Question: We have recently had a nightmare experience with two separate estate agents who refused to pass on our offers for properties unless we were prepared to sit down with their staff and discuss finances with them. Although we already have a mortgage in principle with a well-known broker and have a solicitor, this seemed to count for nothing. Can they do this? Each agent made it very clear we had to talk about a possible mortgage with them before an offer would go in.
Katherine Clemence, south London
Answer: In a word, no. Both agents are stomping all over legislation brought about to protect you from such behaviour.
Their shockingly devious sales practice is a breach of what's known, rather aptly, as the Estate Agents (Undesirable Practices) (No 2) Order, 1991. The law clearly forbids "discrimination against a prospective purchaser by an estate agent on the grounds that that purchaser will not be, or is unlikely to be, accepting services."
Both agents have brazenly ignored this and done you a great disservice, says Christopher Hamer, the Property Ombudsman at www.tpos.co.uk. "By law, an agent cannot make it a condition of an offer that you use their financial services. This is particularly tricky as a good relationship with an estate agent can smooth the ups and downs of buying."
One explanation could be that, in tougher commercial climes for property agents, there is greater sales pressure on staff to bring in bigger commissions.
However, such a flagrant breach of the rules is a very high risk strategy since you are well within your rights to instantly take them to the Ombudsman – in fact, the Office of Fair Trading can bar any agent who fails to comply with the 1991 Order or continues to make such claims.
Happily, every agency must now belong to one of two ombudsmen that allow for redress or compensation when things go wrong – Mr Hamer's Property Ombudsman or the alternative (and confusingly named) Ombudsman Services: Property at www.surveyors-ombudsman.org.uk/
If you're still interested in the properties on offer, go back to the agents and firmly explain that their practice is unlawful and insist that it should stop before a report to the ombudsman. It's also worth pointing out that an estate agent can refuse to put your offer forward to a seller but in rather different circumstances.
Although the law also stresses that an agent must swiftly forward all offers, in writing, to the vendor, it also points out that a seller can ask their agent not to forward any offers under a threshold.
Where a home is on sale for £500,000, say, the vendor can request only offers above this should be passed on for serious consideration.