area.  For agencies that are built around customer service, this contact is an essential part of knowing and understanding the unique needs of each customer.

Other Agency Advertising

There are an infinite number of ways that an estate agency can advertise itself, from the sponsorship of a local rugby team to the buying of advertising space on the back end of a bus!  The important thing to remember, as a home seller, is that buyers are attracted to an agency by this kind of advertising.  As a general rule of thumb, if you start noticing that one or other agency has a high profile, then the potential buyers in town will do so as well.  An agency with a high profile will attract more house-hunters, and so has more chance of attracting the best buyer at the best price.

Sign Boards

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These are invariably a very effective way of advertising your home.  A remarkable number of buyers know where they want to live, and will spend their first days ‘house-hunting’ driving around their preferred streets, looking for suitable homes in the market.  All estate agents use signboards, so this isn’t a means of differentiating between agents.  At the same time, it once more throws the emphasis back onto the agency’s ability to handle and follow up on enquiries.

Sales and Lettings Agents

Few sellers consider this aspect, but it can be a very important deciding factor as to whether your home sells for the best price.  Estate Agencies that run a lettings department have two huge advantages over agencies which don’t.

First, the agency is in direct and regular contact with property investors, whose properties the agency manages.  Whereas most people only buy a single home to live in, property investors and developers may own anything between two and two hundred different homes.

It’s obvious, when you consider it, but the agents who deal with investment buyers through the lettings department will know which investors are after which kind of properties, and will be able to let them know if your home might meet their investment requirements.

The second consideration is that an Estate Agency which has a lettings department will property understand the mechanics of investment properties, and is much better able to discuss the investment potential with that important sector of the market.  Investment buyers ask about rental returns, percentage yields, capital growth, optimum letting times, likely void periods, and so on.  The sales agent might not know all these details personally, but if the agency has a lettings manager, then the company should be able to speak the language of the investment buyer.

Although it is oft overlooked, in practice an Estate Agent with a lettings department is at a considerable advantage over one with no rental properties.

Agency Particulars – What matters and what doesn’t!

Again, every agent will provide property particulars, and these days pretty much every agent presents colour details.  It’s worth looking at, and reading, a few examples from any agency that you are considering.  Most details should include internal photos…  if one or two don’t perhaps the house is in disrepair, but if none have internal shots it’s more likely the agent is cutting corners on print costs.  How well-written are the descriptions?  Do the details highlight the features of each house, and at least encourage people to see for themselves?

Many people will request particulars before they decide to view.  Presumably the property already meets their broad criteria, so the principle purpose of the details is to encourage prospective buyers to go round in person, while being honest about the condition of the house.

It’s worth making sure, though, that the agent is striking the right balance.  Some agents, for example, will describe a downstairs dining room in a family home as ‘bedroom four’, so that the house appears as a four bedroom home instead of a three-bed.  This might encourage more people to view, particularly from internet searches, but unless the house is targeting bedsit buy-to-let investors, then it is more likely to prompt disappointed viewers than to find a good buyer.

At the same time, some agents include floor-plans in standard details.  This can be counter-productive, because often a 2-dimensional floorplan doesn’t properly show how some houses ‘work’ in real life.  Buyers love floorplans, but sellers should be very cautious of using them: a floorplan on a set of particulars is not likely to attract any more people to view, but might well put off one or two potential buyers!

Can you imagine any potential buyer saying, ‘I like the look of this house, but there’s no floorplan so I’m not going to see it?’.  Or are they more likely to say, ‘this house looked interesting, but I can see the floorplan and I don’t like the layout’.  Yet some houses work much better in real life than on paper! Unless your home is ‘deceptively spacious’…  that is, it’s much bigger than you’d guess from the outside…  then it’s often better not to have a floorplan on the details.

Incidentally, this is even more the case for the ‘virtual tours’ that some agents use for details on the internet.  Virtual tour photos are a 360° photograph of ‘fish-eye lens’ appearance that allows online viewers to rotate the image and focus in on certain details.

