Could the multiple retailers really sell their shoppers' houses on the internet for a knockdown fee? Simon Mowbray reports

Buying or selling a house is a painful experience. Wrangles with estate agents, solicitors, building societies and banks conspire to make the process more of a pain than the average vendor or buyer would like. And participants can never shake off that nagging suspicion that the generous estate agency fees are money for old rope. How difficult can it be to get a few pictures together, throw them into a brochure or on to a website, arrange some viewings and then agree a price that will facilitate a quick and easy sale?

Well, consumers may soon be able to find out as new services allowing property vendors to handle their own sales look set to get their first outings on supermarket websites.

Asda, which told The Grocer last month that it believed "Asda Price" could be applied to the costly process, is expected to become the first supermarket to launch an online homesellers' service. Tesco, the first of the big supermarkets to start looking at an online homesellers' portal, is still understood to be keen on a scheme. And Sainsbury is also rumoured to have entered into talks with an internet service provider.

Mark Davis, MD of internet solutions provider Hikso Innovation, which has entered into discussions with undisclosed businesses from both the supermarket and wider retailing and banking communities for its HomeSell technology, says that the days of this kind of service becoming commonplace are just round the corner. Who in their right mind, he says, wouldn't want to sell their house for as little as a two or three-figure sum when their only real alternative is to fork out up to 2% in estate agency fees? On a £200,000 property, that equates to £4,000 plus £750 VAT. Multiply that by the estimated 1.2 million homes sold each year and the savings for consumers are sizeable.

In the interest of supporting his own business model, Davis has also put his research into a context that he believes presents a winning argument. House prices have rocketed 161% in the decade to 2005 - and so have estate agents' fees. Over the same period, other products and services to have suffered inflation-busting rises (more than 29%) include cigarettes (up 75%), petrol (49%) and beer (45%) - which pale into insignificance compared with estate agents' fees.

He has also not had to go far to come up with evidence of how disaffected the public are with estate agents in general, even if they are still used in the majority of the property sales in the UK each year.

Last month, BBC1 broadcast 'The Secret Agent', where an undercover reporter claimed to have unearthed evidence of dodgy dealings at one well-known London estate agent including agents receiving backhanders from developers for securing properties at knockdown prices. And sanctions against unscrupulous estate agents have become a regular occurrence at the OFT. So the economic and intellectual arguments appear to be strong. But can Davis's model, and those like it, really work? After all, as our outline of the HomeSell service shows (see box), it at least assumes some expertise or technological knowhow in terms of getting a suitable online brochure up in the first place, before taking on the wheeler-dealer aspect of securing a satisfactory selling price.

Davis insists anyone can take part. "If someone can send an e-mail then they will be able to use this service," he says. "Most people are now computer-literate and those who are not can ask for help from friends. Also, there has been a real growth in elderly internet users or silver surfers."

There are also precedents to show consumers are well-used to tapping into such services, says Davis, including online auction site E-bay and the type of self-assemble holidays that most people in HomeSell's target market are now more than capable of piecing together for themselves. Davis also adds that, from a retail point of view, providing a portal for customers to sell their houses is just the start and not the most profitable part of the transaction - far from it. "The real revenue generator for the supermarkets will be the other products and services that they could expect to generate as customers moving house tap into them."

Examples, he says, include the obvious financial services spin-offs such as banking, and house and life insurance. But, he argues, retailers will also be getting a whole new database of customers both on the buying and selling side - and, in many cases, will know exactly where they are moving to and when.

This creates new opportunities for the industry, says Davis. Retailers might want to have a welcoming hamper waiting on the doorstep of a buyer's new home on moving day, for instance, or information and vouchers for its nearest local stores.

There is also nothing to stop smaller, regional retailers from getting involved in online property selling, either, adds Davis, pointing out that some shoppers may even prefer to deal with a trusted local retail brand rather than a larger multinational supermarket group.

The other beauty of the online model, says Davis, is that retailers themselves will not be becoming estate agents, despite claims from the National Association of Estate Agents that they will have to adhere to the Estate Agents Act.

"We have it in writing from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister that HomeSell will not turn retailers into estate agents," says Davis. "For example, the service is not arranging viewings - the seller and buyer do that themselves. Under the Estate Agents Act, estate agents are supposed to do ID verification, but don't, whereas our system does. That is just being responsible, even though we're not governed by the Act."

Another factor that will facilitate the whole system is the new Home Sellers' Packs, which the government is set to introduce next year.

"What we are offering is a platform for home sellers and buyers to communicate, while providing another opportunity for retailers to hone what they do best themselves," adds Davis.

How it would work:
The ins and outs of online selling

1. Consumers simply need internet access, a tape measure and digital camera or mobile phone camera to be able to sell their home.

2. Homeseller pays a nominal fee - possibly as little as £50 - to feature a property on the HomeSell/retailer-branded web site. A database of comparative property prices in the vicinity helps homesellers decide on their asking price.

3. Data and pictures are submitted by the homeseller with key tips on the site about how to go about the task, how to upload them on to the web site etc. A 'for sale' sign is then supplied to the homeseller containing information for passers by about how to get more details.

4. Potential buyers, whose personal details are checked by HomeSell, can view a whole host of properties by postcode, type of home etc. and enjoy a virtual tour of any they like. If they want to make an appointment they do so by posting a message on the web site that is relayed to the homeseller. The two parties can then communicate via this portal to arrange a suitable date for a viewing. An online calendar for viewings helps both parties keep abreast of what they have arranged and with whom.

5. Before making a viewing, buyers can tap into other information on the web site, such as local facilities, council tax bands and so on.

6. Any buyer wishing to make an offer can do so by logging it on the web site.

7. Once an offer has been accepted, a buyer can be asked to pay a nominal 'success fee' (for example, around £50) to stop offers coming in from other parties. 

The online perks 

1. As well as using the internet portal, both buyers and sellers can send and receive information by mobile phone. This means that would-be buyers spotting a 'for sale' sign could instantly get details about a property by text-messaging a code. 

2. The internet model means there is plenty of space for advertising a retailer's services, as well as selling advertising space to brand owners and manufacturers. 

3. Retailers get yet another opportunity to garner valuable information on both the buyers and sellers, such as whether they have a mortgage, where they live, when they are moving, where they are moving to, etc. 

4. The real opportunity for retailers, says the technology provider, lies in other services such as legal and financial services, homewares, groceries etc.