Unforgiven: estate agents to be rounded up
The cowboys are at last being brought to book. But is the new Bill tough enough for the job?
Sunday 26 November 2006
Another TV programme about the men and women who help us buy and sell our homes, another burst of anger from the public.
This one, screened on BBC2 on Friday night, was called Beat the Estate Agent.
No prizes for guessing its premise: to show viewers how to offload their property without paying hefty fees to a reviled profession.
Cutting out the middle man is becoming ever more popular with sellers, who can save thousands of pounds. There are several ways to do this: use the internet to market your property yourself; pay a flat fee to a property website to do it for you; or use the cut-price service offered by the supermarket giant Asda as it muscles in on the market.
The dire position in which the traditional industry has found itself will come as no surprise to millions of Britons. Along with complaints about pensions and endowment mortgages, more readers contact The Independent on Sunday Money desk about estate agents than about any other subject.
Recent correspondence has included allegations of misrepresentation, shoddy service, rudeness and even courtroom dramas. Many people continue to express shock at the dearth of regulation and the lack of professional qualifications for those joining the industry.
The Queen's Speech earlier this month included a Bill to tackle poor practice among estate agents. But despite the proposals for reform, consumer bodies warn that those who put their homes on the market are still being sold short.
Nonetheless, the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill, proposed by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), should push through important benefits. The industry's current voluntary code of practice covers only two-thirds of agents, leaving thousands of consumers without any protection in the event of a dispute. Under the new Bill, all agents will have to join a compulsory scheme, with an independent ombudsman established to force estate agents to pay up if it finds against them.
Any agent that refuses to join the scheme will be banned from trading; all must keep written records of transactions, to be open for inspection for six years.
But critics say these changes - unlikely to make it into law before spring 2008 - do not go far enough.
There will still be neither formal regulation nor a requirement for minimum standards in the shape of any professional exams.
And the "lettings", or rental, market will remain outside the remit of the proposed legislation.
"Our proposals come in response to an OFT report on estate agency services, which concerned itself only with the buying and selling of property," says a spokes-man for the DTI. "[However], there would be nothing to stop the approved compulsory ombudsman scheme dealing with complaints about letting agents on a voluntary basis."
Another question mark hangs over whether there will be one single industry ombudsman or two, with powers and responsibilities divided between them. This idea "hasn't been ruled out", adds the DTI spokesman.
That worries those who run the current voluntary schemes, including the Ombudsman for Estate Agents (OEA).
"You need a single code of protection that consumers can refer to," says Stephen Carr-Smith, head of the OEA. "If there's more than one ombudsman, [I fear] estate agents will wriggle to the lowest common denominator."
The OEA wants to be appointed the new statutory ombudsman but it could face a challenge from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. The final decision rests with the OFT.
The consumer body Which? has run its "Move It" campaign for two and half years, lobbying the Government to introduce regulation and licences for estate agents, to be awarded by an independent body. It says the Bill falls far short of what is required.
"The lack of [industry] qualifications is worrying," says campaign manager Louise Restell. "A licence would be a reassurance for consumers - it's not easy to see if you're being duped by an unscrupulous agent."
Peter Bolton-King, chief executive of the National Association of Estate Agents, agrees. "The Government seems to think that redress on its own is enough," he says, "but you need to make sure that the problems don't emerge in the first place. Qualifications would keep the consumers happy."
Which? is to brief the House of Lords ahead of the Bill's second reading. It isn't convinced that the OEA is the right body to be put in charge and says consumers don't really know what to expect from its current redress system.
"There are 10,500 estate agents and in 2005 there were 6,201 complaints - that's more than one for every other firm."
The number of initial inquiries to the OEA has risen by 70 per cent since 1998. They reached a peak in 2002 at 6,462 before slipping back, but have bounced back from last year's 5,500.
For now, the best advice to buyers and sellers is to pick an estate agent that is a member of the OEA's voluntary scheme (the OEA symbol has to be displayed in the window). And they should ask plenty of questions of agents before appointing an agent.
