Comment: How to survive in the internet age

Even high street estate agents are struggling to pay the rent, with 1 in 5 at risk of going bust

Even high street estate agents are struggling to pay the rent, with 1 in 5 at risk of going bust - Credit: Getty Images

Estate agents and journalists have more in common than you think when it comes to trying to surviving without compromising in the digital era

London’s pie and mash shops are at risk of disappearing completely. The traditional, working-class purveyors of such gastronomic delights as jellied eels and, of course, pies and mashed potatoes, should be granted heritage status say campaigners.

Also making it on to this week’s High Street Endangered List are estate agents, with twenty per cent of them at risk of going under according to a report from accountants Moore Stephens.

Most Londoners would rather eat a jellied eel than admit to feeling sorry for estate agents, but it’s something we should all be concerned about.

Whenever Rightmove churns out another house price index with headline grabbing figures I always pick up the phone to a local agent to see if it matches what they’re seeing on the ground. More often than not, it bears little correlation to the point-something percentages the online portals claim to have been able to measure.

In fact, the proliferation of these online agencies means that it’s becoming increasingly harder to work out what a London property is actually worth. These newer indexes frequently use asking prices when collecting their data, rather than the prices properties actually sold for.

Now, that’s not to absolve some unscrupulous high street agents for their part in talking up prices in the first place. But a good agent who knows their local area will be able to price your property properly. It’s so easy to go online and see how much next door are asking for their home. As such, vendors are pitching their asking prices higher, despite the market conditions.

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2017 has been an upside down year for many, many reasons. But one of the most which-parallel-universe-are-we-in-now trends has been estate agents going on the record again and again to implore people to price sensibly. Overpriced properties sitting on the market for months without selling helps no one.

Online agents are cheaper, often charging a flat fee rather than a percentage of the sale price. But there’s a drop off in quality and customer service, plus reportedly only half of properties listed through online agents such as Purplebricks actually sell – and the fee is non-refundable.

The gig economy will come for all our jobs in the end, but no one wants a freelance estate agent who is less experienced than your average Uber driver. There’s no Sat Nav for selling someone’s house.

The struggle of the high street agent is the same one that the media has been tussling with for a decade. The internet has been both a blessing and a curse.

In some ways it’s rendered print obsolete; why purchase a newspaper when it’s online for free, and faster? Online rises so far and so fast that it cannibalises its host.

We can break stories faster, and present them in increasingly exciting ways. But for every investment in digital longform storytelling there’s a pivot to video and job losses.

The race to get traffic and try to recoup print advertising losses opened the door for the proliferation of ‘churnalism’ and fake news. There’s a constant tension in our increasingly tech-enabled world between being able to reach greater heights and stooping to grimier lows.

In order to adapt high street agents, like journalists, will need to evolve. Extortionate fees now only serve to drive customers onto online peer-to-peer platforms, and might as well be dropped before the government makes good on that ban. Embrace the internet age that loves a quirky angle on a story and a good image. And if someone calls about a property don’t just bung their email on an annoying, inbox-clogging newsletter.

But they should also hold firm to their core values. Unrivalled local knowledge, answering the phone, the contacts to know when a property is about to come on the market before it goes online.

In many ways being a modern day estate agent is much like being a journalist in the internet age. And they’re still paid more.