When Adrienne Treeby’s house purchase fell through an hour and a half after giving birth and just a week before she and her partner were due to exchange, she frantically began to search the internet for potential new homes.
It was August, and they had negotiated a mortgage offer but they needed to move quickly if they wanted to buy before their offer expired and they’d have to renegotiate at a higher rate. Juggling a newborn and running her own cured meats business, Treeby’s scope for scouting out properties in person was limited.
Finally, she saw an advert for a property in one of the local Facebook groups in Leigh-on-Sea that she’d pre-emptively joined for the original house. Within her budget? Check. Period property? Check. Enough bedrooms? Check.
It had been posted by a local agent in the Essex seaside town but had not yet been put on the market, so there was no link to the property – only pictures and a brief description. It had four likes. Treeby immediately commented. Could they arrange a viewing?
Now, Treeby and her partner are due to complete on the same house – with the entire sale negotiated via Facebook Messenger.
“I don’t know if I’d have found it otherwise,” says Treeby. “I’m really, really glad that he put it on Facebook. We were one of the first people to see it…It felt like it was the perfect house for us.”
So, should you buy a home online?
As Treeby’s story shows, social media is playing an increasingly important role in property sales, with platforms like Instagram and Facebook at the forefront of the shift. The pandemic, prohibiting in-person viewings and fuelling an appetite for property-related content, catapulted this forwards.
But not all would-be online buyers strike it so lucky. Ava Kelly, who works for Love Energy Savings, says that Instagram heightened competition for a property she was interested in and meant that it was “practically impossible” to arrange a viewing.
The demand for the house also meant that agents were able to determine new rules for the sale. Kelly was told that she would need to put £10,000 down upfront if she wanted to make an offer – and that any offer would need to be at least £20,000 over the asking price. In the end, she did not proceed with a viewing.
Although Treeby was delighted to have found her house on Facebook, she was also reminded of how easily professional boundaries could become blurred on social media, when the seller of her first house —the one that fell through— began to message her directly. She was asked to continue with the sale for a higher price. Treeby declined and eventually blocked the seller.
While social media gives the illusion of closeness to a seller or agent, this blurring —or redefining— of professional boundaries is also open to abuse.
Stacy Thomson, who runs two of her own businesses, spotted an advert for a three-bedroom rental flat in Bayswater on Facebook. It was posted by a woman who claimed to be advertising on behalf of the owner, a man with whom she was put in email contact. He told her the flat was listed for sale with an agency, and she’d have to pretend she wanted to buy it in order to view it.
In the end, Thomson did view the flat, but when she began to question the man claiming to be the owner, he stopped replying to her. She believes that they had seen the flat on the market and fraudulently pretended to be its owners in order to secure a deposit from her, even creating an email address in the same name as the building’s real owner. Thomson blocked and reported the two profiles to Facebook, but says that one is still in operation.
Her experiences have made her wary of renting or buying property on social media again. “That’s the type of thing that’s out there – some people will be naïve, and there might be people out there who might have paid a deposit,” she says. “[I’d] go directly to an agent, so I could clarify that they are actually an agent and that there will be a body behind them if something were to go wrong. I certainly wouldn’t do it this way.”
The social media property stars
Kofi Bartels-Kodwo has been using Instagram to market homes since 2018, claiming to have “pioneered a change in the UK luxury property market through social media marketing”.
For Bartels-Kodwo, there is an important distinction to be made: social media is an advertising tool, not a substitute for an agency. “Instagram is being used to promote homes. There is still a whole process of actually buying the home: seeing the property, speaking to a qualified professional, going through a lawyer, getting a mortgage,” he says. “Buying and selling homes on Instagram should not be as controversial as it is. Social media is a necessity for an agent.”
The property developer set up Million Pound Homes to advertise, rent and sell luxury properties across his Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and YouTube channels. Instagram is by far the most prominent, with 175,000 followers and over 1000 posts. And since its beginning, Bartels-Kodwo says he has used it to sell £20 million pounds’ worth of property.
Most of this growth came during the pandemic, says Bartels-Kodwo, whose account had just 3,000 followers in May 2020. He began to produce more content: properties in the home counties; instagrammable homes. It began to gain 3-4,000 followers per month.
“We had a lot of people asking us to help them find homes, because they were looking to move out, and then there was a big jump in home renovations. People were using the page like a mood board, sending it to their architect or interior designer,” he says. “Eventually, we had estate agents asking to advertise on our social media page.”
Across the board, property-related Instagram accounts have boomed. Savills and Knight Frank, for example —named by Bartels-Kodwo as being at the top of the Instagram game as agencies— have both seen their follower count triple since 2019, soaring to 203,000 and 173,000 followers respectively.
“We had a house go under offer recently through our Instagram account,” says Rupert Wakley, a director at estate agency Jackson-Stops. “Having a digital presence across all social media channels is a key part of today’s marketing expectation for selling houses.”
The virtue of Instagram, argues Bartels-Kodwo, is that it can offer greater exposure for listings than portals like Rightmove and Zoopla. Properties advertised on Million Pound Homes will get more than 100,000 daily impressions, whilst those on Rightmove can expect around 3-400.
