Agent & Homes is bringing a US-style of brokerage to the UK market, but doing so with a very British slant. Founder and CEO, Rollo Miles, believes that great agents deserve great autonomy: absolute freedom to perform their craft. He also believes there is immense value to be found in technology, but that the agents themselves are not the ones who should be tasked with using it. That job should be left to the agent’s personal back office support team made up of motivated, tech-savvy people. That way, the agent can focus purely on what they’re good at – winning instructions and selling them.
On the other end of a less-than-desirable Zoom connection, Rollo sat down to tell us more.
At the age of forty-six, Rollo Miles has lived in more than twenty-five houses, an experience which, since his earliest years, has enshrined in him a deep love of property.
“My parents were developers,” he says. “Throughout my entire childhood, they would buy wrecks, we’d live in them, renovate them, sell them, and then buy another, starting the process all over again.”
Any two-bob physiatrist will tell you, therefore, that his eventual career in estate agency was more or less predetermined: a young boy cannot experience his childhood through the lens of ever-changing homes and not come away with a strong appreciation for the role that property plays in our lives.
It was, however, Rollo’s sister that first introduced him into the world of agency. She was, at the time, a receptionist for a high street agent and suggested Rollo get himself a job with the team she worked with.
“She told me, ‘It’ll be the easiest job in the world’,” Rollo says, “so I followed her advice.
“That first job was in South East London and the work was enjoyable but I soon learned how much more money there was to be made by moving a couple of miles north to prime central London and enjoying much larger commissions.”
Rollo made the move to a more fruitful market and, from that point on, was lucky to work with some of the best agents in the game, names who continue to resonate throughout the industry today.
“I was recently reading an article in one of the trade papers about Colin Lowman dying, one of the original directors of Roy Brooks and an early mentor of mine,” Rollo says.
“From Colin, I went on to work with Peter Rollings who had just taken over Marsh & Parsons – he was a very inspirational person in my life. Then, I ended up with Peter Young at John D. Wood, a very traditional, high-end agency.”
Throughout this journey, Rollo learned a lot, but he was also a first-hand witness of what he now calls ‘the change’.
“I saw the portals arrive; I saw less people walking into branches; I saw how brand loyalty was dying. I would speak to vendors and they would have no memory of which agency they bought their house with, let alone the name of the particular agent.”
As a witness to the change, Rollo also saw the UK industry remain static in the face of it, apparently unable or unwilling to evolve with changing consumer expectations and market innovation.
Having spent his home-hopping childhood in a number of different countries, Rollo was also watching all of this play out with the knowledge of how unusual the UK agency model is compared to the rest of the world.
“We all know how eccentric we are in the UK,” he says, “but this hasn’t always served us well when it comes to agency. This traditional high street model we use, where anyone can become an estate agent without training or regulation; I thought, or rather I knew that there was a better way.”
With all of this playing out before him, an idea started to form in Rollo’s mind: what if you could bring the US brokerage model here to the UK, but do so with a British slant rather than an American one?
“I’m talking about the freedom of the US model,” Rollo says, “where agents are free to run their own business on a largely self-employed basis, and where the cult of the individual is placed about the cult of the brand. Plus, of course, US businesses have famously good customer service.
“However, in the US, the agents plaster their own faces on billboards and benches; the UK isn’t quite ready for that sort of blazen self promotion and self-confidence, it probably never will be, so we’re being careful to keep the spirit of what we’re doing very British.
“At the same time, though, American agents are often the centre of their community, always at garden parties, school fundraisers, patronising all of the local businesses, and so on, and they gain new clients largely through referrals.”
Even though Rollo’s sense that there is room for improvement in the UK agency model has been growing inside him for over a decade, it wasn’t until 2018 that Agent & Homes was formally launched, inspired by another growing flaw on the UK high street:
“People are, frankly, pissed off with the corporate experience. You can see it all the way down to coffee shops – they’re increasingly moving away from the likes of Starbucks in favour of small, independent businesses who know their customers, know their orders, and engage each of them in friendly chat.
“This is increasingly true in real estate, an evolution only accelerated by the mass homogeneity of big UK agencies.”
Rollo is talking about the so-called Foxtons model that every major agency has adopted. Chestertons, Dexters, Winkworth, John D Wood, and so on: the concept of differentiation has vanished.
Add to this the arrival of the portals and not only is differentiation gone, but the art has been removed from the process of finding your buyer.
“Before portals,” Rollo says, “you had to differentiate yourself in order to win business. Now, however, buyers come to you if you have the right property on your books.
“I’ve already mentioned Roy Brooks: and they were legendary for their property descriptions in the Evening Standard and people went to them because they liked their style above that of the other agents.”
Brooks’ descriptive powers were, indeed, exemplary, and demonstrate an acute sense of humour lacking in today’s deadly serious industry. Here is his famous description of a property in the yet-fully-gentrified Peckham:
£3,995 FREEHOLD. ANTIQUARIAN PROUDLY OFFERS his ghastly Peckham house. Almost innocent of plumbing, no bathrm. – bodily ablutions confined to a couple of sinks & the canal at the bottom of the garden. 8 fair sized rooms. As the artists have already moved into Peckham it is only a matter of time before they are followed by the fringe professions, Stage, Tely and Advertising – with the Chelsea type of monied intellectual snob breathing on their necks – then a dump like this will be worth well over £10,000/ MOVE QUICKLY.
