Whether you're buying a new family home, looking for a room to rent for a few months, or selling up before a retirement, dipping into the property market can be a stressful undertaking - particularly when there is no shortage of ruthless estate agents waiting to prey on the inexperience of young buyers and novice sellers. Has the growing online industry made things any easier?
Let's start with the obvious: it's much cheaper if you're a seller. Instead of taking a cut of your final takings, online agencies charge a fixed fee - usually in the region of around £500 - which also means you can budget what your sale will cost you in advance. Some agencies are even prepared to wait until you clinch the sale before invoicing you for any charge.
In theory, the comission-based system favoured by high street estate agents is one that incentivises companies to push through the most lucrative deal for their clients - which can be rewarding for the seller, but makes it difficult for buyers, particularly those taking their first step on the property ladder. It also tends to drive up prices for the market as a whole.
Online agencies pride themselves on how quickly they are able to close a deal, too. Landlords who advertise through online services are probably looking for a signed contract as soon as possible - perhaps someone has pulled out at the last minute, or they're hoping for a quick windfall to ease cashflow problems - and this can work to your advantage if you're looking to save on rent.
There is, of course, an element of risk attached: more cautious tenants often like to meet their prospective landlord face-to-face, and have the chance to run the rule over their new home (the last thing you want is a faulty boiler and a non-plussed repairman). But for a young student pulling together a deposit from the threadbare remains of their tuition loan, it's probably a leap of faith you can afford (or rather, not afford) to make.
More than half of the buyers don't buy the house they initially enquire about. They buy a house offered to them by the estate agent. So it is important how good the estate agent is so that he/she offers the most appropriate house to the family.
A word of warning: make sure you read the small-print. While online agencies tend to have modest flat fees, they might end up surprising you with additional charges for things like photographs of your home, advertising space on their website, the for sale sign outside your house, and so forth.
You're still making significant savings on the all-inclusive commission charge demanded by the high street firms which put a premium on a spot in their shop window, but it's something to bear in mind when working out your budget.
It's also often in your interest to get a valuation from another source before you commit to the figure quoted by an online agency. The expertise of a seasoned estate agent can be useful even if you are planning to make the final sale online.
Billed as a 24/7 estate agent, Purplebricks is the UK's most popular online service and - with free no obligation valuations and round-the-clock phone support - is perfect for those new to the property game.
Due to its celebrity links - Channel 4's Sarah Beeny is the face behind the site - Tepilo has been highly publicised, but the prices are still very competitive (albeit slightly misleading - you can expect plenty of add-ons on top of the £495 flat fee).
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