Property: Small errors lead to exaggerated claims: The Property Misdescriptions Act was meant to protect consumers, but some are using it as an offensive weapon, says Anne Spackman

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The Independent Online
There are many ways of describing Shuttle Cottage, off Goldington Road in Bedford, but 'detached' is not one of them. The property is attached to what was once a stable block which forms part of a light-industrial estate.

Under the Property Misdescriptions Act, the use of the word 'detached' brought a fine for Russell Beard of Cooper Beard in Bedford. His defence was that the cottage was not attached to another house.

He got another fine for describing the property as '18th-century with Georgian features'. When asked how the cottage came to be described as such, the agent replied that he knew it was 18th-century because it was built in 1865.

For each of these errors Mr Beard was fined pounds 100, far less than the hefty pounds 500 imposed on Ian Sinclair, who sells properties in the Gorleston-on-Sea area in Norfolk. The first victim of the Act, Mr Sinclair was charged for failing to change a house price on a card in his window.

Light comedy may go some way to explaining Mr Beard's small fine. The county archivist was called on to verify the true age of the property in court. Having answered the magistrates' questions, he was then asked how he pleaded. Utterly innocent, he said, given he was a witness, not the accused.

This was exactly the kind of case that the Property Misdescriptions Act was brought in to deal with a year ago. There have been some seven successful prosecutions so far, with a similar number in the pipeline.

Given the thousands of house sales every year, it seems a small figure. This is partly because most agents have checked their details thoroughly since the Act came into effect. But it is also because a number of complainants have gone back to the agent, rather than a trading standards officer, and settled privately.

Sometimes these settlements have been reasonable. An agent near Manchester described a house as having double-glazing. In fact only one set of French windows was double-glazed - something that did not emerge until after the new owner had bought the property. He told the agent, who then paid more than pounds 2,000 for the rest of the house to be double-glazed.

But there are other cases where the Act is being used to blackmail agents who would rather pay up than risk having their reputation blemished. And David Perkins, a former president of the National Association of Estate Agents, tells of a different sort of case involving a reputable agent in the South.

The agent took on a large period house in the depths of the recession, before the Act came into effect. It was priced at pounds 435,000. Eventually a buyer was found who offered pounds 385,000. Just before the deal was due to be completed a second person offered pounds 400,000. The initial buyer was furious, but upped his offer to pounds 415,000 in order to secure the purchase.

In the details, the house had been described as dating from 1780 - information given by the seller to the agent in good faith. After the new purchaser moved in he sent the agent a draft letter that he said he was proposing to send to his local trading standards officer.

The letter said the purchaser had made some enquiries and discovered the house was built in 1837, not 1780. Unless he heard from the agent 'meaningfully', the letter would be sent on, he said.

When the agent phoned back, the buyer, who was an architect, said that anyone with a knowledge of the area would have known that the house was not built until after 1800. He had been aware of this before he bought it, but the agent should have checked, he argued. When asked what compensation he was after, the buyer said he did not want any money. He was just looking to drag the agent's name through the dirt.

On David Perkins's advice, the agent contacted his local trading standards officer, who wrote to the purchaser asking him to explain how the difference in the age of the house had materially affected him. The agent is not to be prosecuted.

In another recent situation, a buyer asked a central London agent to pay his lawyer's and surveyor's fees of pounds 3,000 on a purchase that had collapsed because of a problem with the deeds - something for which the solicitor is responsible.

David Perkins said: 'No one has ever said that this Act was meant to blame the seller's agent for the mistake of the buyer's lawyer. Buyers are using the Act to blackmail estate agents. The worst thing is a number of agents are paying up, rather than have the adverse publicity.'

In another case a buyer complained that an agent had published a misleading price when a house went for more than the asking price as a result of competition among buyers. If this is a criminal offence it is being committed on a daily basis in some parts of the country.

Mr Perkins thinks things have gone too far. 'The whole purpose of the Act was to stop agents running misleading advertising,' he said. 'At no stage did anyone consider implications like this.'

While he supports the principle of the Property Misdescriptions Act, he would like to see it more consistently interpreted and has written to Neil Hamilton at the Department of Trade and Industry to ask for the Act to be tightened up.

Meanwhile he has started Estate Agency Extra, a bulletin to keep agents informed of the latest property misdescriptions news. In it Louis de Soissons of Savills in Norwich sums up the most obvious effect of the Act so far. 'We're careful to the verge of paranoia,' he writes, 'because the teeth of this Act are very strong. Until we have some case law we do not know how rigorously it is going to be enforced.'

Estate Agency Extra is available from David Perkins, PO Box 176, Oxford OX2 8PD (0865 310112).

(Photograph omitted)