Industry Insiders: portal wars, agent competition and cyber-security

In an exclusive roundtable discussion with Real Estate Business, agents from the Top 100 Agents ranking shared their thoughts on some of the industry’s most important issues.

Industry Insiders

When a Top 100 Agent goes looking for a property, it's only natural for them to take a close look at how other agents perform – and how they could boost their chance of securing a better price for their vendor. And so it was when four of last year's best performing agents – who together generated more than $455 million in sales during the 2013/2014 financial year – shared their insights into their own property hunting experiences.

In an exclusive roundtable interview with Real Estate Business, these same agents also shared their tips on prospering in competitive markets, and outlined what fledgling industry property listing portal Squiiz needs to do to match REA Group and Domain.

Moreover, they revealed how prepared – or unprepared – they are for cyber-security threats, and discussed how they'll adapt to a government plan to offer free property data.  

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REA Group and Domain are competing fiercely to win agents’ business. What do you look for in a listings portal?

Tracey Dixon, McGrath Estate Agents Hunters Hill

I think it’s good to have two [big portals] to have some competition, whether it be these two or somebody else. Having two of them provides the competition to make sure they stay honest. The prices seem to keep going up, up and up for our vendors and I don’t know if they’re providing anything extra. I don’t know if that’s reasonable or how they justify that. Unfortunately, our vendors need to be on those sites, so they’ve got a bit of a monopoly there.

Michael Clarke, Clarke & Humel Property

People were saying that Squiiz was going to be the be all and end all, but that doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere. I think it’s all about the user interface. You have to make sure that whichever portals the buyers are on, they’re the ones that we’re promoting to our vendors. The two that have the most buyers – I share your irritation about the price going up and up and up.

Tracey Dixon, McGrath Estate Agents Hunters Hill

Some suburbs cost three times as much as another suburb if you want to get your listing to the top, which I think is wrong. With respect, there’s some great information available to buyers on those sites – there’s terrific suburb information, statistics, recent sales. It’s all good, but just because one area has higher traffic, why should some vendors pay a lot more to put their property on the market? It’s quite discriminatory.

Another topic I want to bring up is the whole idea of agent ratings on websites. I think it’s really generic. It’s very powerful for people who are being picked as top agents, but I’m wondering where all that is going and how eventually consumers are going to be choosing agents based on who’s on the internet most, rather than who has good practice.

Some suburbs cost three times as much as another suburb if you want to get your listing to the top, which I think is wrong

Jill Henry, McConnell Bourn Estate Agents

With Rate My Agent, there are some agents in my area who just go in there and rate themselves. People then use that to choose an agent, but has that agent got good practices and are they doing the right things? 

What does Squiiz need to do to establish itself as a serious rival to REA Group and Domain?

Tracey Dixon, McGrath Estate Agents Hunters Hill

Possibly change its name.

Jill Henry, McConnell Bourn Estate Agents

It’s terrible. Where did they get that?

Michael Clarke, Clarke & Humel Property

If buyers were looking at Squiiz in the same numbers they were realestate.com.au and Domain then there’s support from the real estate industry for something like Squiiz. There’s a lot of goodwill there. But we’re not the customers: the customers are the vendors, and the only reason the vendors are going to invest in something like Squiiz is if we’re able to say with sincerity that they will get X amount of buyers and that the buyers are shopping there. More needs to be done so that buyers understand that if they want to buy a home, in some way they have a competitive advantage by logging on to Squiiz as opposed to realestate.com.au and Domain. If I’m a vendor, I don’t care if my real estate agent loves it; all I care about is whether it will facilitate me getting a better sale price for my property.

Tracey Dixon, McGrath Estate Agents Hunters Hill

The product just needs to be on par with or better or more user-friendly than what’s available. There needs to be something extra for people to want to look at this alternative, because at the moment the other two have got it sewn up.

Tracy Yap, Tracy Yap Realty

It’s becoming more and more expensive. That’s an issue because it’s very, very expensive now. If we can have another website or all the real estate agents can work together, we can ask them to review their prices.

