Estate Agents under the microscope: 'Anyone can set up in this business. You don't require any qualification or training'

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The Independent Online

Along with traffic wardens, bouncers and journalists, estate agents routinely come near the top of any poll of the most disliked professions.

Along with traffic wardens, bouncers and journalists, estate agents routinely come near the top of any poll of the most disliked professions.

A survey by Five, the television channel, found 83 per cent of the country distrusted them.

But an Office of Fair Trading report into the trade, published in March, did not recommend a crackdown on what the public generally perceive to be widespread dubious practices.

Some of them are well-known, such as gazumping or flyboarding - putting up boards outside random houses to give the appearance that business is healthy - while others are less so, like losing house keys so that rival estate agents cannot show clients round.

But it was not always so.

Peter Bolton King, the chief executive of the National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA), which wants estate agents to be licensed, said: "When I first became an estate agent in 1973, the profession was dominated by local partnerships or family-run firms with a small number of offices in a town and surrounding local villages. A lot of old-style partners had been there for donkeys years.

"Back then, a customer would ask for your advice, you'd give it and they would accept it without question. Today, they would certainly question it."

Estate agency as a profession can be traced back to the beginning of the 18th century. Fledgling agencies often evolved from established firms in other fields.

Mr Bolton King said: "My firm, Locke & England in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, had a background in furnishing dating back to 1830. Like hundreds of others, it evolved into selling properties because demand increased.

"Originally, they were property auctions. There would not have been any shop front full of photos and little advertising - just a notice saying that a property would be auctioned on such and such a date.

"It all changed in the 1980s when large financial firms moved into estate agency because they thought it would be a route to additional sources of finance. The rogue element followed as there was lots of money and also a lot of pressure to deliver results to the City. It was seen as an easy buck.

"There were rumours that people were paying £500,000 for small estate agency firms which, for small partners, was like winning the lottery."

Economic boom and huge demand for homes, particularly in the South-east, fuelled the massive surge in house prices in the Eighties, and in the buying frenzy of the time, the term gazumping became commonplace in the British vernacular.

The NAEA is calling for a licensing system for the industry to be set up and wants all estate agents to sit exams.

Emma Harrison, a senior campaigner at Which? magazine, said: "We are in the rare position where both consumers and the professional body are calling for the Government to introduce licensing. Barriers to entry in the profession are so low that anyone can set up an estate agency without any qualification or training. Some are good but others make quick money and leave.''

THE TRICKS OF THE TRADE

Gazumping - After the buyer and seller have agreed an offer, a new buyer offers more money. The law permits this practice until a binding contract is entered into by both sides.

Falsely undervaluing - The estate agent marks down the value of the property so a friend or associate can buy it at a bargain price, often quickly reselling it at the real market value. Failing to declare a personal interest is illegal.

Not passing on offers - A potential purchaser bribes an agent not to tell the seller of other offers or interest. Failing to inform the seller of an offer is in breach of the Estate Agents Act.

Lying - Inventing offers or other interested buyers to push up the price of a property is also illegal.

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