I’m currently trying to buy a house and, if I were honest, I’d actually admit
to quite enjoying it. This despite a few seeds of doubt that were planted in the
back of my mind by the recent BBC exposé of something we all knew anyway: that
sometimes estate agents are, how shall I put it, crooks.
Thankfully, the process has been made much easier recently thanks to giant
strides made in technology. Websites such as Rightmove.co.uk and
Propertyfinder.com have flourished because they are good at what they do. They
are regularly updated and they provide access to vast amounts of pertinent
information. Perhaps most importantly, they are also easy to use.
Rightmove.co.uk is an example of a new breed of internet success stories that
have emerged since the dotcom crash. While its first day of trading on 10 March
was perhaps more reminiscent of the first dotcom era, with enthusiastic traders
sending the stock to a 17% premium to value the company at a slightly bemusing
£497m (2005 saw profits of £8.5m on turnover of £18m that’s an earnings
multiple of 58), the company is clearly on the right lines. Meanwhile,
Propertyfinder.com was bought in November last year by Rupert Murdoch’s News
International for £14.3m.
If you are unfamiliar with the sites in question, let me talk you through how
they work and the processes involved in trying to buy a house. First, go to
Rightmove.co.uk. Second, select the area where you want to live and enter the
amount of money you’re willing to spend. Third, click on ‘search’. You will then
be presented with a list of properties meeting your criteria, together with
photographs, contact details for agents, and location maps.
You can then find out how much similar properties have been sold for in the
same street or area by visiting a separate website called OurProperty.co.uk
which provides straightforward access to land-registry data. Finally, arrange a
viewing and, if you like the property, the area and the price, put in an offer.
The experience actually reminded me of going on holiday. The last time I did so
was arranged almost entirely online. I bought plane tickets to the other side of
the world, arranged for a car to be available at the airport and booked a room
in a “sumptuously decorated, superbly positioned” cesspit from the comfort of
my, still rented, living room.
Everything worked as it should: the e-plane tickets were accepted, the car
was where it should have been at the time it should have been there and the
hotel receptionist was expecting me. And while the hotel could have been better,
beggars can’t be choosers.
Considering the IT horror stories that are constantly hitting the news and
the ongoing problems the civil service has with its ambitious technology
strategies, I was a bit surprised that something didn’t go wrong with either my
holiday plans or, so far, my house purchase.
I had visions of stepping off the plane, sunglasses and Hawaiian shirt at the
ready, only to realise that I’d actually been sold an e-ticket to the polar ice
cap. Perhaps I’ll still turn up to shake hands with an over-enthusiastic estate
agent only to find that I’ve actually been sold a one-bedroom static caravan, in
need of a little internal modernisation, on an up-and-coming caravan park in
Hastings. But, somehow, I doubt it.
And the reason I doubt it is that the technology in question is there, not
because of some grandly thought-out plan invented in a boardroom, but because
the end-users have demanded it. It was designed and built not to cut costs, but
to appeal to the paying public the strategy is simple. Listen to your
customers. Many businesses, not to mention vast swathes of the public sector,
could learn a lot from that.
At an Adobe-hosted event I attended earlier this year the head of innovation
at Reuters, Azeem Azhar, made an excellent point about exactly this. “Fifteen to
20 years ago our expectations of IT as end-users were pretty low,” he said. “But
today, if you’re a financial trader, watching your TiVo at home and then coming
into work playing a PlayStation Portable, you’re going to expect better
standards than you’re receiving. Users are going to ask ‘Why can I look at this
wonderful interface on an entertainment console that costs no more than £200,
but then have to use this terrible, clunky system at work that cost millions?’”
Although my personal preference is to scan a paper on the way into work, I see
So, as we approach the end of another tax year, millions of us will have
already submitted self-assessment tax returns electronically in many cases
right up to the 31 January deadline. The service was a vast improvement over
previous years and was, relatively speaking, something of a success story. But
government still has long way to go before it can claim its e-services are as
straight-forward as buying a house.