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Property Week

Auctions

Auctioneers are turning to technology to improve service to clients

21.07.2006
By Sinead Cruise

It is unlikely that your favourite auctioneer will be replaced by a gavel-wielding robot before your grandchildren begin to dabble in the auction room, but technology is certainly altering the face of the auctions industry.

While auctioneers secretly pride themselves as the property industry’s final bastion against the tide of electronic dealmaking that has become common in the 21st century, they have accepted an obligation to innovate to better serve clients.

Virtually all the biggest UK auction houses publish their catalogues online, a reflection of both the falling average age of the typical auction-goer and also the increasing number of UK auction buyers based overseas. But several auction houses have gone as far as launching websites and computerised databanks that record the types of properties preferred by an individual auction-goer and then alert them when similar assets come on to the market.

Savills is one such auction house that believes using technology correctly will enable it to provide an unrivalled service to clients in the future. Since the launch of its commercial auction team early last year, the Savills board has sanctioned a substantial programme of investment in its technology-based client services, the result of which is the Savills Property Information Knowledge Exchange.

High profile

The system stores details of every person who has ever used or enquired about a Savills service, whether buying or selling a home or a property at a Savills auction. As well as profiling the client by the asset or service it has already obtained, clients are invited to share details of their investment strategies, the types of property they are keen to buy and their budget.

As soon as Savills is instructed to sell a property that matches their requirements, the system automatically informs the client, giving a contact number for the potential buyer to get in touch with the agent. The automated system, says James Cannon, head of commercial auctions at Savills, leaves no room for human error when the auctioneer or agent seeks to match up available properties with buyers and means the client has maximum coverage of the UK market irrespective of their address.

Other auction houses have followed Savills, launching websites which promise to bring the age-old practice of public auctions into the noughties. Former Allsop residential auctioneer Andrew Binstock and James Kersh of Sutton Kersh auctions have launched a website called AuctionYourProperty.Com, where investors can bid for exclusivity rights to buy residential properties.

While the actual sales are transacted in the conventional private treaty manner, winning bidders have the opportunity to conduct due diligence without fear of being gazumped.

The winning bidder must also agree to complete the purchase within six weeks or the vendor is free to put the property back on the listing site. The system, which was launched last month, has been designed to appeal to the growing number of people who want to sell their property without using agents, whose average fees of around 3% and 4% look expensive as residential prices soar in hot spots like the south-east.

Maximising the research power of the internet, the website managed by online data provider Essential Information Group has become required presale reading for both the serious and amateur investor. Since it was launched 16 years ago, the site has evolved to provide detailed information on 200,000 properties sold at auction between 1990 and today.

The site also provides details on the historic transaction record of each asset; comparable prices of other properties nearby; diary dates for upcoming sales and all performance figures and sales rates for every commercial and residential auction house in the UK.

Dozens of the biggest auction firms have grappled with the concept of e-conveyancing for years with little success. However, as Land Registry online data becomes more comprehensive and investors place greater value on the speed of property deals, the tool could change the way auctions work.

The system aims to enable parties to transfer funds and update the details of new ownership in the Land Registry online immediately after an auction takes place, rather than waiting up to a month for solicitors to exchange deeds and contracts in the conventional way. The system has its friends and foes, but several auctioneers feel its widespread use is undermined by the investors’ preference to have the paper deeds to their new purchase in their hands before they believe the deal has actually gone through.

Auctions will always depend on an element of trust, no matter what century we live in. But if momentum is maintained, the handshakes and face-to-face business transactions that have characterised the market for aeons might just be a memory by the time your youngest grandchild is old enough to say ‘I’m bid’.