What they absolutely fail to do is to capture any sense of space, and so they can make even the largest room appear small and claustrophobic.  Virtual tours definitely won’t bring more viewers around than conventional photography, but they might well put off prospective buyers who, in truth, would find the home much more appealing than the squished-up image suggests.

Summary – Why marketing matters, and what matters in marketing

Marketing is the key to actually selling your home. The agency with the best marketing will reach the most prospective buyers, and it follows that they have the greatest chance of getting the best buyer and the best price. Internet advertising is by far the most important aspect of an estate agent’s marketing, and outweighs every other kind of property marketing in terms of effectiveness. Issues like newspaper advertising and the quality of the property details definitely play a role in encouraging buyers, and its good to find an agent that does these things well, but it’s much of smaller significance than the power of the internet. Ultimately, though, marketing only attracts potential buyers to enquire. Achieving a sale still depends on the ability of the agent to provide a good service to the potential buyers that it does reach. Shortlist your top three agents purely on their internet coverage, and then use other considerations to decide which agent you prefer.

The small print

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If you agree to sell your home using the services of an Estate Agent, you will be asked to sign a contract of instruction.  This is a legally binding document, which explains the relationship between you and the agent.  But not all contracts are the same, so this article will give you an insider’s view of what to watch out for…  and what NOT to sign!

What kind of contract is it?

In Estate Agency, there are two kinds of basic contract.  A ‘sole agency’ agreement is straightforward.  It means your agent is the only estate agent authorised to act on your behalf.  The vital thing about this is it does not stop you from advertising or selling your home privately…  because doing so does not mean appointing another estate agent.  So, if your next-door-neighbour sees your ‘for sale’ sign, and knocks on your door because your house would be perfect for the aged mother-in-law, then you won’t owe the agent a penny.  If you know you have someone who may be interested before you appoint an agent, it’s a great idea to tell the agent their name, just in case they call the agent when they see the sign board go up.  Then you may not have to pay if they buy, even if the agent helps things along for you.

Beware, though, of ‘sole selling rights’ agreements.  This means what it says –the Estate Agent is the only one allowed to sell your property, under any circumstances.  If someone approaches you privately and buys your home, even your own brother or sister, the Estate Agent will still be entitled to their fee.  Although Estate Agents are obliged to explain this, in fact the kind of agency that offers a sole selling rights contract is not the kind of agency to point out this crucial difference.

The ONLY justifiable reason for a sole selling rights contract is if an agent is promoting your home in such a way that buyers will approach you directly.  Unless this is the case – and it very rarely is – then on no account sign a sole selling rights agreement.  If an agent offers you a sole selling rights contract, ask them why they think they should be paid even if they have nothing to do with finding a buyer… and then show them the door!

What is the term?

The ‘term’ of a contract – any contract – is the length of time for which it will run.  Because agents don’t charge up-front fees, agency agreements often ask for a commitment of several weeks to sell your home.  Most of an estate agent’s work to find a buyer is done in the first few days: creating details, uploading information to web sites, writing advertisements, and contacting prospective buyers.

If the agent has done their job, and has set a realistic asking price, your best chance of finding a buyer is in the first few weeks, because the agent has their whole database of buyers to target.  After a while, though, all the existing house-hunters have seen the details and had the chance to view, and the agent is hoping for new buyers to come along.

In times past, it was reasonable to give agents a fair chance to do their job, and a minimum contract period was reasonable. Photos on film took time and money to develop. Print costs for details were high. Newspaper adverts were essential. It was expensive to take on a new property, so the agent needed time to try and sell each house. Now, though, digital cameras and cheap, in-house printing means those direct costs are mostly a thing of the past.

There is a very strong argument to say that no agent ought ever to tie clients in to a minimum term. After all, if you’re happy with the service you are getting from the agent, you won’t want to change – so the only reason an agent would tie you to their services is in the event that you are unhappy with them and want to choose a different one! If in doubt, refuse to sign a contract with a minimum tie-in period, and insist that the tie-in is written out of the contract.

