How do online estate agents work?
The services offered by online estate agents are, for the most part, quite similar to those offered by traditional high street agents.
An online estate agent will typically value and market your home for you, and arrange property viewings.
Most will also accept and negotiate offers on your behalf, and liaise with your conveyancer as well as other estate agents and buyers until the sale is complete.
But there are a few significant differences to the way online estate agents operate compared with traditional high street agents, especially when it comes to fees, viewings and valuations.
What are online estate agents' fees?
While high street estate agents will usually charge you a percentage of your property’s selling price, online estate agents generally charge fixed fees. This means they are often a lot cheaper.
For example, if you sold a property worth £200,000 using a high street estate agency that charged 1.3% commission, you'd pay £2,600 (including VAT). Online estate agents typically charge a flat fee of between £300 and £1,500 (including VAT), regardless of the value of your property.
The downside of online estate agents' lower prices is that you'll often have to pay up front, regardless of whether they end up selling your home or not. Paying a fixed fee also reduces the agent’s incentive to sell your property for the highest possible price.
However, some companies offer the option to pay a slightly higher fee on completion, reducing the risk of wasting your money.
Some also offer a deferred payment option, where you pay at some point in the future, for example 10 or 12 months down the line. This may involve entering into a credit agreement with the agency, so make sure you fully understand exactly how much you will need to pay and when before signing on the dotted line.
How are property valuations conducted?
Most online estate agents will visit your home to value it, just like a high street agent. You won't necessarily get an agent with specific knowledge of the local market, although an increasing number of online agents do employ 'local experts' for this.
Remember you don't have to use the valuation provided. Ask three firms – high street or online – and go with an average, or whatever you think is the right price based on recent similar examples.
Inviting a variety of agents to value your home will also enable you to more deeply understand the differences between online and high street agents through talking to them.
How are viewings carried out?
The default option with most online agents is that you conduct the viewings yourself.
However, a lot of online agents now offer accompanied viewings for an extra fee of around £300, or as part of a more expensive package than their standard offering.
Some (though not all) online estate agents will vet buyers, typically getting details of names, finances and whether potential buyers are already part of a chain.
We'd recommend asking your agent exactly how this works, as some companies use third parties to do this.
How do I communicate with an online agent?
Although someone will visit to take photographs and create floor plans, all other contact will usually be via email or phone. Some online estate agents will assign you a personal account manager, but you won't normally communicate with them in person.
Many online estate agencies offer online portals where you can access helplines or chat services outside of traditional working hours, with some offering 24/7 support.
Table: online estate agents compared
The table below shows the fees and services offered by the UK’s biggest online estate agents (ordered alphabetically).
in all packages
| || |
|Emoov||£895 (£995 London and inner M25) |
– pay up front (or later with
0% finance option available)
£1,995 – pay on completion
| || |
£495 Standard package –
| || |
|House Simple||£995 - pay on completion|| || |
£849 (£1,199 in London
| || |
| || |
£839 Yopa Bundle
| || |
The table includes online estate agents with 1,000 or more new sales instructions in 2017 according to TwentyCi data research for Which?. Only companies with transparent fee structures have been included.
Packages checked 13 June 2018.
'Premium listings' on property portals are larger and include more pictures. 'Sales progression' will cover the agency liaising between relevant parties once an offer has been accepted and providing you with updates. 'Offer negotiation' covers the agency handling offers made by buyers.
How many people use online estate agents?
At the moment, online estate agents only have a small share of the estate agency market, though this looks likely to grow.
Data obtained for Which? by Twenty Ci shows that online estate agents received 104,807 instructions in 2017, while traditional high street agents had 1,532,700. This means that, in terms of the number of instructions, online estate agents have a 6.8% market share.
However, sellers sometimes list their property with multiple agencies, or terminate their contract with one company and switch to another – so one property may be accounted for multiple times in the total instruction figures.