“Today,” Rollo says, “the idea of differentiating your brand in order to attract buyers has gone because the portals have made it all about attracting the seller and the landlord.
“The same is now true for valuations – there is no difference from agent to agent because they’re all using the same pound-per-square-foot algorithms.”
Rollo explains that, when a person wants to put their house on the market, they invite all of the local agents round for a valuation, only to be met by a parade of the same agent, wearing the same suit, carrying the same valuation pack under their arm, quoting the same value, and talking about the same marketing strategy.
“Today,” he says, “the only differentiation is fee, and even that’s falling into a generic formula.
“All in all, the high street model isn’t working very well, but, on every single high street, there are a number of great individual agents.”
This last fact was the final piece that Rollo needed to complete his idea for transforming residential agency and he presented his model to the then owners of John D Wood. They liked it a lot, but had their own transitions going on so he made the decision to go it alone.
What is Agent & Homes?
Rollo likes to describe Agents & Homes to the uninitiated as being just like a barrister chambers, or Uber or a management agency.
“We are a platform that allows really good agents to set up on their own, use their network to sell houses, and keep the vast majority of the fee for themselves.
“We then support these great agents by installing a back office staff of dedicated people managers who will be given the very best in cutting edge technology to help and support their assigned agent.
“The result being that the agent focuses purely on winning and selling, letting, or managing instructions, while those in the back office take care of everything else, such as using tech tools, licensing, legal processes, and everything else that a normal high street agent needs in order to operate with success.
“We understand the mindset of great agents and know how powerful it is to remove any worries about marketing, branding, portal costs, admin costs, and so on, Our entire management team have been agents, so we know what it takes to be successful.”
Of the observations that Rollo and his team have made about agents, the most important one, and one that the vast majority of technology providers seem to have missed, is that great agents aren’t often the best people to directly interact with technology.
This simple observation, it could be argued, eliminates one of the most substantial barriers to tech adoption in residential property: agents who don’t find comfort or reward in having to directly manipulate technology, be it simple or complex, when it has little in common with their training or experience to date.
“This is unique to UK agency,” says Rollo of the Agent & Homes model, “but not unique to the UK. As I’ve mentioned, barrister chambers mirror what we’re doing. Each barrister has their own clients and is responsible for winning new clients, but the clerks, the staff, the chambers, etc, is all paid for by every barrister combined and creates a base layer of structure and support for all.”
If this freedom and support isn’t enough to engage agents with Rollo’s model, perhaps the financial upside will do the trick.
Rollo says that Agent & Homes has ‘turned the way agents make money on its head’. He explains that, with the traditional high street model, a manager or broker will keep 5-10% of the agency’s fee for selling a house. The remaining 90% goes to the agency.
With Agent & Homes, however, the agent keeps between 60%-80% of the fee, depending on which package they’re signed on for, and Agent Homes takes the remaining 20%-40%.
“This means agents keep more money and don’t, therefore, have to focus on shifting property in great quantities. With that pressure removed, they can focus on providing market-leading customer service.
“We look after our agents this way because it is they who make Agent & Homes a success. We simply support them towards making a good living and in turn we, too, make a good living. Because, let’s face it, an agent cannot make a good living by charging a flat fee of £400. It’s impossible.”
Getting the right agents on board
Earlier in the conversation, Rollo lamented about the lack of regulation around who can become a UK high street agent. This lack of quality control, he argues, paves the way for lacklustre service and further damage to the overall reputation of the profession.
That’s why Agent & Homes is selective when it comes to partnering with agents.
“We want agents who have between 5-10 years experience,” Rollo says, “and who have mainly worked at management level and know what they’re doing.
“We get approached by a lot of graduates who like our model, but we have to be honest with them and say, go and work with a good high street branch, get the vital experience, and then come back to us. We don’t have a training school, that’s not what we’re about.”
As well as experience and network, Agent & Homes demands their agents agree to their core in-house values, such as never lie to a client, always be loyal to their interests, and so on.
All in all, it’s an attempt to build an army of top-tier agents who are great at what they do and desire the freedom and support to perform the role to an even higher standard.
“But,” Rollo says firmly, “we’re not only willing to talk to those with direct agency experience, we’re also interested in those who have complimentary experience or skills which might transfer well to agency.
“If, for example, you’ve built up a portfolio of 5 buy-to-lets, or bought, refurbed and flipped 5 houses, chances are you could very well make an excellent estate agent.
“We’re very selective, but take each applicant on their individual merit rather than a fixed template of requirements.”
Rollo also has no interest in people joining because they think they’re going to make a tonne of cash overnight.
“We make it very clear that nothing is guaranteed,” he says, “that you have to work hard, be entrepreneurial and network well in order to succeed. It takes time to do good work and make good money. If you ask me, this is how it always should be. We are simply setting them up with the best support network possible to help them achieve their individual career goals.“
Being relevant in a tech-led world
Twice in this conversation, Rollo has likened Agent & Homes’ model to that of a barrister’s chambers, an archaic and very traditional image indeed. How does he envisage this model finding its place in a sector which is increasingly moving towards technology?
