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Estate agent complaints up by 45%: Watchdog calls for an end to gazumping

THE ESTATE agents' watchdog yesterday called for a change in the system of buying and selling houses in England and Wales following a 45 per cent increase in complaints from the public last year.

A system should be introduced that would eliminate gazumping, which has returned to become the single issue causing most anger among housebuyers, David Quayle, the Ombudsman for Corporate Estate Agents, said.

Mr Quayle, whose work covers agents owned by a financial institution, suggests a move towards the Scottish system of house purchase in his 1993 report. In Scotland, both parties are locked into an agreement from the time an offer is accepted, rather than when contracts are exchanged.

He told a press conference in London yesterday: 'I see such evidence of unhappiness and expense that it is surely time to have a look at doing things differently. Too many people think they have a firm agreement with the seller and at the end of the day find themselves out of pocket and regard themselves as cheated.'

His remarks were based partly on his own experience in the sale of three properties in the past four years, as either an owner or executor. 'I find it difficult to accept that we just drift into the next century without challenging whether we have got things as right as possible,' Mr Quayle said.

His remarks were echoed by Baroness Mallalieu, a QC and chair of the ombudsman's council. She said: 'The law is something of a shambles. It maximises the opportunities for disappointment, unnecessary expense and delay, for which estate agents too often get the blame.'

The ombudsman, who covers about one-third of estate agents, received 2,340 complaints against agents. Just 15 of those came from Scotland. For the first time he found more often in favour of member agents than the public.

Mr Quayle said this reflected both an improvement in agents' behaviour, as well as an increase in attempts by sellers to avoid paying agents their commission.

The highest award of compensation ever made by the ombudsman went to a couple involved in a part-exchange deal. Mr and Mrs E were buying a new home from a developer who was taking their old home in part exchange.

They already had a buyer who had agreed to pay pounds 90,000 for their old home. The agent, with no authorisation from the couple, privately negotiated with the developer and the buyer to sell the house for pounds 85,950. Mr and Mrs E were awarded pounds 5,500 for the loss, inconvenience and stress.