Selling a house – private or agent?

Alistair Helm

I have often been asked whether it is better to sell your house privately or to use an agent.

As with anything to do with property there is no single answer - certainly no right or wrong answer. It very much depends on the person, the property and the circumstances. 

I recall a number of years ago a real estate research report found that while around 12% of people said that they were planning to sell privately, compared with 40% who said they would definitely sell with an agent, a large proportion, close to one in three of those surveyed, said they would probably sell through an agent but they may well try to sell privately first. 

I sensed at the time and still feel nowadays that this group reflect a commonly held view - give it a go to sell privately and if you don’t have success, fall back on the agent as they will likely sell it.

It is interesting psychology. You know that if you list with an agent you will sell your house, while to do it yourself has less certainty but has no downside except for the time factor.

Not an approach you would take with a legal matter or to fix your car but far more reflective of DIY work - give it a go and if you can’t do it, call in the professionals.

Certainly the cost of an agent sale is in itself a motivation to try a private sale, added to which is the full knowledge that as agents rely on Trade Me for the bulk of their listings the site offers private sellers the same level playing field on which to attract prospective buyers.

It is interesting therefore to compare the approach private sellers take toward advertising a property on Trade Me compared with agents.

I recall a few years ago that private sale listings had far more photos and richer content description than those of agent listings. I believe this differential has almost disappeared as agents have accepted the role of online as the pre-eminent form of advertising.

Just the other day, however, a perfect opportunity presented itself to make such an assessment - comparing the approach taken by a private seller and an agent. Unusually though this is for a property that is being marketed as a private sale after failing to be sold by an agent!

I became aware of the property when viewing the NBR site - the advert caught my eye as the image looked very much like an advert for a holiday home but it was clearly a property for sale. An unusual placement for an advert - that is the kind of thing that caught my eye.

The advert leads through to an excellent website - a wonderful presentation of the property built off a simple WordPress themed platform. The photos are excellent, mostly taken at night, are emotionally engaging and of a very high quality.

The website is a consumate example of a professional and comprehensive presentation, including 42 photos, a video, the LIM report and rateable value, details of school in the area and an insight into a recent registered valuation. A building inspection is due to be added shortly. What more could a prospective buyer want in order to make an informed decision on this property before an inspection?

Doing a bit of research on this property brought insight into its marketing history - it was marketed by a real estate company with an auction date April 27, providing a unique opportunity to see how a private seller approaches the marketing of their property compared with an agent.

The presentation for the property in April is equally professional with 20 professionally taken photos and two detailed floor plans (interestingly there is no floor plan on the new private sale site). The key difference is all the agent's professional photos are taken in daylight while the private sale images are moody night time images that do add to the "sub-tropical private paradise" sense of the property - which is a great positioning statement.

I was fascinated by the difference in the way the same property was presented in the description between an agent and a private seller.

Below is the text of each starting with the private listing taken from the current listing on Trade Me:

"Down a long private driveway opening up to a beautiful subtropical private paradise. The 2 steps and entrance way lead to 10mm industrial glass front doors

"Bottom floor has 2 bedrooms.The master bedroom has ensuite, walk in wardrobe, extensive wardrobe & storage space, glass sliding doors leading to deck with spa, stepping down to one of the 3 outdoor living/dining spaces & pool area. 

"Wooden floored hallway from entrance leads to open plan kitchen, dining area & step down carpeted lounge, with bifold glass doors on both sides leading directly to the solar heated pool. The heat pump is UNDER the flooring , with 6 vents distributing consistent warmth throughout winter, & air conditioning in summer

"Just past the stairs (that lead up to 3 more bedrooms & bathroom, all with glass fronted sliding doors for wardrobe & storage) & you step into a very spacious sunny office/granny flat with bath/shower/toilet/kitchenette fully carpeted with underfloor heatingin the main room. 

"Sliding glass doors open out onto another patio, the other end has glass doors which bifold out making it entirely open. This office/granny flat has dual access, either through the house ( which has a 2nd door inbetween for added privacy) or through the glass doors accessed from the parking area.

"The property is fully fenced so pet friendly for the smallest up to the largest of animals to roam/run freely due to the size of the land.

"Garden lighting is activated by movement sensors, as does the many security lights throughout the property. House is fully alarmed with activation pads in the house and the office/granny flat.

"This is a beautiful SUNNY PRIVATE OASIS right in the heart of Mt Albert.

"If you love this property, it would be a pleasure show it to you. Please contact us for appointment to view. We have available upon request a Website showing a Video, Picture Gallery, LIM Report, Rateable Valuation, Registered Valuation, Schools in area, & a Building Inspection Report next week. AUCTION IS ON SITE 2PM THURSDAY 31 JULY. Many Thanks."

Here is the full text from the agents description from the agents website (Google cache) from April

"Enter the private inviting driveway that leads to the rear impressive landscaped entrance, this property exceeds the WOW factor.

"The glassed front entrance foyer of this impressive contemporary home beckons you to enter, giving you a glimpse of something special.

"To the left a spacious light filled master bedroom with ensuite and walk in wardrobe. Flowing out onto a private enclosed spa pool area adjacent to outdoor pool and entertaining area.To the right a generous sized office.

"Just past the office climb the stairs to three sunny light double bedrooms and a bathroom.

"Return downstairs, down a small staircase and discover two huge areas of work from home office space, set up for business, or a granny flat complete with own bathroom and entrances.

"Up to the main level, past the laundry and w.c. to the kitchen/dining which has a subtropical outlook encompassing the lush backyard with mature trees yukkas palms and plants.

Entirely private this flows onto a further entertaining area. The kitchen has integrated whiteware central granite work island and granite bench.

Adjacent is the step down lounge seamlessly opening on two sides to a fabulous swimming pool/entertainment area. The lounge has a woodfire.

"The solar heated pool complex with tropical feel exemplifies indoor/outdoor living at its best.

"There are so many more features in this extraordinary property we invite you to view this paradise in the heart of Mount Albert.

"Open Homes Saturday & Sunday 1.30-2.30pm or view by Appointment.

"Auction - On site 27th April 2014 at 2.30pm."

The first thing that struck me was how the agent description is effectively a commentary of a walk-through of the property - useful. However when comparing side by-by-side with the private listing the most striking difference is the use of features and benefits in the descriptions. I have highlighted what I see as contextual and relevant features and benefits in italics in each of the listings' description.

The agent's description totals six features and benefits, the private sale description totals 16.

I have often heard the comment made in the real estate industry that the best person to showcase a property is the owner. They know the house, they know the features and benefits and maybe this is a clear example that maybe of benefit to agents: ask owners to write down a description of how they would communicate their own house in terms of features and benefits as part of the marketing!

Former CEO Alistair Helm is founder of Properazzi.


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