The government is changing the law that defines an estate agent, giving do-it-yourself house sale websites new freedom to operate. But is that a good thing? Tim Harrison reports

Under the guise of cutting red tape, the government is about to deregulate house-selling, making it possible for anyone to set up a website to flog homes.

Jo Swinson, the consumer affairs minister, claims it will make life ‘simpler’ if people buy and sell homes on the internet.

“A flourishing housing market is hugely important to the economy, and one of the ways to boost it is to cut through bureaucracy,” she says. “This is why we are proposing to change the rules so that businesses that facilitate private property sales aren’t caught out by the regulations for estate agents.”

Caught out? Surely regulations that underpin professional standards and industry codes are to be applauded, not by-passed?

Some fear that exempting websites from rules that have governed the industry for years is a risky strategy that could backfire, leaving sellers at the mercy of sharks, but the coalition thinks it’s a vote-winner.

“Selling the house is the easy bit,” said Mark Hayward, of the National Association of Estate Agents. “Much more difficult is dealing with the offer, checking the chain, and talking to lawyers.”

The issue was brought into focus last week with a feature on the BBC website arguing sellers could save thousands of pounds.

It prompted a wave of online comments, confirming that estate agents are held in the same esteem as politicians and journalists. One of the more polite ones described estate agents as ‘dressed-up advertisers’, another said: “Most estate agents would be better off employed as fiction writers.” Dozens of responses were removed by the website moderator as being too extreme.

But the fightback has started. Peter Bolton King of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors told the BBC that private sale websites offered a different level of service to estate agents.

“There is a huge difference between paying a few hundred pounds to put the property on the internet, compared with the services that should be provided, and the security that should be offered, by the good local traditional estate agent,” he said.

The established estate agents in Fulham resent the bad name that pirates and fly-by-nights have given the industry.

They trade on positive recommendations from satisfied clients, and rely on reputations built up over many years.

Take Douglas & Gordon in Parsons Green (020 7731 4391). Associate director of sales Emma Hanks believes that as a property is the biggest asset most people ever have, it’s crazy to take risks. For further details on Douglas & Gordon click here

“When you invite us to sell your property, you are engaging one of the area’s most dedicated and well-resourced sales teams,” she says.

A good agent will value your property, based on detailed knowledge of the local market, but will only charge for successfully selling your home.

Websites demand cash up front, and send you a couple of pieces of wood to stick up outside your home.

The questions to ask yourself include: Do you want your private phone number on the board? How good is your photography? Have you ever organised an energy performance certificate? Have you ever negotiated a six or seven-figure sum? Is a potential buyer who he says he is, and has he the money to buy your home?

Estate agents fear that if private sale websites launched by get-rich-quick merchants run into difficulties, the whole industry will be blamed. The property ombudsman scheme is a guarantee for dealing with estate agents... not websites.

At present, estate agents are obliged to visit the property they are going to sell. DIY websites will not have to under the change later this year.

The RICS reckons five per cent of UK house sales are done via private websites, but the government hopes deregulation will boost that to nearer the United States’ figure of 10 per cent.

The danger for sellers is that they may pay several hundred pounds to a private sale website, but still fail to find a buyer. If they then turn to an estate agent, they may end up spending more than if they’d gone to a professional in the first place.