Using estate agents
This content applies to England only.
Housing laws vary between England and Scotland. Get advice relating to Scotland
It's possible to sell your home privately but most people use an estate agent to sell their homes. It's important to choose carefully and to make sure you understand what the contract you have with the agent means.
Selling privately usually works out cheaper but you may need advice about how much the property is worth. You will also have to find potential buyers and deal with the advertising and viewing arrangements yourself.
Choosing an estate agent
Different agents offer different packages so it is usually worth getting a few quotes to find the best one for you. Many estate agents provide free valuations, so you can shop around before you decide. Always ask what services are included and check whether you will have to pay any fees on top of the commission. This might include fees for:
- valuing the property and advising on the price you are likely to get
- helping you to produce a description of your home for potential buyers
- advertising the property
- arranging for potential buyers to view the property
- negotiating on any offers that are made.
Many agents also offer other services, such as mortgages or insurance, especially if you are selling your home to buy somewhere else. You are not obliged to use any of these other services.
Many estate agents are registered with the National Association of Estate Agents or the Property Ombudsman. These organisations insist that agencies that are registered with them follow certain rules. If you have been treated unfairly and the agent is a member, they may be able to help you.
The Office of Fair Trading has an online register of banned estate agents, which you can use to check whether a particular estate agent has been banned from trading in the past, or has had restrictions placed upon them.
Your contract with the estate agent
When you employ an estate agent, you enter a legal contract. It's important to read the contract carefully. If there's anything you don't understand, ask the agent to explain it and/or get advice from a solicitor. Keep a copy of the contract and make a note of any verbal agreements you make with the agent.
Check how long the contract is for and whether you have the right to cancel it. You have to allow a reasonable amount of time for the agent to advertise the property and find potential buyers. However, it may not be a good idea to sign a contract that ties you to just one agent for an unreasonable amount of time.
There are different types of contracts available and the type of agreement you choose will affect the amount you have to pay. Most agents charge commission (a percentage of the sale price). The rate of commission and any additional costs should be clearly explained in the contract. Examples include:
- Sole agency - no other estate agent can sell your property until the contract ends. If you find a buyer privately, you don't have to pay the estate agent's commission. However, you may still have to pay some fees, for example, for the agent's advertising expenses.
- Sole selling rights - no one else (including you) can sell your home. If you find a buyer privately, you will still have to pay commission.
- Joint sole agency - two agents agree to share one commission, regardless of which of them finds a buyer. The commission is usually higher than you would pay for a sole agency contract.
- Ready, willing and able purchaser - you only have to pay if the estate agent finds a buyer who is willing to exchange contracts without any other conditions. If you pull out, you will still have to pay.
- Multiple agency - several estate agents are marketing your property separately. You only have to pay the agent who sells the property but the rate of commission is likely to be higher.
If you give sole agency or sole selling rights to more than one agency, you will normally have to pay commission to each agent when the property is sold.
Advertising your property
Once you have signed a contract, the estate agent will begin to advertise your home to potential buyers. This may be done through estate agents' windows, mailings to potential buyers, for sale signs, newspapers and/or websites. Check how the agent plans to advertise and whether you will be charged separately.
The estate agent will visit your home to take photographs and get other details about the property. This will include information about:
- the number and size of rooms
- gardens and other outside space
- central heating and/or double glazing
- local facilities (such as shops and/or transport)
- fixtures and fittings to be left in the property (such as fireplaces).
They will also suggest an asking price. Many buyers will make an initial offer below this to start with, so many agents recommend setting the asking price slightly higher than what they expect the property to sell for.
The agent will produce a description of the property to be used in advertising. These descriptions are designed to make the property attractive to buyers. Ask for a copy if you want to see this before it is used. It is a criminal offence for this description to include certain information about the property (for example, saying that the property has double glazing) if it isn't true.
Sellers are no longer required to prepare home information pack (or 'sellers pack') before they can put a property on the market.
Showing the property to potential buyers
Most sellers agree to show buyers around themselves. If this is not convenient (for example, because you are working or because the property is rented out to tenants) the agent may agree to do this for you. Check whether you will have to pay the estate agent extra to do this.
Estate agents' fees
You should be given written confirmation of how much you will have to pay, and at what stage, before you sign the contract with the estate agent. You normally have to pay a percentage of the sale price as commission to the agent but you should check whether you will be charged separately for the agent's expenses, such as:
- producing the property particulars and photographs
- advertising through newspapers, mailing lists and/or window displays
- showing potential buyers around the property
- 'For Sale' signs
If these are not included in the agent's commission, you should be informed in advance. The contract should make clear whether the amount is fixed or variable. If it's not a fixed amount, the contract should give details of how fees will be calculated and an estimate of what they might be.
If you have a 'ready, willing and able purchaser' contract, you usually have to pay when the agent finds you a buyer. For other types of contract, you will probably be billed when you exchange contracts and have to pay when you complete.
What you can do if the bill is too high
The estate agent's bill should include a detailed breakdown that ties in with what was written in your contract. If it seems too high, ask the estate agent for more detail. If the detailed breakdown shows that the amount wasn't calculated in the way that was agreed in your contract, you may not have to pay the extra costs. You shouldn't have to pay for anything you didn't agree to but you may need help from a solicitor if the estate agent insists that you must pay.
If you (or your solicitor) have already paid the bill, you can still ask for a refund. If the agency refuses to give you any money back, you can make a complaint to:
- the estate agency's head office
- the National Association of Estate Agents (if they're a member)
- the Property Ombudsman (if they're a member)
- the Trading Standards office at your local council.
You can also call the Citizens Advice Consumer helpline on 08454 04 05 06 for free advice.
You may be able to take the estate agent to court but will probably need help from a solicitor. You can find a solicitor through the Legal Adviser Finder.