Jill Henry, McConnell Bourn Estate Agents

In general, the information generated out of the sites is excellent. To be able to show your vendors how many people have looked at photos, sent them to a friend, emailed the agent – it’s excellent. It does the job for us in a lot of ways, so we can’t afford to be too negative about the sites. When I compare it to 15 years ago, the internet wasn’t a big part of what we did, but now it’s 90 per cent of what we do.

Michael Clarke, Clarke & Humel Property

I think that’s what they’re doing right compared to other sites that start up and try to get a groundswell of support from real estate agents. Domain and realestate.com.au have really concentrated on the user experience and making sure the buyers are getting the value-added proposition so that they’re on there, and as a result we as real estate agents must support them because that’s in the best interests of our vendors. 

What experiences have you and your family had with house hunting?

Tracey Dixon, McGrath Estate Agents Hunters Hill

I had a call last month from a friend whose daughter was living in an apartment in Balmoral and who was interested in one of the bigger apartments in the block. She went and saw an agent and said, “I’m very interested in this property and would like to buy it”. The agent said the owners aren’t accepting any offers and it’s going to auction. The next week she registered, took a contract and asked to be kept informed because she was really keen. Then the next minute she saw on the internet that the property had sold.

I think this sort of thing is happening a lot because of multiple-buyer activity, and there are a lot of agents who aren’t as experienced in handling those scenarios as others and not great at keeping records. They just think, ‘Here’s a great offer’, and they take it to the owner and the owner wants to accept it, but they don’t handle the other people well. I hear about that sort of stuff happening a lot. In the rental market there are people trying to get rental properties but they’re gone before they hit the market.

I think this has created a lot of animosity with buyers. I find sometimes when I meet people for the first time they’ve got quite a bad attitude, and it’s not because of me but because of what’s happened to them in past experiences.

Michael Clarke, Clarke & Humel Property

I agree. The first thing we have to do at any of our open homes is to make sure whatever their most recent experience has been with whichever other open they may have attended through a different agency, they know we’re present and engaged and we do actually want to help facilitate them owning the home. Rather than being an impediment to them purchasing, we want to be seen to be people who are going to give them a straight answer and make sure we will get back to them.

Jill Henry, McConnell Bourn Estate Agents

I’ve been looking to buy an investment – and maybe it’s because the market is so strong at the moment, but there are agents who almost in spite of themselves are being successful. I almost want to ring them and say, “Do you know what, you’re a disgrace to our industry”. They’re underquoting, they’re not giving any comparable sales information; all they’re giving you is sales that don’t compare, because what they’re trying to do is lock in the number they’re giving you. I don’t even know if they’re aware, but it’s actually illegal to quote something that you don’t have on your agreement, and they’re all doing that.

I spoke to a guy the other day and asked for a contract and asked him to let me know if somebody makes an offer. He said, “I think you should just do a building inspection now”. I said, “I don’t know if I need to at this stage, but will you let me know if someone else does make an offer?” He said, “No, all I’ll promise you is that if somebody gives me an unconditional contract, I’ll give you a yell.” I thought, ‘Are you doing the right thing by your owner by suggesting that is the most reasonable way to ensure all the buyers who are interested in this property are at the table when it comes time to negotiate?’

Maybe it’s because the market is so strong at the moment, but there are agents who almost in spite of themselves are being successful

Michael Clarke, Clarke & Humel Property

That’s the difference between an order taker and somebody who is actually actively engaged.

Jill Henry, McConnell Bourn Estate Agents

Is it because the market is so strong that these guys are being successful? When the market does turn down, let’s hope they aren’t able to [survive], because, seriously, it’s absolutely disgraceful the service they’re giving. I don’t go in there saying I’m an agent; I go in there as a buyer, and I’ve found some of them are absolutely disgraceful in the way they’re treating their buyers.

Your buyers will be your vendors one day – and not only that, when it comes to the crunch and you go and say to your buyer, “You need to give me this number”, they’ve got to trust you. If you’ve treated them badly, they’re not going to trust you. It’s really important that you not only look after your vendor, you look after your buyer, so that you can look after your vendor.

