I have written about this subject before but it’s becoming ever more important so I make no apologies for writing about it again. Hardly a week goes by now without a negative article in the press about estate agents and landlords. Last weekend, a leading firm had their office besieged by a large crowd of demonstrators complaining about expensive rents. The Labour Party made a Manifesto pledge to consider reintroducing rent controls, a policy that would destroy the buy to let market almost overnight. All the main political parties are united in their desire to bring in a ban on tenancies next year despite all the evidence from Scotland that it will lead to higher rents. And every time a landlord is fined for an offence, no matter how trivial, there is a chorus of voices demanding compulsory licensing for all landlords.
There are negatives stories in the press about other professions too. Doctors, lawyers, black cab drivers, policemen – all come in for their fair share of criticism but there is an important difference. When a doctor or a cab driver or a policeman is criticised, the article invariably includes a quote from the British Medical Association or the Police Federation putting their side of the story, or pointing out that the behaviour in question is very rare. However, when an estate agent is criticised, we just lie down and take it. There is no-one to defend us.
I believe that this is causing tremendous harm to our profession. It is nonsensical for generation rent to protest about the high level of rents by attacking an estate agency office chosen at random. It would be so easy to point out that the fault lies with the government for selling off all the council houses or the planning system for inflating the cost of land by denying planning consent to developers. Occasionally, these arguments are made in the trade press but they never make it to the mainstream media and, as a consequence, the public still blame estate agents for everything and think of us as the scum of the earth.
This attitude is now causing terrible harm to our profession. It deters bright young people from seeking a job in the profession. It damages estate agents’ relationships with their clients and it drives the public to do everything possible to avoid dealing with us. I am quite sure that one of the reasons for the success of the online agents is that they are exploiting the public’s deep distrust of estate agents through clever marketing which ensures that they are seen as a friendlier alternative.
So what is the solution? What is needed is an ongoing PR campaign to show estate agents and letting agents in a more positive light and to explain the benefits of what we do. We need to explain the correlation between an extensive proactive marketing campaign and achieving the best price for a property. We need to point out that the tenant who didn’t pay the rent and then trashed the property was installed in the house by a landlord seeking to save a few hundred pounds in fees rather than by a letting agent. We need to point out that the disgusting and dangerous property in which the tenant nearly died from carbon monoxide poisoning was declined by three professional letting agents before it was let directly to the tenant by the landlord. We need to explain on a regular basis that estate agents do not set asking prices. The market does this and the reason for such high prices is a shortage of building land caused by an archaic planning system. Most importantly of all, we need to ensure that when an estate agent is found guilty of skulduggery, someone points out how rare this is.
The cost of a professionally run PR campaign to make these points would work out to be perhaps £25 per estate agent office per year. The benefits would be enormous but no mechanism exists for us to achieve this. The most obvious body to fund such a campaign would be ARLA/NAEA. But they do not seem to see PR as part of their brief. Perhaps one of the new bodies that claim to be representing the interests of independent estate agents could rise to the challenge. It may even be possible to raise the money necessary through a crowd funding campaign!
Until someone picks up the mantle, I fear that estate agents will continue to take the blame for everyone’s frustrations with our highly imperfect housing market.
Adam Walker is a management consultant, business sales agent and trainer who has worked in the property sector for more than twenty-five years.