Hard times for home pedlars

Observations on estate agents

Spotting a vague acquaintance across a crowded Tube carriage at 7am can provoke only one reaction. Head down, look engrossed in newspaper. Alas, too late: I was clocked. A girl I had known at university came to sit down opposite me and our eyes met.

"So, what do you do now?" I asked.

"I'm an estate agent, actually."

"Ha ha. No, but really, what do you do?"

"No, really, I'm an estate agent.

When someone tells you they are an estate agent, it instantly arouses suspicion. Why would anyone choose to pursue a profession that explicitly alienates them from most of the population and invites almost universal hatred and ridicule?

The answer lies in the jobs section of any newspaper: "Graduates - earn £90k a year OTE with company car!" Property pedlars are loaded. Who can do without them? Buying or renting property is time-consuming and stressful; selling or letting a house or flat involves legal and marketing know-how. No wonder more than nine in ten property-sellers in 2002 turned to an estate agent.

The average estate agent has never had it so good. World economic conditions and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, have combined to create a sustained period of stability, which has produced a boom in house prices unprecedented in strength and duration. Estate agents, whose earnings from house sales and lettings are calculated on a percentage basis, have benefited from steadily rising house prices over the past decade. Typically, an estate agent will earn 10 per cent of his or her agency's cut on every sale; this is usually between 1.5 and 3.25 per cent of a property's sale value, depending on whether the agency is the owner's sole representative.

But I could not help questioning my newly rekindled acquaintance's timing. This month the IMF warned that "there is a danger that higher interest rates could trigger a large downward adjustment in house prices". The Bank of England has raised interest rates five times since last November, most recently in August. According to the IMF, a dip in the UK's seemingly ever-expanding housing market is not out of the question.

The property website Hometrack re-ported a 0.7 per cent fall in average house prices across London in September, which followed a drop of 0.3 per cent the previous month. In Kensington & Chelsea, Hammersmith & Fulham and Ealing, the drop has been closer to 2 per cent. Perhaps most worryingly, not one London borough experienced an overall rise last month.

This follows a stark warning in May from Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, that "anyone entering or moving within the housing market should consider carefully the future of house prices and interest rates".

Such statements leave property middlemen quaking in their brogues, because they knock public confidence. The number of first-time buyers entering the market so far this year is lower than it has been over the past 20 years.

In March, the Office of Fair Trading released a report, entitled Estate Agency Market in England and Wales. It said a quarter of recent sellers were dissatisfied with the service they had received, citing poor value for money and delays in the sale. It also outlined more serious offences, including the industry-wide fixing of "pricing points", to discourage competition, and failure to pass on offers.

John Vickers, chairman of the OFT, called for "sharper price competition, more effective regulation and higher industry standards".

Estate agents are in trouble. The message from economists that buyers should hold tight is damaging enough; interference by the OFT would surely exacerbate the problem. Maybe the archetypal smug estate agent's days are numbered.