Estate agents have never been popular, but after a less than flattering TV portrayal their image is at an all-time low. Some experts in this free market bastion are saying that tighter regulation is in everyone's interests.

Penny Jackson reports.

When Nick Harrington leaves his office in south London these days he is often greeted by the honking of car horns. Since he bravely, or maybe foolishly, put his head above the parapet for a BBC TV programme on estate agents recently, he is known to many more than the clients of Winkworth. As the day-to-day drama unfolded in Streatham, so every twist and turn in the business of buying and selling a home will have had viewers wincing. Whatever they made of the more troubled transactions, and wherever their sympathies lay, few could have failed to spot the weaknesses in the system.

Clearly, there is something about this business that brings out the worst in people. If the conduct of agents leaves something to be desired, so too does that of sellers and buyers. But it is the agents who are the professionals, or would like to be regarded as such, and it comes as a shock to others in the business to discover how poor the service can be. A woman in property consultancy who is househunting at the moment finds it an eye-opener. "We should all get out into the market more often. I have only just started looking, and have been kept waiting, given the wrong appointment, and then, after I said a house didn't suit me, told by the agent that of course it did, if I would only do this or that to it. You can imagine what I felt like saying to her."

In the absence of any legal minimum standards of competence, the industry does seem to be doing its best to answer criticisms. This week has seen the ombudsman scheme extended beyond the corporate sector to include all subscribing estate agents. The three arms of the industry - the National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA), the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and the Incorporated Society of Valuers and Auctioneers (ISVA) - have all signed up.

Last year they also adopted a new code of practice. Finding a good agent should become less chancy. Andrew Jeffery, president of the NAEA says that anyone can complain to the ombudsman, and there is maximum compensation of pounds 50,000. They are also encouraging whistle-blowers so that confidential reports can be passed on to the Office of Fair Trading. "We want to know if anyone, say, is overvaluing property to get an instruction, of any conflicts of interest, and of agents ring-fencing property - taking money from a purchaser not to pass on other offers to a vendor."

The last complete year of figures from the OFT shows that of the 5,363 complaints about estate agents, nearly 3,500 were about selling techniques. The worst of the spivs and wide boys may well have been swept away in the recession, but their reputation lingers. Many in the business are only too aware why that is. They see their duty to the vendor being used as an excuse to ride roughshod over buyers, and the status quo as an excuse for turning a blind eye to bad behaviour.

At the top end of the market, FPD Savills puts all its staff into a training programme - nobody gets away with talking about "valuations" when they mean price guides. One of its most recent courses is on care for the buyer, who is often left feeling like the poor relation. "It is about time we paid them more attention, since in effect they pay all the bills," says Ian Stewart, a director of Savills. "Giving advice and full information to a purchaser doesn't mean you are not doing the best for the vendor. If you are not honest, you waste everyone's time." Ideally, an estate agent should be qualified to spot a potential problem with a property and encourage vendors to get a surveyor or builder in, not paper over the cracks. And there are too many agents who never even advise their clients. How can we justify our commission if we simply pass on an offer with no professional guidance? Some of them even ask the client what they should do," he says.

Others agree. "I despair of this industry when it is so easy to do it correctly. You can work for your client and treat everyone how you would like to be treated," says Paul Williams of Holden Matthews in Islington, north London. "The system is often criticised for being so slow, so we encourage the vendor to get moving with title deeds and even the search, as the house goes on to market. It can save weeks."

Such initiatives are becoming more common among agents who are prepared to take action about the crawling speed of transactions, and the potential for gazumping. David Bedford, of Bedfords in Bury St Edmunds, sees some 40 per cent of his sales go through with a pre-sale survey. "The vendor commissions a structural survey for which he is reimbursed by the purchasers. They then deal direct with the surveyor. The joy is that only one person has to pay for the survey. It also shows the vendor is committed to selling, which has been a problem recently."

He also believes gazumping is often caused by incompetent negotiations. "If you set a guide price, you may have more disappointed buyers but less gazumping. It is ludicrous to say you can sell a house in say two days. How can that be in the client's best interest?" Nor is he alone in disliking the practice of agents earning personal rather than office commission. "Staff in competition with each other should be selling second- hand cars, not homes."

Now that the Property Misdescription Act has put a stop to imaginative and untruthful marketing, the general consensus is that some form of licensing, and mandatory standards of competence, are overdue. Adrian Britton, RICS director of professional services, believes there must be some control over who can work as an estate agent. Even though there are a number of recognised avenues for vocational training, they are entirely voluntary. "We work in an unregulated environment, yet those powers have been available since 1979. Financial services were regulated, and yet we were not accorded the same priority even though a home is the largest investment most people will make."

George Pope of John D Wood, who has long advocated that standards of competence should be imposed, believes they should be in addition to practical experience. "Learning about an area from a busy office is invaluable. However well qualified a valuer, it is still pointless to send someone from, say, Romford to Fulham and expect them to come up with the right figure, which is not unknown for building societies." At least the valuer didn't stay in the car, which is how one consulting engineer has seen the job done.

So whether qualifications would see an end to bad behaviour is one thing, but at least an estate agent would need more than just charm and the manner of a second-hand car salesman.