Becoming an Estate Agent in the 1980s
I first worked as an estate agent in Brighton and Hove back in the 1980s. I was about to get married, full of energy, and brimming with passion and confidence. Estate Agency at that time was fast paced and exciting. The market was booming and our office, an independent agency, was achieving about six sales a week. We kept our customer details on index cards, not computers, and I prided myself on matching up buyers and sellers with a truly personal service. I especially loved taking my clients on viewings, sometimes sealing the deal right there in the living room. It was only a year after the disappearance of the young estate agent Suzy Lamplugh, yet we had very little training in personal safety. Thankfully all my experiences were positive.
I loved my job, but it wasn’t all roses. I was shocked by some of the touting techniques I was taught, for example calling private property advertisers and pretending to be a buyer (this is still a thing). I was taught how to to segue into admitting, later in the call, that the buyer was not myself, but a client. The goal was to achieve a valuation, without ever letting the seller find out that there was no buyer lined up at all, and that the whole story was a fabrication. I found that I had quite a talent for this technique, but I’m a totally honest person, and I did everything I could to avoid making those calls. I didn’t want to work like that. My manager was frustrated by my refusal to cooperate, and started to pass me by when he was selecting staff to take out on valuations. I began to feel that although I loved estate agency, I needed to work for a different firm.
Soon after my wedding, I got pregnant. Far from being understanding, I was taken aback when the female director gave me an ultimatum: I could work part time or leave. I told her that I intended to stay on full time until the baby was due, and come back after maternity leave, but she held her ground. I could have fought for my rights, but it was clear to me that I was being deliberately pushed out. I decided that I couldn't stay where I was not wanted.
From Estate Agency to Publishing
I was unable to find another job in estate agency quickly enough, so I signed up with an employment agency and accepted a temporary contract at Citicorp, before leaving to have my baby son. Family life took over for a few years, and I worked part time from home until 1996, when a friend and I started a successful publishing company. As our enterprise grew, we began franchising. At its peak we had 40 franchisees working with us.
Our publishing business was all-consuming, and I never returned to estate agency, but I retained my interest in property. I was gratified when many years later one of my sons became an estate agent. He told me, “Now I know why you loved it so much!” Although I was working in archives and local history by then, I still found ways to include property in my work. I particularly loved researching the history of houses and the people who lived in them. I even included a module on house history when I took a postgraduate diploma in Local and Family History.
Dreaming of a Canalside Property
But why did I end up specialising in canalside property? I have loved canals and narrowboats ever since I went on a visit to the Netherlands when I was 6, and a boat trip on the Regent’s Canal when I was 11 years old.
In 2018, when we were considering selling my third narrowboat, Smok, I started to look quite seriously at the possibility of living beside a canal. I soon discovered that there was no easy way to find a canalside home for sale. The only specialist website, Canal Cuttings, had closed in about 2017.
I spent more and more time browsing the property portals searching for my dream property, until I became quite addicted to it. Eventually I put this fascination right at the heart of my life, by starting a canalside property website to share my discoveries. I spent over two years running the website as a hobby.
At this time I was also finishing off writing some local history books and helping my husband to edit and publish his canal themed murder mysteries. Stuck at home during the pandemic, I added a Facebook group, vegetable gardening, and home schooling to my ever-growing list of time-consuming commitments.
Drained and overstretched
I felt drained and overstretched. I questioned why I was spending so much time working for so little reward. The only answer which made any sense to me was that at 59 years old, I was quite simply past it. My confidence had plummeted to an all time low. I knew that it was time to act, before I lost the ‘real’ me forever. I had to choose whether to give up the website and get a job, or commit myself to turning my canalside property time-waster into a proper paying business. When I told my publishing friend what I was thinking of doing, her immediate response was, “Oooo gosh, that has always been on the cards!”
Planning my Estate Agency
Launching an independent estate agency at the age of 59 was not a decision I took lightly. Starting an estate agency is never an easy undertaking. There is a great deal to learn and organise. My friends and family were surprised to hear that an estate agent doesn't have to be trained or qualified, but that doesn’t mean that they are unskilled or unregulated. There are many hoops to jump through before you can launch your business. I had to find resources and social and business networks to learn from, and find ways to avoid feeling isolated and losing impetus and confidence.
It was particularly challenging to plan my new business during the Covid pandemic. I wasn’t able to meet up with my usual sounding boards – my friends and family. My husband Mike was endlessly glued to his screen with Teams meetings and overtime; my youngest son (the only one still living at home) needed plenty of support with home schooling, especially as it was his GCSE year. A huge shout out to anyone else reading this who launched, grew, or ran a business from home during the pandemic. You rock, and I’m in awe of you all!
The first big question – whether to join a group
My first thought was to go it alone, but I recognised that by joining an estate agency group or franchise I would benefit from in-house systems, support and training, and they would give me access to the notoriously expensive property portals like Rightmove at more affordable prices. I investigated a number of groups, but amost without exception they were based on geographic territories, and couldn’t accommodate my business, which would cover the whole canal network in England and Wales.
Only two groups stood out: eXp and Century 21, both excellent in their own way. Adam Day from eXp and Chris Summers from Century 21 (now at Beaux Villages) were both extraordinarily helpful to me, and I can recommend both groups to any estate agents looking to strike out on their own. Initially I chose Century 21. Days before signing the contract that would change my life, it still frightened me, but I knew it was worth taking the risk. I was standing on the edge of a precipice, hoping that when I finally got started, everything would fall into place!
