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Wednesday, 21 February 2018
THE internet has changed the way everybody does business — but when it comes to the property market, it mustn’t be seen as the be all and end all.
That’s the view of estate agent Sara Batting, who joined the industry in 1973 and whose own agency in Reading has just celebrated its 30th anniversary.
She argues that while our increasingly connected world has made certain aspects of buying and selling property more convenient, the human touch should never be underestimated.
Sara cautions against using the growing number of online-only estate agents as, although their fees are sometimes lower, they lack the expertise and local presence to match buyers with the most suitable property.
The 61-year-old, who lives in Lower Basildon with her partner of 37 years Don Wakefield, a property developer, grew up in a bungalow in Tokers Green which her parents Nola and Arthur Bowker built.
She attended Sonning Common Primary School and the village’s Chiltern Edge secondary school before leaving at 16 to work as a “very, very junior” negotiator for the Parkers group’s Woodley offices.
She was promoted several times until she was running the country homes section of Parkers’ Reading offices. In 1986, with Margaret Thatcher entering her seventh year as prime minister, she decided to launch her own agency.
“I just thought, since we’ve got a woman running the country, there’s no reason I couldn’t run an estate agent’s here in Reading,” she said.
“I suppose I’d started at the bottom and worked my way up. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do when I left school but I had quite a few friends who worked in property so I decided to pursue that direction.
“I picked up new skills gradually as I watched and learned from more experienced colleagues. I eventually got my own company car and started taking first-time buyers on viewings and it all went from there.
“By the mid-Eighties, I had been working in property for more than a decade and was often working seven days a week. Given the long hours, my partner said I may as well be doing it for myself, so that’s what I did.”
Three decades later, Sara is still trading from the same offices in King Street, Reading, with a team of three — herself, fellow negotiator Claire Storey and office administrator Tracey Marshall.
The agency serves towns and villages within 10 miles of Reading town centre, including Henley, Sonning Common, Goring, Whitchurch, Sonning and Caversham.
Sara said: “Right from the start, I wanted to do things a little bit differently. I wanted to have a ‘boutique’ feel, which I think we’ve always had.
“Through working hard, we’ve got a lot of repeat clients who come back regularly for advice on, for example, renovations that might increase the value of their property.
“For most clients, their house is their main asset and we continue to work with them beyond the sale or purchase. We’ve almost got a little property owners’ club going.”
As with the vast majority of businesses, Sara went online following the widespread adoption of the internet at the turn of the millennium and now has her own website as well as advertising properties on Rightmove.
However, she disputes any suggestion that the old-fashioned way of doing things is obsolete.
She said: “I’ve seen some huge changes in the industry since when I first started doing this. The internet wasn’t around at the beginning and there were initial reservations because of how slow dial-up connections were.
“Now, of course, the internet has some huge advantages and you can’t knock it. It helps agents to build a comprehensive database of applicants and buyers can get their first glimpse of a property from their armchairs, whereas beforehand they might have to view dozens of houses just to get an initial impression.
“That’s particularly helpful for buyers who don’t live in the area, which is quite commonplace as Reading and surrounding villages are popular choices for people moving from London.
“However, you must not undervalue the skill of a good agent who knows the area and its properties and can negotiate diplomatically through to completion.
“A good agent will have an instinctive understanding of the buyer’s needs and will ‘matchmake’ them to the most appropriate properties rather than wasting their time with anything unsuitable.
“The internet works best in conjunction with a town centre office, skilled, well-known and locally trusted agents, a good reputation and strong local advertising.
“When I hear people saying they will buy or sell through an online agent, I think ‘you must be mad.’ It is so important to have someone you trust working for you.
“Some of the online portals are very cheap, but why would you sell something that important through the cheapest possible option? That’s especially pertinent in somewhere like South Oxfordshire, where properties are often of a very high value.
“We know our clients very well and can advise them on matters like the best areas to look at, the distance to local amenities and ways to increase future selling potential.
“The online portals can’t arrange viewings and the photographs are not always high-quality, whereas we use specialist photographers who can get the lighting and composition just right and show a property in its best light.
“As a result we have fantastic feedback from our clients and receive a lot of recommendations by word of mouth, which is a very positive sign.”
Sara, who was the first ever agent to take out a full-page colour advertisement in the Henley Standard, said advertising in local newspapers was still a strong means of driving sales.
She said: “Advertising just wasn’t the done thing in the Seventies and when estate agents did start doing it, particularly if it was a large advert, it was seen as outrageous or inappropriate.
“However, I think there’s been a big change in attitudes since then. I remember the Standard used to be black-and-white and there was a sharp intake of breath when I asked if we could do a large colour advert!
“I really value the Henley Standard as it’s a wonderful and well-read paper. The editorial is of a high quality, which keeps the readership high and makes it a good platform for advertising.”
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