Tracy Yap, Tracy Yap Realty

As I say, today’s buyer can be tomorrow’s vendor. That’s where we have a lot of repeat business and referrals. A lot of buyers who have bought property from other agents a few years ago, any time they’re thinking of selling, they come to us.

[Before I entered the industry 17 years ago], I was looking for a house to buy, and because my English wasn’t good and I wasn’t dressed up, it was very hard to deal with some agents. When I asked for a contract, some people ignored me and didn’t think I was able to afford to buy. So my son and husband said, “Tracy, you should be the real estate agent and you’ll be better than a lot of them”. 

What information is essential for all agents to know?

Tracey Dixon, McGrath Estate Agents Hunters Hill

One of the key things for me has always been having hyper-local knowledge. You can’t be an expert in the industry unless you know everything about your area. Buyers have a lot of questions – everything from where the transport is, the various schools, right through to what kind of things they need to know about the local council. I think most top agents know what their average days on market is, what their auction clearance rates are, how many properties sell in their area a year, what the demographic is and where the buyers are coming from.

We have a lot of information we give to buyers that come into our local area. Not everybody who comes to look at a home is local, so we have an information pack about the local area which sets out those things. That’s why I tend to stick to a core area that I know very well. Most of us probably even live in our core area, as I do.

Jill Henry, McConnell Bourn Estate Agents

You’re selling the area as well as the home, so if you don’t know that kind of stuff, you’re missing half of the sale opportunity. There are lots of buyers who may not have been looking in that area; they’ve been looking somewhere else, but they’ve seen this one property and thought it’s a beautiful home.

Tracey Dixon, McGrath Estate Agents Hunters Hill

A lot of buyers these days come armed with all their information about the suburb. But sometimes it can be wrong, or they’re looking at data that may be a broad generalisation. There’s a lot of information out there and I think it’s a matter of processing it and giving people the right information about what they’re looking at and maybe showing them some houses that are more similar. Some people will say, “Well, that one up the road sold for whatever”, and I’ll say, “Yes, but this one is brand new and that one was 120 years old”. Sometimes people have the wrong information.

Michael Clarke, Clarke & Humel Property

I think that’s the key: you’ve got to try to tailor the information you’ve got to what is going to best facilitate the sale. At this auction I had recently, one of the buyers, who ended up bidding, said, “This is a small land size – it’s only 398 square metres”. I said, “In actual fact, the average land size in the suburb is only 405 square metres, so if you’re looking for something in this suburb right now, this is clearly one of those beautiful homes in the suburb, and this is actually bang on the average. If you’re looking for a different suburb or a bigger land size, we can show you other things, but if you’re looking for something this close to the beach with these dramatic views, you’re not going to find a better-value home here.”

Tracy Yap, Tracy Yap Realty

You need to know your area. We have a big team but every salesperson will only look after a particular area. For example, I look after the Epping and Eastwood areas. We have an agent for the Carlingford area, we have an agent for the Dundas area and we also have an agent for the Putney area. We know the areas and what’s important – we know where the schools are, the transport, the price ranges, and which properties were sold last Saturday by other agents and for how much. At open homes, we always have a list – some sold by us, some sold by other agents – of the last four to eight weeks of similar properties to that address and the price. I think local knowledge is very important.

We know where the schools are, the transport, the price ranges, and which properties were sold last Saturday by other agents and for how much

How competitive is today’s market compared to previous years? And how do you cope?

Tracy Yap, Tracy Yap Realty

The most important thing for me is time management. There are more and more competitors now, so it’s harder and harder to get business and sales. I continually ask myself how I can be better.

Jill Henry, McConnell Bourn Estate Agents

Referral relationships are becoming more and more important because in this market you’re getting agents who don’t have any experience.

Michael Clarke, Clarke & Humel Property

As Tracy said, we’re constantly looking at how we can be better and how we can evolve everything from our listing presentation to how we can run a world-class open home. And what does that mean? Because a world-class open home from five years ago is not the same as a world-class open home today.

A world-class open home from five years ago is not the same as a world-class open home today

Tracy Yap, Tracy Yap Realty

A point of difference is also important. How can we be different from other agents? There are a lot of good agents, but if we follow in their footsteps, we can only be second best. So how can we be different from all those other good agents and big agencies?

