PROPERTY / For sale: old house with a bit of garden: Jonathan Sale on a new Act to curb agents' hyperbole

Click to follow
THREE-storey Georgian property, baronial-style rooms, spacious grounds, commanding location with views over wooded terrain . . . The description in the estate agent's circular seemed vaguely familiar; yet I couldn't quite place it. When you are househunting, you see a lot of houses.

Then I identified it. I was living in it. The circular described, or pretended to describe, the place we had actually bought. The bit about the three storeys was accurate. All the rest could just as well have referred to somewhere in a different postal district, or on a different planet.

From next Sunday this kind of hype will be illegal, as the 'orders' made under the Property Misdescriptions Act 1991 and the Estate Agents Act 1979 at last become effective. 'False or misleading description', written or verbal, will be an offence which can lead to estate agents - as individuals, or as companies, or both - being fined pounds 5,000 in a magistrates' court (and an unlimited amount in a Crown court).

This brings to an end a branch of fiction that goes back at least to the time of Charles Dickens, who warned in the magazine Household Words that 'noble mansion' in an advertisement actually meant a building 'in some nice, marshy, swampy, reedy part of Essex, where the frogs croak blithely at night'.

More recently, the Advertising Standards Authority has been picking up on particularly blatant transgressions: it recently upheld a complaint against Ideal Homes (Southern) for failing to mark on its map a railway line running down the side of its 'cottage style' development, and against Ideal Homes (South West) for omitting two railway lines, a dual carriageway and an airfield. The new Act will be much tougher (although it does not apply to anyone selling their home privately, without the involvement of an agent).

'We felt it has been necessary for a long time,' says Paul Gurowich of the Consumers' Association. 'We've had a lot of complaints over many years.'

Michael Jones, president of the National Association of Estate Agents, does not object in principle: 'We were the only traders in the high street who weren't covered by the Trades Descriptions Act.' Now the golden rule will be: 'Not to put down or say anything unless there is factual back-up. Stand by for an outbreak of brevity, he prophesied. 'Take the phrase 'outskirts of small village': is it a small village - or a town? 'Beautifully maintained' and 'supremely spacious' are personal impressions. But what does spacious mean? What is beautifully maintained?'

Mistakes could be expensive. The courts may find, according to DTI legal advisers, that the same piece of misleading information, if sent out in two mailshots a fortnight apart, could count as two separate offences.

'Phrases like 'newly decorated' will be exchanged for something like 'decorated in the past two years,' ' according to Knight Frank & Rutley. 'Superlatives such as 'unique', 'unspoilt' and 'immaculate' will vanish.' Also part of the disappearing act will be assertions depending solely on the vendor's own description. Heartbreaking as it may be to sellers, their word is just not enough to an estate agent who wants to avoid prosecution. 'If the vendor tells us the place has been treated for woodworm, we have to see a certificate or guarantee,' Michael Jones says. 'If we don't see one, we have to say: 'We are reliably informed but no guarantee is available.' '

A classic example of how unreliable clients can be comes from Tony Halstead, a former estate agent now in charge of Home-Sale Guidance, a consultancy for vendors. 'Somebody once got me to see a house 'which overlooks farmland'. It turned out to be a sewage farm.'

The new legislation will not rule out economies with the truth. According to Jones: 'Omissions are very important. If we have a property 50 yards from a glue factory, we would be all right omitting that fact - as long as we don't say it's in an area of natural beauty and fresh air.'

The DTI accepts that an agent, although aware of a leaky roof, is not forced to volunteer the information. Questioned, he or she is not obliged to reply 'Yes.' Instead, 'I'm not able to answer' is permissible. Another dilemma comes when a property is situated in a quiet street - but a motorway roars round the back. Agents understand that, under the new Act, any mention of a 'quiet cul-de-sac' will have to be followed by an admission that the M5 is round the corner. But they hope that, by leaving out the word 'quiet', they will be allowed to omit references to the motorway, too. Only when these questions are tested in the courts will anyone know for sure.

At courses explaining the new regulations to estate agents, the cry sometimes goes up: 'What about the Roy Brooks ads?' The late Roy Brooks, an agent himself, specialised in insulting the property he was handling. His ads were comic gems that highlighted what any other agent would have ignored, such as a 'fine growth of fungus'. Will the new Act ban this kind of negative hyperbole? In what legal sense can a growth of fungus be 'fine'?

Nor is it just words that have to be held up to the light, but pictures too. 'If there is a railway line, we'll make sure it's in the photograph,' says Nigel McAfee of the Roy Brooks agency. 'If it is not visible in the photo, we'll make sure we mention it. Some agencies use wide-angle lenses to create an enormous front garden and a palatial house in green fields - when in fact it is two feet from the next property.'

Perhaps, some agents joke nervously, they should confine their descriptions to 'This is believed to be a house, situated in a road.' Others, belonging to the cowboy fringes of the profession, are more blase.

'What legislation?' one of them asked the other day when the Misdescriptions Act cropped up in conversation. The principles were explained to him. 'Who gives a monkey's about that?' he retorted. His nearest magistrates' court, is the answer.-