Home truths: Estate agents' demise is up for negotiation
Should estate agents fear demise by internet? The profession, which employs around 3,000 people in Ireland and which once gleefully embraced the 'net as a route to get more property details to more people, is suddenly worried about its own employment prospects following some recent advancements. The level of concern has streaked upwards in tandem with the sudden growth of online-only auctions here in Ireland, and the various online automated home sales services which are already in use in other countries and winging their way to us in the not too distant future.
The Netflix version of estate agency is coming soon. Instead of appointing an estate agent and paying a fee, you place your house with an online home aggregator which auctions it or places in on a listing site from where a sale can be completed, legal documents and all, minus the middleman.
More than a few seasoned foot soldiers for various well-known estate agencies have voiced concerns to me that their jobs might not exist a few years from now - or even a year from now. They talk about people selling houses to each other online sans the stripy suited one in the middle. Internet-enabled citizen estate agency, if you will.
The internet has already killed or crippled a great many professions through the entrepreneurs, opportunists and wide audience peddling it has enabled. The paid-for arts went first. Musicians, authors, photographers, TV, films, magazines and newspapers. Anything created by a person or persons, and then sold by them, can be copied, stolen, pirated and circulated free or near free online for the financial benefit of the recyclers. You know already, if you have watched the last season of Game of Thrones on a pirate internet site for free, or indeed if you are reading the content of this article on some other website, written by me, but 'aggregated', reposted and with someone else's name stuck on it - and paid for by someone else.
Long ago the theft of created works started with rock bands big or small, who worked for a year or more on writing the music and words for an album, from their hearts and their heads. As soon as the first few copies were sold, it was downloaded, reloaded and offered free online everywhere. The pirates hoovered up nominal charges per item but made a fortune by dealing in bulk by copying and reselling the work, or else flogging ads or links on the sites that gave it away. The band and artists got stuffed. The inability of governments to legislate against global, non-country-based copyright theft means rock bands can only make money now by touring and selling tickets direct to their audiences - releasing albums today is naught but marketing.
The internet has killed authors. There are the book writers whose works are pirated and sold online, through online global giants which are impregnable to complaints about copyright and intellectual ownership. And if you are an author or a music artist, can you really trust a closed organisation to tell you what your sales are?
There's high street retail. Right now, on-street banking, drapery, travel agency, bookshops and so on are following the road of the video shop, towards extinction by internet. Now almost all of mainstream, non-grocery retail is at risk. Grocery is safe for now only because the virtual gloves aren't mainstream yet, to allow us to feel our chickens and bread before buying.
You can click to buy from someone who doesn't have to bear the financial burden of high street rents and front-of-house staff, and get a garment or a flashlight, or a book, or a holiday, or a car, or a job.
If technology news is to be believed then almost certainly anyone who drives a vehicle professionally, for example a taxi, a delivery van or a train, is next, via advances in internet-enabled sat nav technology to allow self-driving transport.
But back to our estate agents. Online has already done away with the need for print brochures, for high street offices with sales windows (although they still like to have them) and most recently for auctions, which through recently established online auction outfits no longer require an attendance salesroom. The next step is placing the sales process in an online negotiable and concludable forum between vendors who only met online. Legal documents and signatures are being enabled online, so it's on the way.
Some estate agents certainly should be worried. The boom brought about the rise of a queue manager type, skilled at wheedling out the best among a 30-party strong Saturday viewfest, zooming in on them and processing a deal as fast as possible. These guys can't sell. And they can't negotiate.
These are the two fundamental skillsets attached to good estate agents which leads me for one to believe that whatever about authors, travel agents and taxi drivers, skilled estate agents will always have a professional future. That they are irreplaceable.
To those who celebrate citizen home sales and read citizen journalism I ask would you go to the citizen dentist or the citizen oncologist? No. So why risk losing money on the sale of your home by selling it yourself and not handing it over to an expert who can sell it better and ultimately make you much more? Employment agencies will tell you that many professionals simply don't see their own skillsets or prioritise them enough. The same may be true of estate agents.
Firstly a good state agent can sell as any good salesman or saleswoman can - by persuading people of the value of the product (your house) and their need for it. But probably even more important is the other name for an estate agent - a negotiator. The tricky role of commercial diplomat. A straw poll of estate agents I did a year ago surprised me. The agents I talked to said that 50pc of their time was spend patching up deals which had been concluded but were in danger of falling apart. Negotiation. You can't aggregate that online.