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I’ve recently been searching for a new place to live (Contrary to popular belief, Econsultancy staff are occasionally allowed to leave their desks), which means I’ve been spending even more time than usual online, browsing the ‘to let’ ads on property websites.

And getting closer to a brain haemorrhage on an hourly basis.

Estate agents and larger aggregate property sites are ideally placed to exploit the massive uptake in web usage we’ve seen in the last decade, yet their sites are usually among the very worst examples of design and usability you’ll ever encounter, while the offline experience is also disjointed and frustrating.

While it’s clear that the agent can’t always be to blame, larger companies in particular need to get their act together fast as some providers are surging ahead, leaving their less useful competitors in the dust.

As an excuse to go house-hunting during working hours and have a bit of a rant in general, I wanted to run through some of the common mistakes I’ve seen recently.

A quick caveat before I get started:  I do realise that many of these are small, independent businesses who may not have a huge amount of technical knowledge, but if you’re going to invest in a site (and you should) then you need to make sure it’s usable, otherwise you're actively driving away business.

I’d also point out that I’ve been looking at rentals, but all of these points apply to sales as well (if not more so given the larger sums involved).

Site search

unfiltered search

You don’t have to have a borderline useless search feature to be a property website, but it helps.

To be fair, not all of the sites I’ve been using have terrible search features:

RightMove.co.uk has a nice ‘draw-a-search’ option that can help narrow down the options, but a similar feature on Zoopla simply doesn’t work:

There is a ‘view on map’ option but it refuses to let you target by price, instead simply giving you a map with every single property for rent on it, while the zoom insists on switching from map to satellite view if you get too close.

Any site that forces a view change on the user is a pain, but when it comes to finding directions it’s a real annoyance and given that this is a simple Googlemaps plug-in there’s really no excuse. On the other hand, this at least provides accurate locations.

Many sites still default to the ‘centre of the postcode’ address. Which means that every single flat on Gumtree appears to be located directly above the local branch of Tesco Express.

The worst offenders here are single agent sites, which commonly lack a broad postcode search (NW or EC postcode for example) or context for prices.

If I enter a maximum price of £2,000, I need to know if this is per week or per month.

In addition, site search is usually non-existent. Surely plugging in a Google Search bar wouldn’t be too difficult?

Out of date sites

Sites like Zoopla, Nestoria and Findaproperty are big business for agents, and a cheap alternative to running your own site. If you are going to post property there however, it needs to be current.

I’m aware that rentals move quickly, but surely hitting ‘remove’ as part of your workflow wouldn’t be too much to ask?

Leaving expired content on site leads to an incredibly frustrating process for customers and it will also trickle up to the aggregator sites, meaning they are also out of date.

These are your largest traffic drivers, do not make them useless.

This segues perfectly into our next problem:

‘Let Agreed!’

Good for you, you rented something out! So, why is it still on your site?

let-agreed

A quick question. What do you think goes through my head when I see this. Is it:

  • Wow! Look how great these guys are at renting out property! I’ll use them to advertise for sure!
  • Why the hell are these properties still on here, getting in my way and wasting my time when I’m searching? I looked at three of them before I realised they were gone...

If you want to display these to owners who may use your company to let, sell or manage their property then have a clearly labelled ‘For Landlords’ section with ‘Properties we’ve recently let’.

For anyone looking to rent or buy, they are just annoying, the online equivalent of saying “look what you could have won. But didn’t.”

Woeful scams

Ah Craigslist, oh Gumtree. You’re quick and easy to use, so it makes sense for agencies to post new properties, but surely you could afford to have at least one person monitoring spam occasionally?

How about a rule: if someone posts 500 properties with the same picture in a row, they are banned from posting for a while?

Hey, even Reddit manages that much.

And how about keeping an eye on your email? If an immediate auto response over a certain size goes through your system, surely you could stop it?

