Property: Lead piping

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NIGEL McCULLOUGH is an estate agent with a criminal record. His crime was not to notice that some concealed piping in a house he was selling was lead, showing the house could not have been replumbed in 1988 as his client had told him and had confirmed in writing.

Mr McCullough, an agent with 25 unblemished years' experience, was selling a Fifties semi in the Loopland area of Belfast for pounds 32,500. The house was bought by Robert and Edna Wilkinson in the summer of 1993. According to the sales details it had been replumbed in 1988.

When the Wilkinsons discovered the lead in the kitchen, they called Mr McCullough who immediately agreed the matter would have to be put right. When there was a disagreement over the price for the job, Mr Wilkinson reported the case to trading standards officers under the Property Misdescriptions Act.

The house had been sold by Tom McKeown on behalf of his father. He was horrified to discover he had supplied incorrect information to the agent. He went back to his father and found that although the solid-fuel heating system had been replumbed, the hot and cold water pipes had not. He offered to pay for the work, which cost him nearly pounds 1,000.

Despite the fact that the mistake was rectified at no cost to the buyer, and despite the fact that the agent used a seller's questionnaire to confirm all the sales details, he was prosecuted. Belfast magistrates said they accepted it was a 'genuine and innocent mistake', but they fined him pounds 50.

The Property Misdescriptions Act was brought in to deal with the many cowboys who went into estate agency in the Eighties. But if trading standards officers continue to interpret it this tightly, agents may ask for it to be scrapped - with some justification. That would be bad news for the public who need some form of redress against agents who deceive them in their most important purchase.