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Web war on estate agents; Property site will make solicitors millionaires.

A pair of Birmingham solicitors are poised to become millionaires thanks to a controversial website offering a free property selling service.

Mr Gareth Fatchett and Mr Alan Neal, of Halesowen firm Armstrong Neal, have been offered a seven figure sum for the site, believed to be pounds 1.9 million, although it is not due to be launched until May.

It will offer on-line mortgages, conveyancing quotes and a property search facility, along with a free estate agency service.

The lawyers hope it will break the stranglehold of estate agents on the property market. They say they have received complaints from estate agents accusing them of stealing their business. However, more than 1,300 have signed up to support the site.

Mr Fatchett said the service had been developed to fight back against estate agents and lenders who look set to dominate the housing market once they can offer new seller's packs.

This scheme, being piloted in Bristol, obliges sellers to provide detailed information about their property, including local authority searches, leases, and copies of planning and building regulation consents and approvals. The packs will include a house condition report, which will be based on a professional survey.

The idea is to speed up house-selling by giving buyers essential information at the beginning of the process, which they currently only obtain at a later stage. It will also separate serious sellers from those who put their homes up for sale to test the market.

The new system will strengthen the position of estate agents because it is expected they will draw up the seller's packs. However, Mr Fatchett and Mr Neal say their website is designed to place solicitors in the driving seat.

House sellers hoping to advertise their property on the site will only be able to do so through a solicitor. There will be no charge as long as they agree to retain the legal firm for conveyancing work. Otherwise they may have to pay a commission.

Alternatively, sellers could go through one of 2,000 independent local estate agents that will be linked to the site, but a normal commission would be payable.

Mr Fatchett said: 'We have been offered a seven figure sum for the site, but we are waiting to get it up and running and see its full potential before we would consider selling it.

'We are working with a number of partners including a web design firm, financial services companies which will provide mortgages, solicitors and estate agents.

'We are a specialist tax and financial services firm and do not deal with conveyancing or house sales. But my view was that the introduction of seller's packs is causing estate agents to work more closely with each other, so it was time the solicitors worked together too.

'This site will give control of the process back to lawyers. We have had some complaints from estate agents who said it is not fair of us to offer the same service as them at no cost, but my response was 'tough luck'.

'This is the biggest attack on estate agents. I predict that in five years, the Internet will be the main source of property information.'

Mr Fatchett said advertising for the site would play on the stereotyped image of an estate agent with a shiny suit and white socks.

'The question we will ask the public is, do they really trust estate agents? But at the same time, we have had a number sign up to work with us. They can only benefit from having their properties listed on our site rather than not.

'The lenders have also been very keen to take part, as it makes no difference to them who their mortgage referrals come from.

'Our aim is to allow home-owners to buy or sell their house without suddenly feeling their world has fallen apart.'
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Author:Walker, Jonathan
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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