"Ask about service levels, redress and whether they have a complaints procedure," says Mr Bolton-King.
If you're thinking of employing an estate agent who isn't a member, find out why they haven't joined and ask to speak to other recent clients.
Buyers beware of new-build home headaches
Is 31 May really the day when we have paid all of our tax for the year?
Women born in 1950s facing severe financial hardship over pensions could have fates changed by Ros Altmann - should she choose to help
Questions of Cash: We bought the special ceramic poppies. Then the saga began
Five Questions On: GB Energy's new tariff
- 1 Man on naked bike ride gets ejected after becoming aroused
- 3 Ann Summers survey reveals the UK's favourite sex position
- 4 Jaden Smith wears gender fluid dress to high school prom with Hunger Games actress
- 5 How much sex should I be having?
Migrants in Kos: Photos show real tragedy after Brits abroad complain of 'awkward' holidays
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
Michael Gove determined to scrap the Human Rights Act – even if Scotland retains it
Threat to scrap Human Rights Act could see UK follow Nazi example, warns UN official
Why this year's general election was the most unfair in Britain's history
iJobs Money & Business
£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's fastest growing, multi...
£70000 - £90000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Financial Reporting Manager i...
£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They win lots of awards for the...
£13500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This nationwide enforcement com...
Day In a Page
In the pretty market town of Bungay, this grade II-listed Mill House is arranged over four floors, offering four bedrooms and three reception areas.
This four-bedroom Edwardian home offers a combination of original features and contemporary design after a renovation by the current owners.
This four-bedroom home offers a vaulted ceiling in a breakfast room that's ideal for summer entertaining with doors that open to the patio and garden.
On the market for the first time in more than 50 years, this six-bedroom home is a project with vast potential - spread over three floors of living space.
This five-bedroom home comes with a range of outbuildings including a large barn which could be converted into a self-contained granny-flat or rental.
Surrounded by rolling countryside, this four-bedroom barn conversion comes with a self-contained, one-bedroom annexe that could serve as an office or a holiday let.
Located near Harrogate town centre, this five-bedroom Victorian terrace is arranged over three storeys while a current study serves as an optional sixth bedroom.
A ground-floor flat in a country house, located a mile from Sway; this two-bedroom home would make an ideal weekend retreat on the edge of the New Forest.
On a popular residential lane in Caterham on the Hill, this four-bedroom family home offers a secluded garden and a convenient location for local schools and public transport.
Just a short walk from Westerham green, this three-bedroom cottage has a light kitchen with exposed brickwork and double doors that lead to a south-facing garden.
In a prime spot opposite the River Thames, this one-bedroom flat has an 18sq ft reception room with glass doors that open out to a private terrace.
Set in the hills above Llanwrda Village, west Wales, this 18th-century three-bedroom farmhouse has holiday-let potential from a separate barn conversion and annexe.
This charming end-of-terrace townhouse is arranged over three floors, with two double bedrooms and a private courtyard garden located at the rear of the property.
Located in the University area, this semi-detached five-bedroom home is arranged over three floors - there's even a rear garden and off-road parking too.
Only a few minutes' drive from the charming town of Marlow, this two-bedroom home sits on the private riverside estate of Harleyford.
This detached four-bedroom home in Middleyard is arranged over two floors, with features that include a wood-burning stove and bespoke oak staircase.
In a row of eight detached Georgian residences, this five-bedroom home offers views of The Sound, Mount Edgcumbe and Cornwall from its impressive veranda and full-length balcony.
If you love cooking for friends this two-bedroom flat - complete with views of the iconic Battersea Power Station and an open-plan kitchen/dining area - will go down a treat.
Located above Grasmere village, this five-bedroom home is arranged over three floors and offers countryside views across Grasmere Lake towards Silver Howe.
