Thursday, November 03, 2011
The future of UK property portals
Back in 1997 the Chesterton website was chosen as "site of the month" by Computing magazine which opened their story with:
"There are now over 50 estate agents with web sites but Graham Downie offers two reasons why estate agents have been reluctant to embrace the web. Firstly, they've seen it as an area for anoraks. But that has shifted over the past year as other professions, such as lawyers and management consultants, have moved online. It's also fear of the unknown, but that too is changing as clients are beginning to demand that estate agents have web sites."
That same year (1997 remember) I had written to all the other leading commercial property agents suggesting we create an online office & industrial property portal. Half a dozen of us teamed up with London & Regional properties to launch Propertylink which was subsequently sold to RBI to form part of the Estates Gazette stable.
Today, Propertylink is the largest commercial property listing site in the UK.
In 1999 the MD of our residential division and myself persuaded Michael Holmes and the Chesterton Board to invest £500,000 (along with Savills and other leading agents) into a company called Fastcrop. This was the outfit that subsequently created Primelocation. In January 2006 the agents cashed in when Fastcrop was bought by the Daily Mail group for £48m.
Today, Primelocation is used by 11,000 agents and lists over 850,000 properties.
Of course, it's rather sad (and indicative of something) that I should have played such a role in launching these two giant sites yet remain a penniless and humble estate agent in rural France. At least I'm happy.
So here we are, fast approaching 2012 and what does the future hold?
Well, as you may have read, the Digital Property Group (owners of Primelocation and Findaproperty) have just merged with Zoopla. The big question on agents lips is whether they will retain all three brands as independent sites or merge them into one big super-site to rival Rightmove (findazoolocation.com perhaps).
For what it's worth I think that they will go for the latter. Back in 1996 Property Week ran a story about listing properties on the then fledgling internet and I was quoted:
"Clients are saying they want a single, comprehensive source rather than skipping around".
Fifteen years later I still believe those words to be true. For me the bigger question is whether any new super-site will refuse to take private sales.
Don't forget that I now live and work in a country where private sales form over half of all transactions each year.
Sarah Beeny has scratched the surface with Tepilo but they have a miniscule market share. If findazoolocation.com (or whatever the new super-site is called) were to launch as "open to everyone" then the general public would shout with glee.
The agents though would go ballistic, chuck their toys out of the pram and threaten to boycott it.
It's going to come.
Perhaps not this time..... but if and when Sarah Beeny (Phil, Kirstie or any other high profile "expert" would do just as well) gets the backing of a DPG or a Google who are prepared to invest heavily then UK estate agents are going to see their world blown apart.
"But we've always done it this way" won't cut the mustard....just look at what has changed in the last fifteen years. Who can say where we will be in 2027.