Property: Gross disservice

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The Independent Online
A SURE sign that the property market is improving is the increase in complaints about estate agents. During the recession, when buyers were scarce, they were treated with kid gloves. Now that they are more plentiful, it seems it's back to the bad old days.

Jane Morris is a first-time buyer in Leicester. As in most towns, the low end of the market is dominated by national chains owned by financial services companies. You would think that, as their parent companies are desperate for the mortgage business, they might be extra nice to first-time buyers. But no.

'When I go into estate agents' offices I feel I should apologise for disturbing them,' Ms Morris said. 'They just hand you a couple of sheets of paper and that's it. What I needed was some help.'

Instead, she tramped the streets until she found an end-of-terrace that she could just afford. The price had been reduced by pounds 3,000. Was this because the property needed work, or because the vendor was keen to get a quick sale? she asked the agent.

It had been surveyed in August, said the agent, but the sale hadn't proceeded because the prospective purchaser wasn't too happy with it, though no one seemed to know what the problems were. Ms Morris duly forked out pounds 176 to discover that the house needed a new roof, a damp-proof course, the replacement of rotting timbers and a structural engineer's report to allay subsidence fears.

She returned to the agent, pointing out that he must have known the scale of the problems and could have saved her a lot of money. 'We don't have to tell you anything about the work that is required,' he said. A subsequent call to the trading standards officer confirmed that position.

What the agent did is not illegal under the Property Misdescriptions Act, since he made no suggestion, verbally or in writing, that the house was sound and ready to move into. But who gains from this sort of behaviour? The agent's stock response that they are acting in the best interests of the vendor is a nonsense in a case like this. The house is bound to be surveyed, if not by the buyer, then by his lender, and all the faults will come up.

If they really had the vendor's best interests at heart, they would say that the property needed some remedial or structural repairs, and that the price reflected this.

MY SECOND unhappy customer is a colleague who was out house- hunting in north London one Saturday morning. She and her husband visited agents in Golders Green, Belsize Park and Islington, to see what pounds 180,000 would buy.

In Golders Green she found that, for every question she asked, her husband received an answer. In Belsize Park she was met with disinterest and sneers. But it was at Winkworths in Islington that she suffered the most blatant put- down. The agent looked up as she and her husband walked towards his desk. 'Lettings?' he asked.

'No, actually we were looking to buy,' they replied.

'One-bedroom flats start at about pounds 50,000,' he said. They asked to see houses up to pounds 180,000. He returned with a few sets of details, none higher than pounds 150,000.

My colleague wondered what she had done to deserve such treatment? Should she have put on her office suit before venturing out? Or should she walk in dropping a trail of pounds 10 notes?

Of course, you are entitled to courtesy and personal attention whether you are spending pounds 30,000 or pounds 300,000 on a house. At the top of the market those qualities are easy to find. But if any reader has experienced them lower down the price scale, would they like to pass on the recommendation to other readers? There is business out there to be had.

Anne Spackman was last week highly commended in the ISVA Property Journalist of the Year awards.