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Agents go under hammer
Sunday Times - November 29th 2009

After the boom years, when properties practically sold themselves, harder times have revealed many auctioneers as complacent and inefficient, writes Mark Keenan Ladies and gentleman! Come now! What am I bid for the Irish estate agency sector?
Not so long ago, auctioneering was a highly sought after lot, a career prospect of generous proportion, boasting well appointed salaries, long lunches as standard and a superb view of the boardroom – all housed in a self-contained world of highly polished, old style charm. Now Irish auctioneering finds itself at the end of a very quiet cul-de-sac, adjacent to bankruptcy and, some would argue, fully detached from reality.

Christina Wilson, boss of Wilson Moore Estate Agents, Ireland’s newest estate agency, says of today’s auctioneers “ They’re not hungry, they’re complacent, they’re doing the same old things in the same old ways year after year. Most can’t sell in the sense of what true selling means. They’re asleep”.

Indeed, a picture is beginning to emerge of a once vibrant and resourceful sector widely afflicted by a malaise with common symptoms including complacency, lack of proper sales skills, reluctance to embrace new thinking and failure to maintain client contact. This might be understandable in a business that has fallen from great heights in recent years, particularly given the low level of sales activity, the inactivity of the banks and the high number of time wasters grinding down the efforts of agents on the ground. Wilson won’t accept these arguments. “There are good and bad times and you do your best either way,” she says. And while most estate agencies are closing branches and letting staff go, she is proving the exception.

Having emerged from a long career in sales in the insurance sector, Wilson set up Ireland’s newest estate agency in 2006, the year the market began to turn. The company has since expanded to open two new branches , the latest only last month at Bachelors Walk in Dublin. She claims that her company is in profit and, unlike most estate agencies, will be paying bonuses to staff next month. Wilson is stating openly what many disillusioned punters have believed for some time, that the established estate agency sector is losing its professionalism and its knack while still displaying to customers an unnecessary degree of arrogance that jars with the current mood,. Indeed “arrogance” is a word used by many vendors and buyers alike to describe estate agency personnel, while others cite incompetence.

Two weeks ago Home Ireland published the diaries of Karen Mulvaney and Audrey Casey, buyer’s agents with the property consultancy The Buyer’s Agent, after they were commissioned to acquire a home for a well positioned couple. The couple had €700,000 in cash saved and wished to buy in Dublin.

Their six week diaries spelled out a litany of auctioneering incompetence on both sides of the Liffey. Their calls consistently went unreturned, they encountered overbearing attitudes, details were mixed up, promised viewings were not secured. In one case a receptionist told a caller seeking details of a property the estate agent was selling to “look it up on the internet”.

“In fairness, some estate agents do have sales ability and are highly competent,” say Maulvaney. “ It’s just that staff cutbacks in their branches mean they are chasing their tails all the time. But at the same time, it also never ceases to surprise me how much sheer incompetence there is out there at the moment.”

One vendor we interviewed recently in the Kilkenny area is now selling her home without an estate agent. “I’ve had dealings with estate agents before and found them ineffective, arrogant and rude. I worked for one for a time and the experience shocked me. I didn’t want them selling my house at any cost and I reckon I could do just as good a job myself.”

Fiona Mc Loughlin runs Privateseller.ie, a company that helps vendors sell their homes without agents. Tellingly, her figures show that 65% of her customers have previously been with an estate agent for more than six months.

She says: “I’ve been in this business for a while, so I guess I’ve become immune to the horror stories. But what I’m hearing lately is that the majority of estate agents have zero enthusiasm and no new  ideas. Their staff aren’t incentivised, and after ten years of answering phones and homes selling themselves, they actually don’t know how to sell.

“I phoned an estate agency recently, because I am interested in putting in a bid. Three weeks later and I’ve heard nothing back. I’ll end up knocking on the door and talking to the people who own the house myself. If I do end up buying it, the estate agents will still get their fee even though they will have had absolutely nothing to do with the sale.”
 
She concedes that agents’ time is often taken up with  “tyre kicking” clients with no intention of buying. “They are overstretching themselves. The problem is, they’re ruling out good buyers like me with time wasters.”

For her part, despite having a long and successful record in sales, Wilson says she found it almost impossible to break into the estate agency business in 2004 at the peak of the boom. “It’s still very much a closed shop with the same families appointing their sons, daughters and cousins,” she says. “We know the sons and daughters of great politicians don’t always make good public servants, so why should it be different in an estate agency?

“I sent off CV after CV before finally settling into the Remax franchise, where I actually had to pay them to let me work for them.”

Under the American Remax system, agents are charged a fee to sell under its banner. “Employees” get commission only. The system has allowed many new entrants to the Irish estate agency business – but it has also drawn criticism for the inexperience of some. Within a year Wilson had become the number one ranked Remax sales Person in Ireland and the 13th in the world. After two years with Remax she struck out on her  own and liked up with Richard Moore who, after a year in Remax, had been ranked Irish number two. They then added Patrick Leonard, another previous Remax number one.

Now Wilson Moore actively avoids taking on staff who have worked in the “old world” estate agency sector. “We don’t want people who are tainted by jaded practices; we don’t want to have to retrain them. Te sell in an estate agency today you need to be positive, you need to be positive, you need to listen to the client – which many estate agents don’t actually do.”

Wilson blames the problems in the sector on agents inability to readjust to a changed market. “They genuinely didn’t want the dream to end, and when the market started to turn they just pretended it wasn’t happening. Instead of changing their tactics and moving on they stuck their heads in the sand and told everyone that things were okay.”

To find a time when Irish estate agents last had to “sell” in the true sense of the word, we need to go back to the early 1990s. the hungry juniors who conducted the most sales then are now the bosses. Many have already benefited from huge cash lump sums form the sale of their companies at the height of the boom. “ It’s difficult to get motivated when you’re sitting on a nice fat cushion,” says one commentator.

Meanwhile, the staff who came through during the boom have worked almost completely in a climate where houses sold themselves. Now they’re in an environment where houses are failing to sell, many seem flummoxed.
 

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