Also, judging market share by number of instructions isn’t as representative as it would be to look at transactions – data which is unfortunately not yet collated by any UK organisation.
Agents overvaluing properties
As with any estate agent, it’s the job of an online agent to find the best price for your house. However, our research, published in February 2017, has found that estate agents who routinely overvalue properties can potentially leave sellers worse off, having to make big price cuts to sell their home.
Which? looked into the agencies heavily reducing (by more than 5%) property prices in order to sell, as we think that this indicates homes being listed with an inflated initial asking price.
We found this practice was less prevalent among online agents than traditional high street estate agents.
On average, online agents sold properties 38 days faster than traditional agents. Furthermore, where 19% of properties sold by traditional agents were reduced by 5% or more, that figure was 13% for online-only agents.
Purplebricks – by far the largest online-only estate agent – made heavy reductions on the smallest proportion of its properties, while EasyProperty heavily reduced 34% of their properties.
EasyProperty claims that it sells hundreds of new-build properties, the prices of which are set by the developer, rather than themselves. Of the properties that were actually sold on behalf of private individuals, they claim to have reduced far fewer than listed here.
The graph below shows how online estate agents performed in our investigation.
What are my rights when using an online estate agent?
Online estate agents are governed by the same regulations that cover high street estate agents.
As with high street agents, online estate agents must be members of one of three government-approved redress schemes – the Property Ombudsman Limited, Ombudsman Services: Property, or Property Redress Scheme.
However, the Ombudsman Service announced on 6 February 2018 that, from August 2018, it would be withdrawing from handling complaints about the property sector to focus on creating a single housing ombudsman like the ones that operate in the finance and energy sectors.
Your agent has to be clear about which redress scheme they are a member of, and the scheme should be your first port of call if you have a problem.
Trading Standards will also investigate agents that it believes have acted in breach of the 1979 Estate Agent Act, which sets out minimum standards of conduct for estate agents.
Pros and cons of online estate agents
Online estate agents can be a great money-saving option when you're selling your house, but you should be aware of the pros and cons of these services before making a decision.
Pros of using an online estate agent:
- Fees: in most cases, using an online estate agent will be a lot cheaper than using a high street agent. The more expensive your home is, the more you stand to save if they charge a flat fee.
- Convenience: it can sometimes be easier to get hold of online estate agents. Their call centres are open during evenings and weekends, so they are able to deal with queries outside of working hours (although some high street agents offer this, too).
- Flexibility: packages can be tailored to your specific requirements, and you can often track viewings and feedback online (although some high street agents offer this, too).
- Freedom to use multiple agents: generally, there is no contract period, which means you can instruct other estate agents if you wish.
Cons of using an online estate agent
- Lack of local knowledge: even online agents with regional reps could struggle to compete with a high street agent who knows your neighbourhood and its property market inside out.
- Legwork: some online estate agents will negotiate offers for you and act as a middleman to progress your sale to completion, but not all will. Having to manage communications with buyers and solicitors on your own can be time-consuming and stressful.
- Viewings: you usually have to conduct viewings yourself, so you'll need to be comfortable showing strangers around your home and be available during evenings and weekends.
- Paying up front: if you opt for this type of package, you won't be paying on results. In fact, you'll have to pay even if that company doesn't end up selling your house.
- Selling price: because most online estate agents charge a flat fee rather than commission, they have less incentive to get the best price for you. That said, they have reputations to maintain, and many companies claim they usually achieve the desired asking price.
Find out more: to find out more about traditional estate agents, see our guide to high street estate agents
Should I use an online estate agent?
There isn’t a straightforward 'yes' or 'no' answer to whether you should use an online estate agent.
If you think your property will sell relatively easily and would be comfortable showing buyers around your home, then using an online estate agent could present good value.
However, if you’re stretched for time or would prefer more tailored support and advice, you may be better off using a high street agent.
Find out more: read our guide to setting the right asking price for your property
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Correct as of date of publication.