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.