Even so, it’s still commonplace for agents to ask for an exclusive tie-in for at least 8 weeks, which is not too onerous. Anything more needs a really good explanation…  if your home is very large or unusual, it may be justifiable to ask for 12 weeks.  But no more.  Agents asking for contracts of 16 or even 24 weeks are saying they have no confidence in their ability to sell at the price they have given you.  If you are locked in, you’ll have little choice but the cut the price if it doesn’t sell quickly.  This gives agents a bad incentive to exaggerate the sale price just to win your business, knowing they can cut that price to a more realistic level later on because you have nowhere else to go. Again, if an agent asks for a contract of over 12 weeks, ask them to close the door on the way out!

Oh, one more tip: find out about the notice period.  Most agents require two weeks notice in writing if you want to end the contract. This is fair enough, because it allows the agent time to chase any leads they might already have established with potential buyers.  Beware of unscrupulous agents who say they can’t accept notice within their initial term.  That’s just not true, and its not ethical…  it makes an 8 week contract into a 10 week contract.  If you are on an 8 week term with a 2 week notice period, you can cancel after 6 weeks and the contract expires after the 8th week.

What is the ‘commissionable event’?

This is the action which means the Agent has fulfilled their part of the deal, and so is entitled to charge a fee.  For most agents, the commissionable event is the exchange of contracts, which is the legal commitment for buyer and seller to go through with the sale.  Some agents, though, will charge a fee for finding a buyer ‘ready, willing and able’ to buy.  In this case, you might receive an unconditional cash offer at the asking price, but decide you have changed your mind and don’t want to sell.  The agent would still be entitled to send you a bill.  There are arguments for both kinds of agreement, but be aware of what you are signing up to.

Joint Agency or Multiple Agency Agreements

Agents work on a ‘no-sale, no fee’ basis, so if you ask several agents to sell your home at the same time, several things will happen.  First, your final fee will go up – possibly even double.  Second, each agent will be less willing to promote your home, because there is a chance that a different agent will find you a better buyer.  Third, the house-hunters will see your home is with several agents, and get the impression that you are desperate to sell.  Multiple listing is almost always a good idea.  The one possible exception is if you can get two – and no more than two – agents to collaborate, perhaps splitting the fee, so that both agents are encouraged to work for a sale.

Changing agents without paying two fees!

It is very unusual to be charged twice, so long as you have given proper notice to the first agent, and have thoroughly checked the terms of each agent’s contract. Ask your original agent to provide the new agent with a list of the introductions the first agent made.  The agency which made the introduction – which now means having ‘introduced the sale’ through the first negotiations, rather than simply showing someone round your house – is entitled to the fee. If a person on the original agent’s list of introductions later buys your home, that first agent probably has a case to send you a bill – even if you want the new agent to look after the sale. It’s probably the best advice to deal with whichever agent actually ‘introduced the sale’, so as to avoid any complications

Do bear in mind, though, that the new agent will have no incentive to sell to the first agent’s introduction, and may even be obstructive.  Be aware, also, that if both agents are involved in the transaction, both might be entitled to a fee. This is particularly true if you have signed a sole selling rights agreement with the second agent…  another reason never to sign that kind of contract!

Things not to do!!

Very few people attempt to ‘get round’ a contract… and it never works.  You could end up in court.  Things not to do:  Don’t try and sell privately to someone the agent has introduced.  The agent will find out, and you’ll owe them the fee.  Don’t think that by not signing any contract, you’ll have a get-out from a fee.  In law, if you behave as if you have appointed the agent – give them keys, allow viewings, etc – it will be considered you have accepted the agreement even without a signature.  Don’t fail to give written notice if you are changing agents, or the first agent will be entitled to continue marketing your home.   Remember that an agreement is a two-sided affair.  The agent is working on trust, and you will get better service from them if you are honest with each other.

Summary – points to remember

Understand clearly, before you begin your valuation meeting with an agent, just how agency contracts can vary.  Sole selling rights contracts should simply not be acceptable.  Neither should contracts that commit you to a long term of instruction.  After all, if you are satisfied that the agent has given a good level of service, you don’t have to change agents even if your home hasn’t sold straight away.