I was a whisker away from signing up, when my husband and I sat down together one weekend, ran all the figures, and came to the conclusion that it was worth the risk for me to go down the independent route. It would mean that my learning curve would be far steeper, and our outgoings would be considerably higher, but I would be able to develop my own brand, avoid any restraints on marketing, especially in territories occupied by other group members, follow my own path, and of course, keep the net profits from my commission rather than sharing a large chunk with my parent group.
The second big question – software
All estate agents use some sort of database and CRM (customer relationship manager) to manage their business. It was particularly important for me to choose the right one as a sole trader. Property technology (known in the trade as PropTech) is a huge industry with lots of players in it, from veteran providers, to new companies trying to break into the market. I needed my software to work hard, to be my back office, undertake routine automated tasks, and free me up to run the personal aspects of the business. I assessed about twenty different systems, and even signed up with one, but cancelled my account when it didn’t live up to my expectations. Finally I settled on my favourite, Rex, which was newly arrived in Britain, but well established in Australia. I was sure that it was just what I needed to make sure that I could offer a slick and professional service to both buyers and sellers. I worked my way through Rex’s extensive training programme, which they quite rightly call ‘Rex University’.
Details, details, details
The list of tasks, both formal and fun, was seemingly endless. Every decision had an impact on other aspects of my plans. For example, my website was in a constant state of flux because there were different requirements, depending on whether I was joining a group or going it alone, and depending on which software I was planning to use.
A major challenge was getting to grips with the regulatory framework. This involved joining the Property Redress Scheme (I'm now with The Property Ombudsman instead as it's an eXp requirement), registering with the Information Commissioner’s Office (for data processing), arranging specialist insurance, complying with Anti Money Laundering legislation by registering with HMRC, and developing appropriate protocols and management systems.
I applied to join the property portals, worked with my talented stepdaughter Rebekah to develop my branding, chose artists to work with on my brochures. I designed my own ‘For Sale’ boards, and finalised some of the services I’d be using. I also bought photography and video equipment and worked on developing my practical skills. I watched numerous training videos and webinars, and took copious notes. I mastered 360 degree online tours, and studied video filming and editing. It was a steep learning curve, and not always straightforward.
I opened my doors, virtually speaking, on April 1st 2021, and by my 60th birthday in May I was really busy, with three properties on my books. My first instructions were Crofton Lock House, a delightful lock keeper’s cottage on the Kennet and Avon Canal, Kings Lock Cottage, a delightful tearoom in Aylestone, and Dunsley Rock Cottage, an amazing property in Kinver. I had over 400 people on my mailing list, and over 4000 people to look after on my social media accounts. Within a few weeks I'd managed to achieve offers over the asking price for two of my properties.
It was a lot of hard work, and not all plain sailing, but immensely rewarding. And I'd done it all without being dishonest or pushy!
My first month in business was also focussed on building some valuable business to business relationships with solicitors, mortgage brokers, surveyors, and with my property stylist, Michela at Emotihome (sadly she has recently returned to Italy).
Of course I can’t leave this topic without mentioning my most important partnership – the one with my lovely husband Mike. My path in life would be considerably rockier without his unswerving support.
As a one-woman business, I rely heavily on mass communication to ensure that I keep as many people as possible in the loop. When I first started out, I expected to be able to speak to every buyer on my register regularly on the phone, at every step of their journey, but as my register of buyers filled to overflowing, I soon realised that it wouldn’t be possible. I tried to narrow my focus to serious and proceedable buyers, but I was constantly sidetracked by dreamers. They are lovely. I adore talking to them and helping them to turn their dreams into realistic strategies, but there are so many of them, and it was making my business model impractical.
I always do my level best to be a good communicator, but I'm the first to admit that I don't always succeed. Once or twice in the early days of my business I found myself apologising for posting updates on my social media accounts or in my newsletters before I had managed to communicate them to potential buyers in person. On one occasion when a property went under offer, I was berated by very unhappy applicant. He had not made an offer, and he could not have matched the favourable offer which the vendor accepted, otherwise of course I would have called him first! The resulting email exchange was a bit upsetting. You may know that I have Aspergers, and I struggle a lot with guilt and self image, and tend to take criticism personally. I was therefore doubly grateful to my social media followers who sent me lovely messages of support and congratulations. It meant a great deal to know that they had my back!
I continue to make tough decisions about how to prioritize my time in order to provide the best possible service and outcome for my clients - and I'm still working on those dilemnas today.
The move to eXp
The outgoings for an independent estate agent are crazy, and although I was keeping up, it was putting me under huge emotional pressure. I was working to pay the bills rather than working for the joy of helping my clients. I was also struggling with isolation. I had nobody to talk to about my problems and my triumphs - friends and family are great, but nobody gets it like a community of like-minded fellow agents.
Eventually I came to the conclusion that I needed to join a group after all. I settled on eXp, mainly because they didn't require me to stick to a geographic territory, but also because they seemed to offer the most supportive package, with no targets to exceed or pressure to perform. Before I joined, I spoke to a Swindon eXp agent, Ben Fitzgibbon, and found him very open and helpful. Finding Ben and choosing him as my mentor was the final link in the chain.
The eXp group is still relatively new in the UK but we're part of a huge international group, including France, America, India, and more. We're all independent self-employed agents, operating under the same brand. Together our growing UK team is taking this country by storm.
I think that the reason so many of us thrive is that we're sitting in a sweet spot between freedom and support. Each of us has a unique impact on the property market, whether that's in a local area, or in a specialist niche like me with my canalside homes. I definitely run my business in a far gentler way than many of my ambitious and energetic colleagues - I'm in my sixties after all - but I'm still successful in my own way, doing what I love, at a level I enjoy.