Thousands of estate agents have failed to join an Ombudsman scheme. By Penny Jackson
ESTATE AGENTS have come in for some fierce criticism in the past week or so. A year after the Ombudsman scheme was widened, and even though it was hailed as a big step towards improving standards of customer care, the vast majority have failed to sign up. David Quayle, the Ombudsman for Estate Agents, is a disappointed man.

"We have gone 15 months and are still lacking the bulk to give us credibility and to give the consumer the choice he needs," he says. Out of a possible 10,000 or so high street offices only 2,759 have joined. Mr Quayle sees a membership of 5,000 as a critical figure in tipping the balance towards expediency. "I am clear that the future for any decent firm selling any product is to give consumers access to non-legal redress. If more do not sign up this year serious consideration will be given to making it statutory."

His words might be regarded as a warning to an industry that is already experiencing a growing consensus in favour of some form of licensing and mandatory standards of competence.

A requirement of the OEA scheme is that a firm must have links with the National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA), the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) or the Incorporated Society of Valuers and Auctioneers (ISVA).

Anyone can complain to the Ombudsman and there is maximum compensation of pounds 50,000. Last year complaints within his remit rose 16 per cent. The largest award of pounds 4,250 was made to a couple who were forced to pay an extra pounds 4,000 after the agent had told the seller, wrongly, that they were unable to go ahead with their agreed purchase.

The Ombudsman also made awards of pounds 1,000 for room dimensions that had been seriously miscalculated and pounds 100 when an estate agent failed to spot that the seller had no planning permission for off-street parking.

So how can it work? David Bedford, of Bedfords, in Bury St Edmunds, is in no doubt that being a subscriber to the scheme takes the heat out of any potential dispute. "Two or three times during the year when there has been a problem we have written to clients and stressed that if they remain unhappy they can take it further.

Nobody has, but it helps convince them that we are serious about resolving their complaint. We use the OEA logo on all our advertisements and notepaper."

Hugh Dunsmore-Hardy, the chief executive of the National Association of Estate Agents, which has the largest contingent on the scheme, also feels frustrated at the slow take-up, particularly as he favours the voluntary route. "Agents have not yet recognised its benefits in promoting their commitment to high standards. Even in the best run organisations, small or large, things can go wrong, and surely the consumer is entitled to some sort of consideration? Sellers should be more discerning in their choice of agent."

One of David Quayle's chief disappointments is that along with a large corporate group none of the top 30 estate agents has joined up. "They would send a powerful message in support of the image of estate agencies even though they perceive themselves as not needing the scheme. They would be seen as ambassadors for the highest possible standards." Among that group are many who operate to the professional standards of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

Ruaraidh Adams-Cairns, the director of FPD Savills, says that the RICS regulation is already demanding and protects the client with its own arbitration mechanism. It was not deemed necessary to take on more.

She says: "We make an enormous effort in dealing with customer complaints, whatever the issue. People rightly feel very angry if, say, they turn up to a view a house and no one is there. It's important to address the complaint immediately. I have sent out flowers as an apology for a missed appointment."

However, at the RICS they are far from sanguine about their members' dismissal of the Ombudsman scheme. An admonishing letter is on its way, urging them to join up. "We think it is the right way to move the whole industry forward," says Patricia Monahan, from the RICS standards and practice department.

But perhaps the one area in most urgent need of policing and yet not covered by the Ombudsman is the rental sector. The numbers of complaints received by David Quayle over the past year has convinced him that lettings and management should be included.

One London landlord and his tenants would regard it as not before time. Abbey Commercial Investments, in Clapham, south-west London, put one of its few residential properties, a flat in Kensington, in the hands of an agent in west London. A director of the company says he has never come across such unprofessional behaviour.

He says: "They were very keen to get the tenants in even before the flat was ready and that was because the man did not want to miss his bonus payment. But worse was that, in order not to cause a delay, the agreements that the tenants and I signed were not the same.

"Each thought the other was responsible for the water rates, which is the stuff of dispute. But even more shocking was my first encounter with the young letting agent. He asked whether I wanted to sell and so I asked him to come up with a figure. He offered me a great deal less than I knew it was worth, saying he wanted to buy it for himself and went on about having a new baby. It breaks every rule in the book, but when I complained to the firm I never even got a reply."