The recession may have severely dented the property market, but new figures show it has also prompted a surge in official complaints against those who make their living from it – estate agents, lettings companies, developers and even surveyors show big rises.
The Property Ombudsman Scheme (POS) – the best-known redress system for buyers, sellers and tenants – received well over 10,000 complaints last year, with those in the lettings sector of the market alone surging by 79 per cent since late 2008.
Yet this is not just another set of property-market statistics, because behind every complaint lies a human story, often one of genuine distress. One woman complained of 114 faults in the new home she bought in Peterborough, of which 86 were upheld by an independent investigator; a young tenant in south London spent months trying to recover the £1,600 deposit in a dispute with her landlord and lettings agent; and a Northamptonshire homeowner complained after a wall collapsed in his home, which had recently been given signed off by a surveyor. There are, of course, two sides to every story but the rise in complaints suggests that, when it comes to bricks and mortar, we are increasingly aware of our rights.
The POS says many many complaints it receives cannot be acted upon, either because they refer to agents who are not in the POS (all agents must be in a redress scheme, but not necessarily this one), or because the complaints cover agents' activities outside the scheme's precisely defined scope. So in the third quarter of 2009, the POS received 3,430 complaints in all, up from 3,204 in the second quarter. Both figures were well up on the same periods of 2008. The Ombudsman, Christopher Hamer, is investigating 249 of the the third-quarter complaints and 221 of those made in quarter two.
The major issue in the lettings complaints is the return – or non-return – of tenancy deposits. There has also been a hike in complaints from buyers and sellers about estate agents' accuracy when creating the now mandatory Home Information Packs (HIPs), Some estate agents have themselves complained to the POS about rival firms touting for business – that is, trying to poach sellers who have already instructed an agent to sell their home. Hamer says his workload changed a few months after the credit crunch began, with a the shift in emphasis from property sales to rentals. "Trends in the market are mirrored in the number of cases that I am asked to decide about three to four months later," he says.
Official complaints about the quality of newly built homes have also soared. The National House-Building Council, which offers warranties on the vast majority of these homes, received 64,000 complaints in 2008/9. This is only slightly up on the year before, but comes in a period seeing a severe drop in house-building because of the downturn. This latest rise is part of a long-term trend: the NHBC paid out £59m in compensation in 2008/9 compared with £34m in 2003/4.
The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) also reports a significant rise in disgruntled buyers of newly built homes. During the past year, a survey of 1,000 purchasers found almost a third claimed they could not move in on the promised date and 3 per cent experienced a year's delay. A full 70 per cent of buyers found faults, with 2 per cent waiting a year for them to be fixed. Just under a quarter of buyers said quality was low. The OFT has consequently given the industry until March to agree a new redress system. "Purchasers, rightly, demand everything is perfect for their money," says Sarah Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the NHBC. But the complaints do not stop there. A survey last year by the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) of 1,330 tenants and 424 individual lettings agency branches revealed a host of dissatisfied renters and landlords: 73 per cent of tenants were dissatisfied with lettings agents, chiefly over the time it took to carry out repairs. In turn, landlords were unhappy at agents' charges, such as fees for checking tenants' references – which can vary from £10 to £275 – and the tenancy-renewal fee, which can vary from £12 to £200.
"There are so few controls over who can set up as a letting agent and the charges they can make that it is tantamount to a licence to print money," says David Harker, the CAB's chief executive. His concerns are echoed by the National Landlords Association (NLA) which says "thousands" of unscrupulous landlords claim membership of the NLA or other bodies to bolster their status in front of prospective tenants.
So what does this all mean? It may be that Britain's tenants, buyers, sellers and landlords are simply emulating their counterparts in the US and elsewhere by standing up for their rights. It may also show the £11,000 cost of moving home – three times the sum a decade ago – pushes us to demand value for money from everyone. On the other hand, there's a recession on. So it may be that we are all just a bit grumpier.
Seeking redress: A complainer's guide
* Property Ombudsman Scheme
If your agent subscribes to the scheme, you may complain if you have lost money or suffered problems by an agent's inefficiency or delay ( tpos.co.uk, 01722 333306).
* Office of Fair Trading
Agents can be banned if they breach the Estate Agents Act 1979, by, for example, failing to pass on an offer. Or break the Property Misdescriptions Act 1991,by, say, giving false details ( oft.gov.uk, 020 7211 8000).
* Surveyors Ombudsman Scheme
Investigates complaints against surveyors or estate agents in the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors about the accuracy of surveys and problems with buying and selling ( surveyorsombudsman.org.uk, 01925 530270).
* National Association of Estate Agents
Complaints may, ultimately, lead to an agent's expulsion from their leading professional body ( naea.co.uk, 01926 496800).