Scammers are getting more daring as well. Surely you should wait until at least the third time-wasting email before you mention Western union?

Here’s the 14th (yes. FOURTEENTH.) version of an automated spam response I’ve received in the last week. As you can see, this lady is very comfortable. I have no idea what that means...

scam

Confusing layout

Where’s the search? Where’s the phone number?

Why have you built a site Entirely in Flash? Or covered it in GiFs?

Do a little research.

Don’t look at your smaller competitors. See what the biggest companies are doing well and emulate it.

If you can’t afford to create your own page then have one of the larger aggregators power it for you. Nestoria and Zoopla have quick, easy plugins that can power your site and provide a decent layout for you.

Designing a nice looking site that's actually usable doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming.

Communicate

Let’s take an average househunter. We’ll call him... Matt Owen. It has a nice ring to it.

On Wednesday, Matt arranges to leave work early and head clear across the great city of London to view an apartment.

When he arrives he’s told to walk to the building himself. Why invite him to the office in the first place? 

Ten minutes later he’s informed that the flat was rented out that morning. Disappointment is expressed. 

Answer: I’m a busy man; I don’t have time to phone you.

If you’ve arranged a viewing, communicate with the customer.

I've heard "We can’t get hold of the keys"  far too often. Get a spare set cut.

Answer your email. Answer your phone.

And if a property is let, send an automated email and text message to anyone who’d expressed interest or arranged a viewing. Optimise the email to show similar properties. 

Speaking of which...

Inaccurate follow-up emails

Most agents will ask you to supply an email address, and will offer to send you details of suitable properties as they arrive.

In principle this is useful, but in practice these emails are completely untargeted.

If a client has specified a budget of £200p/w, don’t send emails detailing £700p/w properties.

email

What will you gain from this? No-one is going to see an email and think “Well, it’s double my budget but what the hell!”. 

Poor targeting will see your email landing straight in the spam folder.

Lies! All lies! 

XKCD recently put this far more eloquently than I have, but for goodness sake hire a copywriter. If you can’t afford one, at the very least run spellcheck.

Avoid buzzwords, and TELL THE TRUTH.

If it’s a studio say so. If it’s only got a microwave under the bed don’t put ‘charming fitted kitchen’. Is it really a 'cosy, centrally located unique property' or actually a bike locker at King's Cross station?

Again, all you are doing is pissing people off. Pissed-off customers don’t rent or buy property, and they don’t recommend you.

Overall it seems that poor practice is inherent in the realty industry, with agents not trained, not up to date and often not seeming to care about the customer at all.

It says something that I’ve been genuinely surprised on the rare occasion that I’ve met an honest or professional agent in the past month.

This may be a problem of supply and demand, but with websites now allowing you to rent directly from landlords, agents are no longer the only option, and if practices don’t broadly improve across the board (and fast) the industry will suffer going forward.

Matt Owen

Published 19 April, 2011 by Matt Owen

Matt Owen was formerly Head of Social at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or hook up on LinkedIn.

203 more posts from this author

Comments (14)

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Ruben

Excellent advice. We cannot agree more in instances like the benefit of flagging or removing out-of-date rental listings. Obsolete ads leave our visitors frustrated. Here at Nestoria we tend to use freshness as one big factor in our algorithms.

Just one precision, Nestoria do not deal directly with estate agents but large and quality portals like some of the ones mentioned in the article.

Happy home-hunting!

over 5 years ago

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dan

I totally agree with the points made above. I am currently selling my house and have been staggered by the way estate agents ignore the basics of having a website and online marketing.

