It used to be, just a few short months ago, that I could confidently tweet out the phrase another week, another property portal with a degree of certainty. The impending launch of Agents Mutual seems to have reduced the number of so-called visionaries about to climb on board that supposed portal gravy train. Though I do note that even now there are still other overly ambitious entrepreneurs looking to replace the mighty Rightmove and Zoopla they are just fewer in number.

No, this week the latest clarion call is for online estate agents, whatever ‘online’ actually means! Recent entrants to this expanding market sector include Estates Direct headed by Poundland’s Steve Smith and Darren Richards from DatingDirect.com .

Last Wednesday, The Independent dusted down the following headline.. Is this the end of traditional High Street estate agent?

The response from my business colleague @agencytrainer was swift, assured and didn’t even require the full 140 character limit imposed by Twitter. I shall quote his entire response….

Er. No. Next question?

Not only was his answer succinct but, I suspect, correct although that doesn’t mean that online estate agency isn’t about to have an increased impact on the manner in which we sell property in this country.

Before we go any further, I would like to point out that I should not be accused of arguing from a point of self-interest. Although we at Thomas Morris would be considered to be more ‘High Street’ than ‘online’, I’m fully prepared to face the music, whatever the tune, as well as the future, whatever it may hold.

So let’s take a look at the facts, such as they are, and start off with the surprisingly difficult issue of definition.

What actually is an ‘online estate agent’?

The answer is not as obvious as you might think..

Aren’t all estate agents online?

Don’t all estate agents have their own website as well as a significant presence on a plethora of property portals and online platforms?

Well of course they do.

So what does make an online agent an online agent?

A non High Street location?
A business park address?
A cheap fee?

So many unanswered and unanswerable questions!

When I come to think about it, I’m really not that sure that there is an accurate and satisfying definition not any more.

Of course the self-proclaimed online agent (I’ll have to leave you to define what that does actually mean!) will often claim that a low fee to the consumer is a distinct advantage though interestingly I’ve competed against High Street agents that are even cheaper than some online competitors! But let’s take it as a given that on average, an online agent will be cheaper than his or her ‘High Street’ competitor. There is still no compelling argument to conclude that the traditional agent is dead or even mortally wounded, though perhaps a little grazed and confused! Grazed because he or she may well lose some market share, and confused because we still can’t agree on a definition of what an online agent actually is!

I’m not even going to place all online agents in the ‘low level of service’ category the situation is far more complicated than that. Some High Street agents will provide excellent service and some will not as with their online counterparts. In fact another associate of mine, award winning blogger and property expert Andrea Morgan (@RightmoveAddict), experienced ‘excellent service’ from the online agent she used to sell her own home, after failing to secure a purchaser using a more traditional route. In almost every way their marketing, communication and simple personal service were superior to those of the High Street agent I had previously used she told me. So there you have it.

It’s not that an online agent is cheap and a High Street agent is expensive.

It’s not that a High Street agent has a better office location, and the online agent is difficult to find.

But it is about service and value because that is still what the consumer appears to want, if not actually need.

The real questions that still need an answer are these.

Can the High Street agent continue to justify their average fee of 1.5% (+VAT) of the selling price with the level of service they provide?

Can the online agent afford to offer an appropriate level of service for fees often as low as £195?

As ever, the answer to those particular conundrums will not be answered by online or High Street estate agents like you and I, but by the consumer!

Whether you agree with me or not please feel free to follow on Twitter – @ThomasMorrisEA