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A short history of estate agency

Property has been bought and sold for hundreds of years, yet estate agencies are a relatively modern phenomenon. So how and when did the property market evolve to the extent that estate agency services became such a common feature?

The landed classes

Estate agency services were originally devoted to the needs of landed gentry with their own estates. Perhaps described as a steward, bailiff, factor or officer responsible for rents, these original estate agents were usually in the employ of their master. Given that property ownership was beyond the means of all but the extremely well-off, there was relatively little need for agents to broker the sale of properties on a larger scale.

However, the Industrial Revolution brought wealth to a new breed of entrepreneur, and this ‘new money’ soon entered the property market too. This different kind of prosperity was largely responsible for the unprecedented growth of towns and cities as workers left rural employment to find better jobs in the new factory industries. And inevitably, increasing profits and rising wages had a trickle-down effect which gradually led to a gradual increase in the numbers of people wishing to own their own property. In addition, factory owners also became the new landlords, often building hundreds of town houses to accommodate their workforce, thus generating a need for responsible agents to oversee matters such as property maintenance and the collection of rents.

A capital development

As might be expected, the emerging property market was at its most vibrant in London and it was here that the first real estate agency services began. One of the earliest was Charles Chesterton who, in 1805, set up in business in Kensington. Acting as agent for the Phoenix Insurance Company and the Phillimore Estate, Chesterton’s agency gradually expanded to meet the growing demands of the property market and still serves the needs of those seeking the more exclusive types of property in today’s market.

Felicity J Lord is a contemporary agency with similar origins to Chestertons, and Chancellors are a firm which can trace its history back to around 1807. In addition, there are names such as the Edmund Cude agency (which became Portico) dating to 1818, Flick & Son launched in Suffolk in 1833, Winkworth (1835) and Humberts (1842). Modern-day Savills property business began in 1855 as Savill and Son, while Reeds Rains (originally a firm of rent collectors) started trading in 1868.

Around the turn of the century, several other Victorian estate agencies were founded, including: Hamptons (1890), Knight Frank (1896) and Towcester’s Jackson-Stops (1908). In those early days, specialist estate agents were still few and far between and it was common for businesses to also serve as auctioneers, valuers and chartered surveyors.

Regional expansion

From the 1930s onwards, estate agencies had also spread to the regions, with Surrey’s Curchods setting up in 1938, Connells appearing in Luton (1936), and Dixons, a substantial estate and lettings agency serving the Midlands.

However, it was the 1980s which saw the traditional estate agency really begin to move away from its ‘land and property agent’ image. This was the era in which Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government introduced its Right to Buy legislation. Now that the property market was at last open to consumers from all walks of life, estate agents soon became much more accessible. Firms established in this decade include: Foxtons (1981), Countrywide (1986) and Your Move in the late 1980s.

New horizons

With property sales now occurring at all price points, estate agencies were trading increased volumes of business. However, a market decline in the 1990s created negative equity problems for many who had bought during the years when the property market boomed. Despite this setback, the market recovered and still enjoys a reputation for reliable growth.
Another financial crisis in 2008, this time on a global scale, reminded speculators that anyone hoping to cash in on property values should research their options very carefully indeed. This period saw a growth in buy-to-let properties, with estate agents now handling not only property sales but also offering a subsequent letting and tenant-management role.

Online presence

Like many other intermediaries, estate agencies have sometimes found it hard to convince clients that their services were worth the agency fees charged. So from the 1990s onwards it was hardly surprising that many would-be house buyers began to go it alone and seek properties listed on the internet. Nevertheless, it soon became apparent that ‘virtual’ estate agents could not easily provide the local services any homebuyer needs: authentic local knowledge, personalised marketing and arranging viewings to name just a few.

The appearance of firms such as Rightmove in 2000, and Zoopla in 2008, whilst capturing the imagination of online house-seekers, also resulted in the emergence of many online and hybrid agencies such as Yopa and Purplebricks. With both Rightmove and Zoopla allowing these new breed of estate agents on to their platform, the traditional agencies soon realised that their online presence was just as important as their high-street branch.

While retaining many of their original functions, estate agencies have thus managed to move with the times and continue to offer a range of essential services to the modern house-buyer.
Photo by Tierra Mallorca on Unsplash
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