Know when you will become liable for commission, and how much it will be, and make sure that you have no ‘hidden extras’ to pay for.  Avoid instructing lots of different agents, and if you feel you need to instruct two agents, at least make sure they can both work constructively in your best interests at all time.  Remember, too, that you have obligations under the contract, which includes doing things properly, and in writing, if you change agents.

The greater mutual trust you can build with the agent, the more chance you have of a successful and trouble-free sale.

 

Road Testing Estate Agents

 

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You wouldn’t buy a car without a test drive. How much more money is your house worth? Time spend researching estate agents may save you many frustrating weeks being listed with the wrong company.

Be a customer – so you know how well customers are treated

The best way to find out how well an agent might represent your home, is to see how they go about representing other people’s homes.  So try them for size!

If you are considering using an agent, call into their office.  Is it well laid out?  Are the staff well dressed, friendly and courteous?  Does it impress you as a professional operation?  You should start off as a house-hunter…  if you are moving locally you will be…  and see how well the agent treats you as a customer.

There is nothing like visiting the agent’s office – unannounced, before they know you have a house to sell – to see how that agent treats its average walk-in customer.  Call if you can’t visit…  but given how important it is to get it right, make or take the time to go in person if at all possible.

Is the agent ‘on the ball’?

Getting a good feeling about the office is a start – but it’s only a start.  Most important…  is the agent doing a good job for their sellers?

At very least, the agent should take your name, phone number, postal address and email address.  Email is particularly important.  New properties can be sent to interested buyers by email on the very day that they are taken on the market.  Printing and posting details takes much longer, while calling prospective buyers might not be possible immediately because of the amount of time it takes – beside which, most buyers want to see details before they agree to view, so sometimes calling can be even slower!

Imagine two identical homes, taken on the market on the same day.  One agent emails clients immediately, and in response arranges a viewing with the perfect buyer for the next evening.  The second agent prints the details and sends them in the post.  The same perfect buyer receives them in the post the morning after they have viewed the first house, made an offer, and had it accepted.  Even if you don’t yet use email much yourself, very many house-hunters do, so you should be concerned if the agent doesn’t ask for your email address.

The agent should ask, and make notes, about the sort of property you are looking for…  how many bedrooms, which areas you are looking at, how much you can afford, and any other important factors you may have.

If the agent goes through all these things, you can be confident that they won’t miss potential buyers when you ask them to sell your home.  However, if you walk in and out of an agency without being asked for these details, then rule them out straight away.  The perfect buyer for your home might have been in the office that very day…  but the agent won’t know who they are, and won’t be able to tell them about your home.

Does the agent know their stuff…  or admit it when they don’t..!

A good way of road-testing an agent is to ask them about something you already know.  Ask about an area you’re familiar with, or what houses have sold in your road recently, or what’s currently on the market near where you live.  A decent agent might not know these things off by heart, but should be able to find out very quickly…   and an honest agent who doesn’t know will tell you as much, and might suggest you talk with a colleague, or promise to find out for you.  But you’ll know if an agent is bluffing!

Test the agent you’re using!!!

If your home is already on the market, but you’re not sure that the agent is doing a good job, you can road-test your own agent easily enough.  Get a friend to call in, and to tell the agent that they are searching for a property just like yours…   for example, if you are selling a three bed terrace in St Leonards at £200,000, your friend should claim to be after a three bed older style home near to the city for around £200,000.  Either the agent will tell them about your home…  or else the agent just isn’t doing a good job for you.

Before you consider asking an agent for a valuation, or at least before that valuation has taken place, you should find out how well they treat customers, and how well they know their area.  Going into an agent’s office, before they know you are a seller and start trying to impress you, will give you the best idea of whether that agent will do a good job for you.  Asking agents questions about things you already know will test their knowledge and honesty.  Finally, if your home is already on the market, don’t be scared of testing out your agent by using friends to make enquiries to the agent.