“Look, I am, believe it or not, of the internet boom generation so am all in favour of manipulating technology to better the industry. But, I also recognise that buying and selling a house is not just a tech play, there is a huge human element involved, too.
“That’s why we try to create the best of both worlds. First and foremost, we have the intrinsic human element of great agents providing great customer service. You know, we’re not always dealing in happy times like marriages or growing families. We also deal in death, divorce, people losing their jobs, and so on. The human element is vital and irreplaceable. Compassion, for example, is central to every house sale.
“But we also know that tech is enabling processes to move more quickly, allowing more transparency for stakeholders, saving money for both agents and their customers, and so on. So we have a back office team who have access to all of the most innovative and genuinely useful tech tools and services which they use to make their assigned agents look like superheroes of the property world. I think it goes without saying that the agents themselves love this.”
As Rollo says, selling houses is emotional; buying houses is expensive, and the rental world is a minefield, so a strong personal presence supported by behind the scene technology is the only sensible way of serving the industry.
Third-party partnerships are better than going it alone
All of the tech tools and services that Agent & Homes makes use of comes from third-party suppliers rather than being built in-house. Rollo says that this is because tech moves so fast.
“Having worked for Countrywide, I’ve watched them spend millions on building in-house systems which are instantly superseded by the likes of Homesearch, so what we do is plug into the best possible offerings and if or when we need to change providers, we do it.
“If you have your own tech, you’re also limited to what you’ve created, and it’s moving so fast that without a dedicated development team spending millions and millions each year, you’ll get left behind.
“it’s vital to be able to plug in, plug out, and not be tied to one method or system.”
Taking stock in preparation for the future
Even though Agent & Homes already has 30 agents, the company is currently at a time where it has taken its foot off the pedal to ensure that the tech support they can offer their agents is as strong as it must be.
“We don’t really want more people coming onboard at this very moment if we’re not certain that we can deliver the support they require. We are still open to meeting people and talking about coming opportunities, but we’re in no immediate rush at the moment to scale up.
“The same goes for regional expansion as well as team expansion: we have no plan to suddenly take over the whole country in one swoop. We are using our current market, prime central London, as a starting point from which we will use other areas as stepping stones to gradually and thoughtfully expand our reach over time.”
Perhaps Rollo and his team have seen what happens when you try to do too much too quickly in this industry, or maybe they’re just a product of their time.
Agent & Homes was founded in the midst of Brexit, April 2018 (one could argue we are still in the midst of Brexit), and worked hard to overcome that challenge. Then Covid-19 hit and complicated things further. So it seems sensible, at a time like this, for Rollo to take a step back and take stock of everything that is happening, and everything that is on the way. Otherwise, Agent & Homes will not be in a strong or savvy enough position to provide the required support for its agents.
But, how does Rollo feel about the coming months and years? Is he confident that the industry and the economy is going to remain strong enough to sustain agents’ livelihoods?
“Look, we live in strange times. We have Brexit, we have Covid, there are vast divisions in our society, a rise in populism, a rise in nationalism, social justice reform is still desperately needed, the list goes on and it all combines to create great complexity.
“But, I am, by nature, an optimistic person, and definitely believe there is light on the horizon. People still want to buy houses, they still need to move, and there is still great success to be found for forward thinking companies who are taking a considered and innovative approach to business. The industry will be OK, it’s a massive market and if we take work in just a small portion of that market, we’ll be OK, too.”
Rollo has been looking at Agent & Homes’ instruction levels over the past couple of months and the picture looks positive. They do, however, currently operate in prime central London, an area of great wealth and full of people who, since lockdown, have realised they want out of the city.
“We’re lucky,” he says, “we’re protected by a bubble which many others are not, but I don’t think we’re heading towards the end of days.
“Britain is a great nation, we’ll find a way through. We are a forward thinking country of shop-keepers and traders; we’re funny; we’re creative; and we punch well above our weight on the global stage.
“In many ways, I wish we could ignore the politics and focus on the people, focus on our national psyche. We’re good. We’re cool. We’ll keep pushing forward.”
Rollo’s confidence might be born out of his nuanced set of personal values which have served him well up to this point and which he thinks of as proof of concept when suggesting we stop letting politics rule over the national mood by forcing us into divisions.
“I work in a very capitalist world, populated by a certain type of people. I’d say the majority of agents lean towards the Right but I see myself as a mixture; a socialsit capitalist. I believe in free market economies, but I also believe in a strong state and the sharing of wealth.
“How I run Agent & Homes reflects this – money is important, but personal wellbeing is equally important.
“Do I think a strong, forward-thinking, wealthy country should have control over its education, transport, electricity, and water, etc? Yes, I do. But, at the same time, do I want everyone to be able to get a job and do well for themselves, buy a property and have personal dreams? Yes, I do.
“Do I value and respect those who demonstrate compassion towards the less fortunate? Yes, I do. But do I also enjoy country sports?”
“Yes. I do.”