Estate agents set up council tax appeals service

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The Independent Online
ESTATE AGENTS all over the country are offering to undertake appeals against council tax banding valuations.

In many cases they will be making judgements about the work of fellow estate agents as they were responsible for most of the original assessments for the tax, which comes into force on 1 April. The Valuation Office, an arm of the Inland Revenue, did 43 per cent of the valuations, the other 57 per cent were done by the private sector, mainly estate agents.

The estate agents, which had to bid for contracts to carry out the original valuations, were paid, on average, pounds 1.58 per property.

They are not allowed, as a condition of the contracts, to undertake appeals involving property which they originally valued for the council tax. But there are no restrictions for other properties, even if they are in the same area.

The Valuation Office stressed yesterday that residents did not need to pay to make appeals. 'The best information exists at the local valuation office. They have all the details on sale prices and are in full possession of the facts.'

Residents in Tiverton, Devon, were concerned when a local estate agent, Stags, offered to provide an appeals service. Letters addressed to 'The Occupier', stated on the envelope: 'COUNCIL TAX. You May Appeal Against the Assessment.' Barbara McArthur, of Oakford in Tiverton, said: 'We saw the brown envelope and thought it was something official from the council about the tax. I became incensed when I realised it was a letter from Stags. This area had been valued by them in the first place.'

In fact, the letter should not have gone to them. The Royal Mail had delivered the letters in error, and subsequently apologised 'unreservedly'.

Peter Symonds, of Stags' office in Totnes, said: 'The envelope was buff-coloured with black type but it was very clear from the letter inside who it was from.' Stags had assessed nearly 50,000 properties for council tax in other areas, such as Barnstaple and Plymouth in Devon. They were not undertaking appeals for any property which they had valued.

For pounds 25, Stags offers to inspect a property and advise if there are grounds for appeal. For a further pounds 25 it will submit an appeal to the Valuation Office and negotiate with the valuer. If successful, another pounds 25 fee will be charged.

As a result of the letters, the council was 'inundated' by calls from people who thought it was an official communication. 'We put out a statement to the local press to say that it did not come from us and appeals were free,' a spokeswoman said.

Another estate agent, Lines of Huntingdon, is offering similar service for a pounds 25 per valuation plus a further pounds 25 for a representation to the Valuation Office. Lines valued more than 30,000 houses in the area but cannot appeal against any of these original values.

Hamptons carried out 15,000 valuations in Farnham, Surrey. It is undertaking appeals for pounds 40 plus VAT in areas such as Godalming and Guildford, where it did not do valuations.

A company spokesman, Michael Harrap, said that because of time constraints when the original valuations were done, there were bound to be cases where the banding was wrong.

A spokesman for the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors said the contracts for the original valuations were strict and rigidly enforced. The Valuation Office assisted by providing relevant information, but this was confidential and could not be passed from one estate agent to another.

The Association of County Councils said residents should not assume that a successful appeal would mean a lower council tax. 'They could end up in a higher band as a result. An individual can do a lot themselves . . .They can get a good feel about whether they are rightly or wrongly banded. Our advice is to be wary about paying for something that is free.'

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