Purplebricks is not going to revolutionise the Australian real estate experience. But it may very well improve it, and for the better.
For those not of the industry, a potted history of Purplebricks: a UK-based technology business, Purplebricks offers fixed-price property marketing which purports to upend every market it enters. They’re best thought of as a technology and data company, in much the same way as Uber and AirBnB are: they don’t actually own assets such as physical agencies – they own technology and systems. They’ve got money to spend on PR and (because they’re clever and know which way their bread is buttered, unlike many of the old guard of our existing property industry), they’re engaging in both a traditional and digital media assault. Which is frankly what you have to do if you’re wanting a startup to do well.
Many agents have been proverbially sh*tting purple bricks at the thought of their industry being disrupted. If you’ve been getting your knickers in a knot about the entrance of Purplebricks into the Australian real estate market, it’s more a revelation of your potential professional weaknesses than of their ability to destroy your livelihood. Here’s why:
- If you lose a listing to Purplebricks, you probably deserve to. Ouch. Right? Purplebricks listings are much like the infamous ‘chicken raffle’ listing, where four agents are called in to complete appraisals within a week. These listings are really a race to the bottom, where a decision by a vendor is based primarily upon agent cost because nobody did their bloody job and prospected them properly. Agents who have ongoing relationships with potential vendors based on true prospecting – which is offering information over a long period of time, paired with personal service and a sense of intelligent delight – will not lose listings to Purplebricks. That’s because their offering isn’t based on a fixed price. It’s based on expertise, accountability, an actual relationship and (most importantly) – reciprocity. Purplebricks will undoubtedly appeal to some vendors – those who haven’t been prospected, those who are very price driven, and those who think they are the expert. The first of these – the vendor who hasn’t been prospected – is really a problem of agent neglect which can be turned around by action. The second two – vendors maniacal with greed or narcissistic in the extreme – are best avoided anyway. It’s these latter potential clients that Purplebricks will benefit from, and probably not to your detriment.
- The UK real estate market is not the Australian real estate market. The UK has a ‘chain’ real estate system, which diminishes urgency and expectations for buyers and vendors. It’s best understood (in a nutshell, and very simplistically) as a chain of property settlements which must occur simultaneously. Every sale is conditional and held together by a chain of purchasers agreeing to go ahead with their transaction. If one buyer can’t settle for whatever reason, the whole chain of transactions fails. It’s unthinkable in comparison to the Australian real estate transaction process. Our own market has no such weakness: if you don’t perform on an unconditional contract, you’re toast. Australian expectations of real estate sales transactions are substantially higher than they are in the UK. Price quoting on property and expectations of price based on the quote also differ – in the UK, the asking price for the property is the asking price expected. Buyers know to offer below immediately. Our own market is the polar opposite – with buyers recognising that the asking price is often below vendor expectations. An Australian vendor left to their own devices to quote on property price a la Purplebricks will be completely stuffed, resulting in failed campaigns at a much higher rate than traditional agent-led campaigns. Moreover, capital cities in Australia have auction-centric markets. As any agent worth their business card knows, a successful auction campaign relies on conditioning and education of both the vendor and the buyer. It’s not a matter of whacking a price on the thing, uploading it to your favorite real estate portal and cracking open a tinnie. Purplebricks’ model appears to favour the private sale market which is more natural to the UK – it will probably work well in some more suburban areas of Australia which have limited capital growth and poor agent activity.
- Fixed-price real estate marketing isn’t a new thing. Purplebricks has marketing and technology, and they’re utilising it at far more sophisticated levels than many of the dodgy fixed-price ‘Sell My Whatever’ brands of the past. But their model is essentially the same. Their offering will appeal to some of the market, certainly – variants on this offering always have. The best way to future-proof yourself against potential disruptors wearing different guises? Be a better agent. Use technology to your advantage. Prospect properly. Pay attention to details. Make people feel special. It’s a service industry, which is something the real estate community itself sometimes forgets. Our trade is our capacity to serve our community and negotiate relentlessly for our vendors.
- Horses for courses. Not every vendor is driven by value. Some are driven by prestige: they want to list with the best agent who has the best marketing. They want the soft gloss, four page brochure. They want the VR floorplan. They want everything that opens and shuts, and they want their friends to see it. These people will not be attracted to Purplebricks. Other vendors will kill you for a dollar and want to haggle down the price of a Happy Meal. This may be partly your failure for neglecting to show them why you deserve to be paid for your time and effort. But it might be because they frickin’ hate real estate agents. Or that they’re just really cheap, too. And that’s okay. Horse for courses. Purplebricks isn’t for everyone any more than you are.
- Negotiators R Us. Purplebricks flat-price philosophy works when you don’t truly understand the ugliness of human nature. That vendors and buyers are greedy, vulnerable, scared and largely unable to negotiate effectively. They’re strung out and emotional: they’re three year olds at dinnertime, waving around a contract of sale. That’s why there’s estate agents to coach them through this risky, emotionally fraught process. Vendors don’t believe they’re unreasonable with their price expectations. The fact they’ve rewired the garage and put in new carpet has to add $12,526.00 exactly to the price they’ll get for the home, right? They don’t understand the dangers of pricing a property inappropriately, and the risk that overexposure in the market has upon a property’s eventual value. Purplebricks aren’t an estate agency: they’re a technology business offering systems and access to task-oriented agents. They’re not you, agent.
If anything, Purplebricks will improve the state of the Australian real estate market by encouraging existing agents to finesse their offering to the public. To go about things in a different way, using technology and old school service. It will make stragglers practising in markets too long neglected by lazy, backwards Principals shape up or ship out. The only people who have anything to fear from Purplebricks are agents who are lacking in skills, ideas or talent. So don’t worry about the disruptors: just get on the with the job.
* I did contact three Purplebricks estate agents in Melbourne to learn more about their model. All three told me they were under strict instructions not to speak to the media about their experience as Purplebricks agents.