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Estate Agents, Bless ‘Em

The Internet has changed ancient protocols of commerce in hundreds, perhaps thousands of industries, and it changes more by the week.   Even I, a stickler for old-fashioned habits and courtesies – and no dab hand at technology, I might add – now gaily surf the net in search of opportunities to buy or to sell, or merely to understand. 

But trying to sell a house, and simultaneously buy one, as I’m now attempting to do, has me perplexed.  It still involves all the time-worn and time-consuming, not to mention expensive, procedures that Charles Dickens probably employed when he sold Bob Cratchit’s house and bought one from Miss Havisham.

The Internet has been an invaluable tool as a search engine.  But if I identify a house I might want to buy, I still have to use the services of an estate agent. 

Why?  What exactly are estate agents for in these days of the Internet?  And if there’s no ready answer to that question – and I’m sure there isn’t – then why are so many still in business?  And why do they still command the same hefty commissions they charged in an earlier age?

In pre-Internet days, agents served a useful purpose, as much as it pained the rest of us to admit it, as they offered the only medium of communication for finding a house.  I should say media, because in any particular area there might be dozens of agents, each one jealously guarding its exclusive listings in the fierce competition for business. 

It was a process that made little sense before the Internet, and it makes no sense at all now.  It was, and remains, a methodology devised entirely for the convenience of the agents, and correspondingly for the inconvenience of the clients, sellers and buyers alike.

Most of us have cottoned on to this.  So have the agents, of course, but naturally they don’t want to change a system that has put them in their own over-priced, detached, half-timbered mansions and behind the wheel of the latest souped-up models produced by BMW or Mercedes Benz.

All the houses I’ve considered potentially interesting I found on web sites that amalgamate and sort the offerings of local agents.  Finding a property is like shopping on-line.  The agents don’t have to call me, I call them.  Actually some of them do call me, but more often than not long after I’ve already identified the house myself. 

Of course, I still need an agent to arrange a visit.  That’s when they really earn their keep, isn’t it.  Well, you be the judge from the following experience.

Off we went, this morning, my wife and I, to be met at the property by our assigned guide.  I’m not going to pick on her, as she’s a charming, pretty thing, young enough to be my great grand-daughter.  And she’s only typical of her kind: charming, slightly dense, and more often female than male, presumably because women deliver a softer pitch that will refute the industry’s sharp-suited image. 

There are other reasons, most of them unworthy.  Some of these ladies are not agents at all; they’ve been hired not to sell but merely to show.  Their talents end with inserting the key in the front door.  And they’re not all young.  Some are women of a certain age who need something to do after their kids have flown the nest.  Best of all, from their employer’s point of view, and regardless of age, they don’t have to be paid very much.

“This is the kitchen,” one feckless young lady points out, as if my wife and I are incapable in our dotage of recognizing that a smallish room filled with white appliances might be the place where cooking goes on.  “And this is the garden,” she later insists on interjecting, presumably in case I’d failed to notice that we’d entered a room without walls or ceiling and with trees growing in it.  

“How old is the house?” I ask.  “I’m not sure,” is the inevitable response.  “It should tell you in the brochure.”  Obviously she hasn’t actually bothered to read her own sales literature, for which shiny production the owner has probably paid a fortune.  “Is it listed?” I persist hopefully.  “I don’t think so, but I’m not sure.  The brochure doesn’t say it is.”

Bless her, I find myself musing; it must be better than working on the supermarket check-out counter.

When I complete the sale of my own house I’ll owe the selling agent – whose blushes I’ll spare by not mentioning the name – more money than a busy plumber or electrician can earn in a year – these days a considerable figure. And I’m not talking about plumbers and electricians from Latvia.

I wouldn’t mind so much if the prospective buyer of my house, who lives in Asia, hadn’t found it on the Internet, rendering the agent entirely incidental to the transaction.    

But I suppose going on about estate agents is no more useful than whingeing about the behaviour – or salaries – of footballers.  Like the poor, but on the other end of the earnings scale, they’ll always be with us.

Surely, though, someone with more imagination then I’m able to muster can come up with a better system.  I’m just wondering, but it’s coming – and as far as I’m concerned, the sooner the better.

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