Surrounded by the Western fells, this five-bedroom Georgian home retains many original features including panel-plastered ceilings, sash windows and fireplaces.
This six-bedroom home is set amongst three acres of grounds. Currently a large family home, Clift Hill has potential to make a B&B, subject to change of use permissions.
A former period coach house, Glebe Farm Stable is now a three-bedroom cottage with a double car barn, office, kennels and an outbuilding that's currently used as a gym.
Surrounded by woodland, this five-bedroom manor house has plenty of outdoor storage space in the form of three converted loose boxes, two smaller outhouses and a woodstore.
This four-bedroom detached home comes with a double carport, useful workshop, garden and two walkways that offer views of the adjacent countryside.
With space for an equestrian business, a greenhouse for growing your own veg, a wine store and a gym; this five-bedroom home has all the ingredients for a country retreat.
The decked roof terrace of this two-bedroom flat is perfect for summer drinks while large windows and ample storage space make for a light and spacious interior.
Set sail for this four-bedroom farmhouse in Cowes. With five acres of land and an indoor pool, this home oozes character. There is even potential to let a one-bedroom annexe.
Surrounded by approximately 15 acres of grounds, this six-bedroom grade II-listed home has been extensively refurbished yet retains many period features.
This four-bedroom home comes with a two-bedroom cottage and commercial office, with planning to extend, in a stunning courtyard setting.
In a pretty Norfolk village, this four-bedroom family home is surrounded by landscaped gardens, with even a self-contained annex for guests.
A few miles from the seaside at Perranporth, this four-bedroom farmhouse sits amongst nine acres of idyllic grounds - including a lake and two barns used as holiday lets.
This five-bedroom home is arranged over three floors of a converted Victorian hospital, offering spectacular views of the Pentland Hills - only three miles from the city centre.
This four-bedroom detached home comes with grounds that span to approximately 2.5 acres, as well as two large patio areas and a double garage.
This four-bedroom cottage is a Grade II-listed town house, well-located for the thriving market town of Nailsworth.
A four-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of a stunning period property in North Yorkshire, with two kitchens and a large south-west facing garden.
This high-spec two-bedroom home is part of a smart collection of new flats at Beaufort Park and has a large decked balcony that's perfect for summer drinks.
Capitalise on the fabulous views of Trevone Bay by taking two homes and creating one spacious boutique B&B. Just a cliff-top walk from Padstow.
Overlooking a golf course, this six-bedroom Edwardian detached home spans four storeys and retains many period features including the original, operational servants' bells...
On the edge of the city, this six-bedroom home comes with an outdoor swimming pool and a large garage block that has annexe potential.
In a Grade II-listed manor just outside of Bath, this three-bedroom home is arranged on two floors with a skylight in a vaulted roof line.
Open the living room's bi-fold wooden doors to reveal a retro-style kitchen, and a conservatory leading to a paved garden at this three-bedroom home.
A Grade II-listed, four-bedroom home, in a charming Somerset village, with a two-storey studio that could be converted into a holiday cottage
A modern four-bedroom Victorian home, within walking distance to the high street
A luxury apartment in the Gothic mansion of Wyfold Court in Kingwood, offers six bedrooms spread over three floors and a turret
This school conversion, near Stockwell Tube, oozes New York loft style. The one-bedroom flat features double height ceilings and exposed brick work
This six-bedroom Georgian home is on three floors with open fireplaces, a two-oven Aga, an annexe, and cottage gardens with outbuildings and a car barn
High Crest House covers an impressive 9384sq ft, with almost three acres of grounds including a tennis court and summer house enclosed by electric gates
A six-bedroom farmhouse with separate accommodation in converted stables. Situated in the village of Church Aston, within walking distance to the market town
A two-bedroom flat with under-heated walnut floors and bespoke built-in storage. The Tube and Clapham Common are a short stroll away
A refurbished seven-bedroom townhouse with staff quarters, cinema room, superb gym, steam room and plunge pool