Barry Wallace and his team of co-workers are a brave bunch. Not only have they started up a new business during the worst financial crisis, they are also involved in one of the most criticised professions in the declining property market. But if estate agents are due a serious image makeover, then the bold new venture that is The Good Agent could just about swing it.
At least that's what Wallace, a project manager and IT consultant, believes. He has just set up the agency with Shane Murphy, a propositions management consultant with over five years' experience in bringing fresh ideas and products to business stage.
The rest of the team is made up of professionals from related industries including property valuation adviser Sean Collett, architect David Murphy, and estate agents David Menton (formerly with new homes specialists Hooke & MacDonald) and Ruth McGlynn (formerly with the lettings department at Wyse).
This is a wholly online service – but not one "run by robots", says Wallace, who is keen to stress that that they are fully customer-focused. The key is flexibility, for either those selling or letting a property, to be as involved in the process as much as they wish and therefore make the whole thing more cost-effective. Still on price, the other big difference here is that there is a flat fee, as opposed to the old-style commission-based charge of the more traditional estate agencies. Selling a house worth €600,000 does not involve twice the work of one worth €300,000, says Wallace. "Unlike other agencies, we don't charge high commission rates for an inflexible service. Customers are only charged for the service they use."
With ongoing uncertainty as to what will happen in the property market this year, just how confident is Wallace that this new agency can succeed?
"People have been looking for a change in the estate agency service for some time. During our research, some of the feedback we got about agents was eye- opening and colourful, to say the least. The main complaint was the fee. The pricing model in traditional agencies hasn't changed in decades. Another issue is that people say the estate agent is not always there when they need to speak to them, or that they are forgotten about after they've signed up. They feel isolated. While our service is online, we are there seven days a week, and can hold clients' hands, so to speak, through the entire process."
Although more people now consider dispensing with the services of a traditional estate agent altogether and go it alone, others hoping to sell still want a degree of professional involvement. This new online agency offers three distinct packages. The basic is the self-explanatory DIY, costing €59 and providing all of the advice, support and online tools to enable people to sell, or let, the relevant property themselves. The next package is Show It Yourself, costing €599, in which the agency does all the ground work to get vendors to the viewing and negotiation stage. "We do the photographs, the floor plans, the For Sale sign, the postings on property websites, and then the client takes it from there," says Wallace. The third option is similar to the traditional estate agent service, and costs €849 for letting, or €1,999 for selling (regardless of the value of the property).
What about that tricky business of advising on valuation – often the sticking point between the expectations of the vendor and the realism of the agent? Very often, vendors hire the agent who promises to secure a higher selling price than a rival company. Wallace agrees that prices will decline further this year, but believes those hoping to sell will become more realistic in what price they hope to achieve. As for The Good Agent, it is aiming at a very specific sector.
"We will appeal to people who are fed up with the traditional model of the estate agent and who want to take on some, if not all, of the work themselves. There is definitely a place for the traditional, commission-based agencies, particularly at the higher end of the market. But we are going to focus on the volume end, and for people who want to save money on fees."
As for that name, is this new-look agency hoping to do a PR job on the problematic reputation of the profession generally?
"We wanted the name to be immediately easy to remember, and also easy to type into the browser. But yes, the essence is to challenge the traditional agents, saying we are The Good Agent, and maybe the rest are the not so good. And probably ruffle quite a few feathers along the way."