Strong images are important, but video tours can also help to push listings – both for polished, turnkey properties, as well as lower budget doer-uppers.
Grant Bates, a Director at Hamptons who runs his own 118,000-follower Instagram account, agrees. “There’s a real desire for quick information and short-form video.
“Rather than trawl through Rightmove or print off floor plans, you can watch a 30 or 60 second video. If you want a more in-depth virtual viewing, you can do a voiceover or more American-style commentated tour,” he says. “It’s more interesting than a standard agency walk-through floorplan where you click yourself through the house.”
Bates, who has worked for Hamptons since 2012, started his Instagram account in 2018 with a property tour video. Like Bartels-Kodwo, his influx of followers came in the past 18 months.
Now, he uses his account, full of videos of aspirational, aesthetic houses, to market and sell properties. Last year, he estimates that 20 per cent of his earnings came through social media.
One of Bates’ most prominent successes on Instagram has been the sale of East Villa, a £10 million mansion on Navarino Road in Hackney. The property was sold off-market after being advertised on Bates’ page alone. It was added to Hamptons’ website and Rightmove only after the sale was completed.
Its seller, Camden Town Brewery owner Marc Francis-Baum, initially had no intention of parting with his property. He had bought it in 2016 and set up an Instagram account for the house, charting its extensive renovation to his 8,000 followers.
Bates, who had sold Francis-Baum’s last house, came to visit the property and asked to post a video of it on his Instagram. It was a 60-second house tour, paired with a more detailed guided commentary on IGTV. It went viral, attracting millions of viewers – and an offer to buy the house, despite not being advertised for sale.
“I’d always told agents that it wasn’t for sale,” says Francis-Baum. “It’s not for sale, but then everything’s for sale – it just comes down to what someone offers. Then you go: actually, that’s ridiculous. I’m going to sell it.”
He adds: “I wouldn’t buy a house for £10 million in Hackney. And I love Hackney. I’ve lived here all my life.”
For Francis-Baum, the sale has highlighted the effectiveness of Instagram as a tool for selling houses. He’d do it again, given the chance, and plans to make a new account for his next property.
East Villa has equally boosted Bates’ reputation as an agent, bringing a level of notoriety (Bartels-Kodwo mentions the sale in our conversation), exposure and, importantly, new listings – including another property on the same road for £7.5 million.
The rise of the ‘Insta-agent’
Bates has come to represent a new breed of agent: a property entrepreneur with a strong, publicly visible personal brand. It’s a move towards a more American approach to selling property, where the agent is as recognisable as —if not more than— the agency itself.
“Estate agents are now advisors,” says Bartels-Kodwo. “If you’re an advisor, you want to be a leader in that space. You need to build up your personal brand so people can trust you, and so that more people come to you...Personal branding is the biggest thing.”
Bates and high-end agent Tyron Ash, for example, are frontrunners to this way of selling, but luxury real estate advisor Daniel Daggers, also known as “Mr Super Prime”, is widely hailed as its pioneer.
Daggers started selling property at 17 and worked for Knight Frank for 12 years, parting ways after posting a picture of a luxury property to his personal Instagram account.
He now runs his own fully digital real estate business, DDRE Global, which focuses on property valued at £10 million or more. Since its foundation in 2020, Daggers’ company has sold over £100 million worth of property online.
Daggers, whose 53,700-follower Instagram account is a mix of high-end properties, London architecture and family photos, describes his own brand as “authentic, informative, entertaining and insightful”. Like Bartels-Kodwo, he highlights its importance in building trust with clients.
“My social media account is not just about selling or renting properties, it is about my personal brand and reputation,” says Daggers. “Business is built on trust; trust is built on knowing; knowledge is built on awareness and awareness is built on your personal profiles.”
Bates says the same about authenticity. “I’m very aware of the stereotypical connotations of our industry, and I’ve to distance myself from that. On my page, I’ve got some humility, I’m pretty self-deprecating...I don’t shy away from sharing my life outside of work, and sharing my failures as well as my successes.”
But, for now, growing a personal brand while working for an agency is a delicate balance. Although Daggers says he would “encourage” people to do so —“Unless the corporation is threatened by their staff and their business model does not allow them to embrace it”— it was this conflict which ultimately proved the catalyst for Daggers’ exit from Knight Frank and launch of his own business.
For Daggers, digital channels are an inevitable part of property businesses’ future. “Whilst I believe that there is a place for various real estate businesses, fundamentally social media and digital channels will shape business models, much like our own in the UK. It is, and will continue to be, imperative to invest in a relationships and brand building – success is more than the transaction – it’s all about relationships.”
Bates says he has worked hard to prove the worth of socials, helped now that he is backed with material success. “There’s definitely potential for it to be a conflict. Historically, it hasn’t always worked with the UK model,” he says. “Ultimately, the buck stops with what’s right for the larger corporate brand. It can be a difficult tightrope to walk – you have to think about both.”
At least for the moment, the agency comes first – but, with the US agent-first model on the rise, something will eventually have to give.