Sam Dunn: Estate agents: in need of modernisation

Their public image is worse than that of journalists

I like estate agents for the wrong reason. Their reputation in countless job surveys as grubby charlatans out to turn a fast buck places them a notch below journalists. But providing me with a crumb of professional pride is not enough to overlook accusations of shoddy service.

Many homeowners will have a stack of horror anecdotes, and an Office of Fair Trading (OFT) report in 2004 detailed the broad levels of unhappiness with agents. These included poor sales practices; causing unnecessary delays in the sale process; failure to pass offers on to vendors; misleading property descriptions; and lack of competition on fees.

The problems start with a woeful lack of regulation that has led to wild differences in standards between property agents, as well as doing little to protect buyers from rogue traders and conmen.

Over the past two years, the industry has tried to improve customer service, but it has been hampered by a lack of cohesion.

Instead of a single unifying code, the National Association of Estate Agents and the Ombudsman for Estate Agents (OEA) - competing professional bodies - run rival rules of conduct for their members.

This is hopelessly confusing for consumers (is one code better than the other?) and since neither code is compulsory, it's easy to overlook both or have no idea whether an agent is a member of either organisation.

I'll bet few buyers know which logo to check for, or even what they look like.

Change for the better can be awfully slow - especially when the industry in question has become fat on its current way of doing things.

But there are hopes that new legislation forcing all agents to sign up to a single trade body could soon be introduced. It's expected that the Queen's Speech in November will include it.

For now, however, we have little choice but to make do with what we've got - and this, happily, is about to improve. From today, a revamped OEA code of practice - approved by the OFT - for member estate agents insists on greater transparency and accountability.

The body, which represents half of all estate agents, says its members must now express their fee as a definite sum and not just as a percentage; put all confirmed offers in writing; and tell any property viewers whether a vendor has already accepted an offer.

It's a shame these measures are being heralded as big improvements when they really should be the bare minimum.

I look forward to the day when estate agents are held in higher esteem.

There's not enough room for all of us at the bottom.

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