Tracey Dixon, McGrath Estate Agents Hunters Hill

I think it comes down to personalities and people, doesn’t it? You need great systems behind you, but real estate is a people business, and if people don’t like you and trust you, they’re not going to work with you. Even though sometimes you get disappointed because a client will choose someone else because they’re cheaper or have something else to offer, most people will choose to work with a person.

Jill Henry, McConnell Bourn Estate Agents

I say that to my potential vendors. I explain that I’m going to be a very big part of their life, so they need to trust the person who they’re getting to sell their biggest asset. I sometimes come out of an appraisal and they say they’re going to go with someone else, and I think that’s probably for the best because I didn’t connect with them and I don’t think it’s going to be a good relationship. 

The NSW government has announced a plan to provide free property data to the public. What would that mean for agents and consumers?

Tracey Dixon, McGrath Estate Agents Hunters Hill

I don’t mind that at all. In some of the areas where I work, people like to keep prices confidential, and with some agents it’s all a bit of a secret. I don’t think it should be like that. Some people want confidentiality, but once it becomes public record I think it should be transparent. I always give people as much information as I can because information helps people make a decision.

Michael Clarke, Clarke & Humel Property

I think the industry has moved from, say 20 years ago, where the real estate agent was the receptacle of all the information and you had to hope to God that they would tell you what sold for what and where. Now everybody’s got the information, so it’s our job to help people interpret the data they’re bringing along.

If we can continue to move away from being just people who give information to helping people understand what it is about the information that is going to help them to buy or sell a property, I think that’s where we should be headed.

Jill Henry, McConnell Bourn Estate Agents

Information that’s not read correctly or processed correctly is just going to cause angst. If they’ve got information that’s not correct or they don’t know how to process it, it’s not a good thing.

Michael Clarke, Clarke & Humel Property

I think that empowers the agents who do the right thing. When you’ve worked your bum off to make sure you price a property correctly and you’re marketing it appropriately to get genuine competition, if everybody has access to the data I think it weeds out the pretenders and the people who want to take a shortcut. So I’m all for it.

About half of small businesses are said to be victims of cyber-crime. Do any of your businesses take measures to protect yourself against cyber-crime?

Tracey Dixon, McGrath Estate Agents Hunters Hill

It’s an interesting issue and probably something we should all think a bit more about.

Michael Clarke, Clarke & Humel Property

We work with an IT provider and we’re constantly upgrading security firewalls, but I’ve got no understanding of it. I just write the cheque and they tell me I’m covered.

Tracy Yap, Tracy Yap Realty

Security is very important, so we always upgrade our computer systems. Real estate is a more personal business. With my mobile phone, I don’t have a password – anyone can hack my mobile phone. Sometimes my kids say I should have a password. But if anyone hacks my mobile phone, they still won’t get any business.

For computers, security is very important. It’s important to safeguard information, especially because there is a lot of vendor information.

Does cyber-security get raised when you have your franchise meetings or when you see real estate trainers?

Michael Clarke, Clarke & Humel Property

Not with me.

Tracey Dixon, McGrath Estate Agents Hunters Hill

Not really. Down the track, there are going to be a lot more issues concerning privacy for people. Letterbox drops and knocking on doors is probably going to be a thing of the past. That’s why people’s personal databases have become so important and agreeing to be contacted is probably the key. So I guess that’s where we’re more focused.

Jill Henry, McConnell Bourn Estate Agents

I think in our business, when you think about the information we would generally have for people, it’s a name, a phone number and an email address. Then when they buy a property we would get some banking details or a tax file number. But I think there are probably other industries where there would be more information that someone would be able to use incorrectly.

Tracey Dixon, McGrath Estate Agents Hunters Hill

But it is a concern. When you think about how many times you give your email address – you only have to look at your personal computer to see how much stuff you’re getting all the time. We’re also giving our credit card details to lots of people. So it’s obviously an area that down the track will probably be a concern. We’re all just worried about where out next listings and sales are coming from; it’s probably not something that’s high on my radar.

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