Diary of a house sale: choosing an agent

Moving home is supposed to be one of the most stressful things you do in your lifetime. Moving house at the moment, when buyers have all but dried up and property prices are on the slide, would surely take this stress into the stratosphere - it would be an act of pure lunacy.

However, that's exactly what I'm doing at the moment, and it is teaching me all sorts of things about selling a property in the current market. Over the next few weeks I'll reveal the secrets to beating the system and staying sane. This week, we look at sizing up your agent.

Choosing an estate agent is a complex mix of an entirely rational, sensible process, and random gut feeling. In all there are five things which should help you make your mind up.

1. The offering: as a bare minimum they ought to do great particulars for each property, so ask to see copies of ones they have on file. The photos and the words both count here, and you need to be sure they are doing the best for their sellers in this department. They need a decent web presence, and to be signed up with the big sites. They also need to commit to local publications, so that your property details are being seen by as many people as possible.

2. The presence: You need to strike a balance here. You want an agent with plenty of 'for sale' signs around and loads on the market, so that buyers have a constant visual reminder to visit this particular agent. However, you don't want so many that you'll be jostling for attention. One trick I used was to search the website for properties in your price band. You don't want to be competing with more properties than a person can comfortably see in one day. You are are also looking for an agent with a good high-street presence, rather than tucked away on a side street where no-one will find them.

3. The cost: Agents can charge anything from 1.5% to 3% depending on where you are and the type of agreement you sign with them. In some instances this is negotiable, as some agents will be keen to take on a sellable property. However, again it's essential to strike a balance. Shaving a slice off the cost is a great way to save money, but shave too much off and they'll lose all interest in marketing your property

4. The buyers' experience: Before you get your home valued, it's worth visiting the office, or roping in a couple of friends to do it for you. What kind of service do you get as a buyer? What sort of yarns is your agent spinning to them? Would you buy from them? Because if you're put off, then there's every chance other buyers will be too.

5. The people. You need to be comfortable with the agents. You don't have to love them, but you have to let them into your home and work with them. Depending on how well the selling process goes, you could have months of talking to them about tough things like pricing and service, so you need to find someone who doesn't make your flesh creep.

Some people will say it also depends on the price they quote you, but I tend to differ. You can put the house on the market with any agent for any price. So while you'll struggle to move them a huge distance, and your house will look odd on their books if it's too much more expensive than everything else, generally you can add 10% or so to any valuation without rocking the boat.

The experience in this market
I live in an area where every other shop seems to be an estate agency, so I invited seven agents round. In many respects they were very similar, they charged the same price, they all produced decent particulars and had a good web presence. You're not allowed for sale signs in my borough, so I couldn't compare those, but I did a rigorous search on each of the sites to see what they had in my price range.

The people were a huge mixture, from the terribly nice public school boys and middle class girls, to the older guys who had been around the block a few times and the oily wide boys. They all spun a similar story about my wonderful easily sellable flat, and the hundreds of people they had on their books who would be round on day one. I didn't like or trust a single one of them, but there were a handful I could have a cup of tea with without wanting to cry.

And the deciding factor in the end was really very simple - I picked the agent nearest the station. For those people who are new to the area it's the first one they see, and will pop in long before they realise there's an estate agency every five paces. It's also on the route home for thousands of people renting in the area, who will take a quick look in the window on their way to and from work, and will spot my nice affordable flat.

The next question was how to set the price, and that's where this market proved particularly difficult... but that's another story entirely.

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