‘Why I believe face-to-face agents are better than online’ – by ex-Ombudsman Christopher Hamer

A current major debate in the property world is whether online agents (that is those that only provide a service through electronic channels) will have an impact in the market place.

Looked at objectively, such a new service provision is simply another way for consumers to buy and sell properties.

However, any new concept in the market place should improve or develop what is there so that service to the consumer is enhanced, and the debate is mostly about whether online agents can improve the process of selling property or whether they bring some reduction in service to consumers.

It seems odd to me, given my experience of consumer dissatisfaction over the past nine years, to introduce to the process of selling people’s most valuable asset (with the associated emotion and difficulties that can arise) something which does not give the consumer an advantage over what is already there – and in many ways could bring about disadvantage.

I recently purchased some goods online, paying by credit card.

When the items arrived they were damaged and I had been sent an invoice for the purchase price to be paid within 14 days.

Naturally enough I wanted to complain but was unable to get any sense from or indeed any certain method of contacting the online provider.

The frustration of such poor after-sales service was enormous – and I was only spending around £50!

I cannot help thinking that someone who is selling their house, incurring fees in the thousands and trying to coordinate a move to another property, would be experiencing levels of frustration far beyond mine in a situation where the service provider was a remote function.

Where service provision fails, the consumer wants to speak to someone face to face: after-sales service is key if there is a shortcoming.

But there is a greater danger if the service fails pre-sale and there is no way of easily speaking to a real person.

Under ‘traditional’ estate agency arrangements, if a buyer or seller is unhappy or has a question or concern pre- or post-sale they can simply go to the branch office and express their concerns.

Some people might be culturally aligned with online service – but when selling a house?

It has got to be better for the consumer if there is a real and readily available agent.

A particular message has to be that transparency and full disclosure must always apply.

There has to be a level playing field for both agents and consumers so those key principles of transparency (charges, liabilities and commitments) and disclosure (any material aspects of the contract that might be unusual) are all important.

In my experience from complaints I saw in my time as Ombudsman, consumers do not always understand the agreement that is put in front of them and the liabilities they are taking on.

The ability to question and perhaps negotiate is afforded if the agent is sitting in front of you, not so easy if the agreement simply arrives in your inbox.

The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations require that agents fully equip consumers to make informed decisions. That principle can be better achieved if the consumer is able to challenge what is presented and if conversations are possible face to face.

Consumers need to understand that service levels may differ from agent to agent, but will particularly between the professional in the high street and the remote internet offer.

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  1. inthefield

    At last! Real, well thought out critique of the flavour of the month call centre receptionists.

    Real estate agency is a skilled profession. There is possibly a gap for an online alternative with little service but the public need to understand the difference and the implications of employing such a firm.

    Mr & Mrs Public, you may save thousands but it can cost far more if not handled correctly and sadly you wont know that until its too late.

    1. observer

      If it is such a skilled profession, why are starting salaries as low as £12,000 and require no qualifications?

  2. Woodentop

    Or put another way the process to selling or renting a property involves going from A to B and is better defined as 1 to 2. On-line promote that 1 to 2 is all simple and often that is the service many offer and not prepared to stand up and be counted with offering no sale = no fee as so common with many estate agents. There is no incentive for on-line to act for a customers if they are paid regardless of service and results.


    As we agents all know between 1 and 2 there is 1/64th …….. to 63/64ths increments and this is where estate agents cover the whole spectrum unlike on-line only. Importantly part of the selling process often requires pre-emptive trouble shooting before it gets out of hand. On-line is basically a reactive, pick up the pieces after things go wrong, lack local knowledge and not immediately to hand, just a voice on the other end of the telephone who frankly won’t have a clue in many cases without first hand knowledge. Not a professional service in a professional orientated environment that customers expect.

  3. mrharvey

    Call me teacher’s pet, but I agree with Mr Hamer. I was having a conversation with a couple of “tech-y” friends and they are absolutely adamant that online agency is the next big thing. It seems obvious, but I had to reassure them that buying and selling a house is slightly more complex than doing your Tesco’s shop or buying an iPod from Amazon – and the sense of relief a vendor/buyer gets from dealing with their agent face-to-face is immaterial.


