Online estate agency is shaking up the housing market

With the UK housing market in boom mode, 24/7 estate agency could hardly have timed its launch any better

Online estate agency is shaking up the housing market

The process of selling, buying and letting a property has been set in stone for as long as most people can remember. And whilst it may be hassle-free for a select few, many would argue that the experience shouldn’t be as stressful as it often can be. Granted, some deals fall through or are put on hold due to unforeseen circumstances but there are elements of the system that needlessly serve to complicate matters as far as some people are concerned. The net result is that the buying and selling process often takes longer than it reasonably should. Contrarily though, the perceived interest of the agent is to push through a prospective deal as quick as possible in order to collect their commission.

Whilst websites like Rightmove and Zoopla have removed the need for window shopping – triggering a steady decline in the number of physical high-street agencies – calls for a proper shake-up of the industry have been rife. Well, such calls may well have been answered loud and clear by, the 24/7 online estate agency founded by brothers Michael and Kenny Bruce in November 2011 and launched only a few short  months ago in April 2014.

The pair sold their previous estate agency business Burchell Edwards to Connells after sensing it was time for a change, both for them and the industry as a whole. “I asked a team of people to establish whether or not we could offer a much better value proposition for customers within the Burchell Edwards brand,” says Michael Bruce. “Could we have a traditional model running alongside a cheaper model, which gave customers choice? But the actual difference between what you’d offer for £500 and what you’d offer for £5,000 was so minutely small that we couldn’t justify it within the same brand. That’s when we really fell out of love with the high street model and felt that we could offer a much better alternative, change the industry and at the same time, meet all the needs of customers.”

A large part of the initial groundwork was finding out exactly what these needs were. “We spoke to thousands of people who have sold or let their property to understand exactly what they liked and disliked about the model,” says Bruce. “What became abundantly clear was that convenience and transparency were very important to people.”

The company’s name is also reflective of its focus on the customer, explains Bruce. “We asked a few people to come up with a colour that represented everything that we wanted for the brand,” explains Bruce. “We wanted people to feel confidence in the brand, we wanted people to feel that it’s got integrity and that it’s even, to some extent, regal. The top colour that people engaged with, believed in, trusted and found integrity with was purple.”

The internet is undoubtedly the company’s lifeblood. The Purplebricks site allows users to take control of a property transaction in ways that would never have before been imaginable. Asking prices can be changed, house viewings arranged and offers accepted or rejected, all at the click of a button.

This means customers can engage with the process in their own time and at their own convenience. “What we have seen in the early stages is that 80% of our traffic occurs outside working hours,” Bruce says. “With our first sale, the property went on the market at 18.17, by 19.45 the first viewing was arranged, and within 48 hours the property was sold to the person who arranged the viewing. Over a third of our traffic is via mobile so people are engaging with the proposition at the time that suits them.”

Don’t be fooled though: Purplebricks isn’t strictly online-only. A local property expert is assigned to each deal to provide valuations, guide customers through the process and, if the need arises, negotiate. Meanwhile, central property experts are on-hand to provide round the clock advice and assistance. “Our research and knowledge of the sector told us quite clearly the customer was not yet ready to go entirely online,” explains Bruce. “They’re not yet ready to give their house over to a computer and wait and see. They still want that human interaction, they still want that engagement.”

And what exactly sets a Purplebricks property expert apart from your everyday estate agent? When answering this question, another aspect of the Purplebricks proposition cannot be ignored: the cost. Whilst estate agent fees can vary from 1% up to 2.5% of sale price – with the seller often left wondering what they’ve paid for – Purplebricks has pioneered a new flat-fee approach. Every seller pays £599 regardless of their property’s valuation, with prices for those looking to let starting at £75. “It was key for us to offer something that was affordable,” Bruce says. “We wanted to be a national brand and that means having a price that works in London as well as it does in Newcastle. We also wanted to offer a transparent fee, a fee that works and where everybody contributes to the cost.”

This goes a long way to ensuring that experts always have the customer, not their pockets, in mind. “The majority of the people that we have working for Purplebricks are probably some of the best people I’ve ever worked with,” enthuses Bruce. “They like our proposition because it enables them to get re-engaged with the customer and offer something that’s transparent, convenient and cost-effective.”

It’s been two and a half years in the making but it seems to have been well worth the wait for the Bruce brothers. The eZie software that forms the backbone of the online experience for Purplebricks customers certainly took some considerable legwork. Admirably, the entrepreneurs made the most of home-grown talent to help create the revolutionary software. “We went around the world looking at who might build our software system and we concluded that actually the best place to build a software system was the UK because although it was going to be a simple-to-use system, it was going to be very intense and required tens of thousands of designs and lots of controls,” says Bruce.

On the financial front, the entrepreneurs put a fair bit of their own capital into the business, but their desire to totally transform a sector made additional investment and expertise essential. Thus far, Purplebricks has managed to attract investment from the likes of Paul Pindar, the former MD and CEO of Capita and Martin Bolland, the founder of Alchemy Partners. The founder of Wonga, Errol Damelin, has also got involved. “He is very interested in the new technology that is involved in our proposition,” Bruce comments.

It doesn’t stop there. As well as taking on the help of some established agencies in the marketing and media space, Purplebricks is fortunate to have a couple of Virgin veterans on its books. James Kydd, former MD of brand and marketing at Virgin Media, is the firm’s permanent advertising and marketing director whilst Will Whitehorn, former brand development and corporate affairs director for the Virgin Group and president of Virgin Galactic, joined the board a year ago. “We were interested in having some individuals in the business who had experience of growing and developing brands quickly,” Bruce explains.

He certainly has every reason to be happy with the personnel that have bought into the Purplebricks vision thus far. “We have managed to create a team of people who are actually interested in helping us make a difference in the sector.”

With 33,000 users signed up in the first four weeks and feedback overwhelmingly positive, it seems the sky’s the limit for Purplebricks. Whilst the focus is currently on building the brand on these shores, Bruce is confident that he’s created something with worldwide appeal. “The ambition is there,” he concludes. 

Adam Pescod
Adam Pescod

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