The Good and the Bad of Property Portals

Written by Arpan Ghosh

Online property portals offer plenty of convenience for prospective home buyers and tenants. You can find several property options in one centralised space, which can be filtered to meet your exact criteria in terms of size, budget and other factors. As an example, if you were looking for apartments for sale in Dubai Hills Estate, you can set the appropriate filters for property type and location on the portal to refine your search. If you only want apartments below AED 5 million, or only two-bedroom units, you can further refine your search accordingly. It saves on a lot of headache in the search process. All you need to do is contact the broker who is marketing the property you want and then you can take it from there.

It is a much simpler process than scouring the city for homes that are advertising themselves via signboards and flyers, or looking through property classifieds. And perhaps unsurprisingly, property portals are among the most visited real estate websites in the UAE, and have seen a surge in popularity over the past couple of months as more people opt to stay home. But the convenience they offer also has another side to it, one that tends to muddy the waters in the real estate market.

How do portals work?

Property portals work hand in hand with real estate brokerages and agents to market properties to a wide global audience through. They do this by accruing listings from those brokerages - each agency will have a maximum number of listings they can put up on the portal. Certain listings can be given higher priority, and will automatically show up higher on search results for greater visibility.

One of the key factors that drive property portals, and any retail website, is volume. The more listings they can put up, the more choice there is for consumers and thus, there is a greater likelihood that people will visit their website over any other. By listing more properties, portals make it easier to find the perfect home. In theory, at least.

The issue of fake listings

What actually tends to happen in a lot of cases, especially given the large number of brokerages competing for market share in the UAE, is that certain agents put up fake listings for the sake of gaining more visibility and attracting clients. They might be advertising a property at price that doesn’t match up with comparable properties in the community, highlighting details and specifications that you will not find in that particular unit, or they might simply be marketing a property that is no longer available.

Why do this? For one, this allows brokerages to pad their available inventory and to put up more listings on a portal, thus ensuring that they are more noticeable to prospective home buyers and tenants. Primarily, fake listings are a lead generation tactic - agents lure you into enquiring on one property so they can divert you to the other properties they have in stock. At the very least, they will have your contact details after the first interaction so they can follow up with you any time they have a property that you might be interested in (or more likely, one they might be interested in pitching to you).

Then there is the problem of inflated stock. Dubai has a large number of properties for sale and for rent, but in certain communities that number could be extremely limited. If you are, for example, looking for a villa in Yasmin, Arabian Ranches, there might only be a dozen villas actually on the market. However, because some agents are creating fake listings to get attention, a client might be under the impression that there are 50 villas available.

Too many cooks

If a property is particularly desirable or in an area that is popular amongst buyers, every agent in the city would understandably want to have that on their portfolio. Under the laws set forth by the Real Estate Regulatory Authority (RERA), there can be no more than 3 agents marketing a property at one time, meaning that there would be a maximum of three sets of valid Form A’s (broker and seller agreements). However, the reality of it is not quite so clear cut.

Many an agent puts up a property online without having all of the necessary documentation in hand. As a result, you may see dozens of listings for the same property, where only three of them are legally valid and ensure that you are involved in a transaction that is completely above board. Even in the case of a listing being marketed exclusively by one agent, there may be others who list the property on a portal for the sake of grabbing a client’s attention. It is a sad fact that unscrupulous practices are common in the industry.

How can I tell if a listing is fake?

It can be difficult to tell at first glance if a listing is genuine or not, even more so if you aren’t overly familiar with the property or area being advertised. But there are a few things to look out for that should make you wary of any deal that seems too good to be true.

  • The price isn’t right: Shop around for similar properties in the same area (or the same building, as the case may be) and keep an eye out for patterns in pricing. If a particular neighbourhood is listing 3-bedroom villas at AED 4 million, and you come across a listing that is noticeably higher or lower than that, that’s a red flag. The agent may be trying to inflate the price to earn a higher commission, or alternatively, trying to lure you in for a lower priced property that doesn’t actually exist for the purpose of upselling you a more expensive one.

  • A picture is worth a thousand words: When enquiring on a property, ask the agent if the images on the listing are for the actual unit or not. It’s not all that uncommon for agents to use images of show homes, or of other similar homes that have good decor, to try and make a property look more attractive than it is. An honest agent will let you know upfront that the images are for illustrative purposes and don’t represent the actual property. You don’t want to find yourself in the position of walking through the door of a property only to discover it looks nothing like what was advertised.

  • No RERA card: A RERA card is essentially a real estate agent’s license to operate. Ask your broker if they have a valid RERA card. If not, it casts anything they have to say in a doubtful light.

  • No verification: Portals have put some checks and balances into place for agents. Any property listing that has all of the relevant legal documentation to support it can be marked as verified or genuine, with a visual indicator such as a checkmark. Any verified listing is given more prominence on the portal and will show up higher on the search results. If it’s not verified, it may require some further probing on your part to see if it’s real.

Aren’t listings regulated?

Aside from verifying properties that have proper documents, portals also give you the option to report fake listings. If a listing is intentionally using misleading photographs or quoting an unrealistic price, it will be taken down if reported. This helps to regulate the listings to some extent and helps in cleaning up the clutter.

That being said, it’s not a perfect system. A resourceful broker can fake the documents and other data needed to verify a listing, something that can be hard to discover without talking to the broker and trying to match up the details of the actual unit with what’s posted online. And even when you do report a fake listing, its removal isn’t instantaneous. In the time that it takes for a listing to be identified as fake and taken down, there are likely several potential buyers who have already fallen for it.

Outside of reporting, there is no active oversight or regulation on listings. A listing that is unverified can still remain published on a portal unless asked to be taken down. If a property has already been sold or rented, agents can still leave the listing for that property up if not reported. Really, if nobody complains, agents can continue operating the way they are.

Good, honest brokerage never goes out of fashion

Property portals are a very useful tool for home buyers and potential tenants. They make life a lot easier by making it easy to find properties from across the city on one website. But at the end of the day, a portal is just a tool. It isn’t a true source of knowledge or market expertise. They don’t have a strong sense of accountability and can unintentionally sell you a lie.

So how do you deal with this problem? At the end of the day, there is no substitute for good old-fashioned brokerage. You want to work with a broker who is reliable and trustworthy, with a track record that is not just built on the volume of transactions but in their relationship with their customers and their reputation in the market.

A good broker will be focused on what you need out of a property and will work alongside you to serve your best interests instead of trying to sell you something for the sake of selling off their stock and making a commission.

We pride ourselves on being responsible and honest agents who always provide trusted advice based on our knowledge and analysis of the market. You won’t get any ‘unbelievable deals’ with us, because we will tell you things as they are. If you are looking for a property to buy or rent in Dubai, then please contact our Private Client Advisory team. We would love to speak with you and to demonstrate what makes us Dubai’s luxury brokerage.