I even had one estate agent argue with me about the fact that they are on Rightmove so it is not as important to update and market their own website.

over 5 years ago

Matt Owen

Matt Owen, Head of Social at Econsultancy

Thanks for your comments guys, it does seem to be a fairly common problem. Overall it just seems as thought he whole process is very fragmented at the moment, with individual agents taking responsibility (or lack of it) for their own properties. Customers are now used to streamlined online services, so it's very frustrating and does need to improve to match other sectors or risk losing more tenants to private landlords. It seems there is a real lack of transparency and generally recognised standards within the industry at the moment.

over 5 years ago

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Jess

Matt - I could not agree more! I have recently nearly been reduced to tears of frustration trying to use estate agents' websites. I truly feel your pain. Rightmove is the best for my money...

over 5 years ago

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Online Estate Agent

I could not agree more with your comments around having a 'remove' function for properties advertised for letting. I am currently in the process of looking for a flat to rent in West London when i first starting calling agents up over half of the properties were already let, but still advertised as available on Rightmove.

I even called up on agent within hours of the property appearing on Rightmove only to find the property had been let 3 days ago!!! It is very frustrating and perhaps is a tactic used by estate agents to then get your details.

over 5 years ago

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David Sottimano

This article needs to be printed and delivered to every estate agent in London. The problem exists even offline, I can't tell you how many listing in windows I've seen that have been there for months, well after the property is gone.

Great article Matt.

over 5 years ago

Antoine Becaglia

Antoine Becaglia, Digital Strategist at WebPropaganda Ltd

When we looked for new offices premises in Southend - we were equally astonished and frustrated by our online findings!We have done a similar document with a bit more information and we sent it to all the estate agents based in Essex in printed and email format...the worst thing is that some of the culprits think their online marketing is their strong point!

over 5 years ago

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Wedding Photographer

quote: "...while the offline experience is also disjointed and frustrating"...
Amazing that such a large industry can be so ignorant of marketing strategies...

over 5 years ago

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Lara Ocon, Affiliate Marketing Executive at Rank

Brilliant article! When I was looking for a place myself to rent I was so frustrated by all these points you make I ended up staying in my old flat! I have to say though, that there are some websites out there that seem to be making an effort, such as the Notting Hill housing or even the new firststepslondon. Although I would like to see more options in the search box.

over 5 years ago

Matt Owen

Matt Owen, Head of Social at Econsultancy

Many thanks for all your comments everyone -definitely seems to have struck a chord with lots of people. IMO there are companies trying to improve, I realise that smaller companies have time restraints which can affect updates, but a lack of training and cohesion - even between different branches of the same company - definitely seems to be the root of the problem here.
If more agencies don't spend time on upgrading their service policies and perhaps more importantly, being honest with customers, then their businesses will suffer.

over 5 years ago

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Becs Rivett

Great article, I think everyone at some point has this pain. One thing you didn't mention was the shocking photos that estate agents take - side angles, 3 photos of kitchen in the same position. Every agent should have a lesson in photo taking. After all, first impressions count and I'd never look at house if it had really bad photos.

over 5 years ago

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Richard Tuck, Director at turtlehomes.co.uk Online Estate Agents

Good article, we've tried to address many of these issues to the best of our ability with our new website. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on this http://www.turtlehomes.co.uk

almost 2 years ago

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Gediminas Kalinauskas, Director and Graphic Designer at RM9 6EA

Free 2D or 3D Floor Plan

Hi all,

Currently we're offering a one 2D or 3D floor plan. All that is required is for you to send us one floor plan of which we would create a 2D or 3D version. The end result would be the same as the examples in our Floor Plans catalogue.

2D&3D Floor Plans catalogue:
http://media.wix.com/ugd/93f459_f1858d09ebd64804b06ad870b181ff62.pdf

You can reach me at gedi@cfdstudios.info, over the phone on 07401217568 or via Skype - cfd.studios.

over 1 year ago

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NEVILLE CASNELLO, VALUER at OULSNAM LETTINGS

I'm sure your advice is well researched but if you go to www.rightmove.co.uk search for a property, save the search. You are then registered with every agent in your search criteria, every time a new instruction comes to the market, you get an e mail alert the very next day. SIMPLES!!!!

almost 1 year ago

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