    Go ahead and pay peanuts, but don’t be surprised when you get service from a monkey. It’s a generalisation, sure, but anyone who takes a property transaction seriously should take the serious route; find an agent, talk to them, get to know them, and trust them!!

  4. observer

    I was at a property tech event where somebody from the Property Ombudsman was talking. he was asked a question: “has there been a single complaint about an online agent?” The representative’s answer: “no”.

    Also, how can you ratiolnalise the conclusion that: “I was frustrated with one online provider therefore all online providers must be the same”? That would be like me complaining that the service I received in Poundland was terrible therefore I would never use anything else on the high street.  It is a ridiculous assumption to make that all online services or likewise all high street services are the same.

    Amazon have some of the best customer service anywhere and they are enormous and online. They are responsive, deal with complaints and queries quickly and have a clear complaints procedure.

    1. inthefield

      No, observer, its not the same as Amazon. Amazon are a massive conglomerate who has billions of profit at their disposal which enables them to be able to employ decent, well trained customer service advisors to deal with things properly from a customers point of view. If anything goes wrong at Amazon they are brilliant at repaying and compensating for mistakes, it sort of works as well for them if they do f*** up as it does if they dont. You lot charge up front and not nearly enough to make it financially sustainable to employ the right people to deal with the complaints. If you think that online agents arent getting slated check out the twitter feed of PB for example (as thats the biggest). Its littered with harsh complaints from real people. The reason there havent been that many complaints yet is because the people who are aggrieved are embarrassed that they didnt see it coming for the peanuts they were paying so they keep quiet, kind of “well what did I expect?” type of thing.

      1. observer

        Complaints made to the TPO aren’t publicised to the world are they! They don’t say “Mr Jones from Bolton was such an idiot, he expected a service and didn’t get it”. That’s a terrible excuse. 5% of the market is online agents and yes the service for many has probably been poor but nothing that flies in the face of the TPO standards like some of the things that high street agents do.
        Purple Bricks obviously have terrible customer service but that doesn’t mean every online agent has terrible customer service. Much like some high street estate agents are complete charlatans and that doesn’t mean all estate agents on the high street are charlatans. Likewise there are some good ones out there but that doesn’t mean all of those on the high street are good. If you are paying people £12,000 as a starting salary you aren’t exactly attracting the best candidates.

        The reason that Amazon’s service is so good isn’t because they hire brilliant people. They have brilliant systems in place which allows button pushers to make it look like they have great customer service.

        1. Martin Burgess

          Observer..It’s as fundamental as this: House prices vary from area to area. They vary from street to street, from your home with the spanking kitchen, bathroom and conservatory to the one next door without any extras..

          A local high street agent absolutely knows what is available in his area, absolutely knows the prices of just about everything that is sold on ‘his patch’, regardless it sold through him or not.

          A local agent is tuned to the price variances in his area and will set an asking price based on all his local knowledge, not simply because ‘Zoopla says..’. He will suggest the best asking price he feels he can get, knowing that several other agents will be vying for the same business and..

          A local agent will work hard to sell the properties on his books because he won’t get paid until he does.

          Then, when things get problematic – and they invariably do.. he will be on hand to act as mediator, friend and negotiator to keep the sale together.

          Most sales include chains, a string of buyers and sellers, their solicitors, surveyors and mortgage companies. Its hard enough getting three people to agree their favourite colour is (for instance), aqua blue, let alone all these stressed buyers and sellers dealing with the biggest transactions of their lives..

          So how annoyed would I be to sell my biggest asset, assured I’ve got the best price by an onliner, who has ultimately given me no more than their ‘best guess’, only to discover my neighbour sells theirs for ten grand more – it happens..

          Online has its place, but I would have to be certain I was selling at the best possible price, certain that once they’ve taken my money upfront, that they are going to actively sell my home, not simply place it on the internet, otherwise, any ‘huge saving’ is immaterial, isn’t it..


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