Property: We can't tell you how wonderful it is: New rules mean agents and sellers must mind their language, reports David Lawson

Click to follow
The Independent Online
RICHARD and Jane Faire think their house is special. 'We saved it from demolition 24 years ago and want to tell potential buyers how much it has meant - and still means - to us,' says Jane. So they wrote a long and emotional eulogy, insisting it went on the front of their brochure.

But it will not be there tomorrow. Draconian new legislation comes into force which prevents agents publishing anything they cannot stand up in court - even sellers' views on their own homes.

'If they want to get the message across they could hand out a leaflet to callers,' says Robert Kemp of the agents William H Brown. 'But we cannot print it because there is so much we cannot confirm.'

The Faires (pictured) wax lyrical about their property, but terms such as 'charming', 'beautiful', 'great potential' - until now basic agents' vocabulary - are ringing alarm bells across the country. They say their house is 'spacious yet compact', the shops 'convenient', the grounds 'secluded' and public transport 'excellent'. Every one of these expressions could be disputed because they are imprecise.

Praise has been heaped on the new Property Misdescriptions Act. Its formidable rules about accuracy will blow away the double-talk and hyperbole which led to almost a thousand complaints a year about misleading claims such as 'easily accessible' shops which proved to be miles away, 'new' kitchens that came out of the Ark, and towering electricity pylons mysteriously missed from agents' photographs.

But owners may find that agents become so frightened of huge fines that they throw away the truth with the lies, and homes may become even harder to sell. 'You claim the place has been rewired? Show me the receipts,' agents may demand. 'You have central heating? Turn it on to prove that it works. And, by the way, all this extra checking means that my fees will go up.'

The scenario is not so far-fetched, says Roy Chapman, an agent in Essex who has been stripping his adverts of all detail in advance. 'How can I prove shops are convenient?' he says. 'They may be accessible to a fit and able buyer, but not to a mother with a pushchair or old person. And how could I stand up in court and prove a house is elegant or attractive? What is elegant to me may be ugly to you.'

But Michael Wadsley, Mr Chapman's local trading standards officer, who would make the decisions to prosecute, says: 'We are only asking them to tell the truth. If they say a home has certain facilities, they should be able to prove it. But we are not going to jump down their throat over words such as 'elegant', because that is subjective.'

The Act is not meant to tie sellers' hands so tightly, aiming only to stamp out blatantly false claims. It has also been welcomed by professional bodies such as the National Association of Estate Agents as a way of kicking out the cowboys. But everyone is playing ultra- safe, and mountains of paperwork peppered with loose words have already been scrapped. Take the Coppice, a cluster of new homes at Scaynes Hill, West Sussex. A Sainsbury's superstore is 'just around the corner', according to the builder's leaflet. 'Big corner,' writes an anonymous Independent reader. 'By our reckoning it's about four miles away in Haywards Heath.'

Richard Terry, sales director of Clarke Homes South insists that such phrases were never intended to mislead. 'But I suppose they will now have to go. Property details will become incredibly boring.'

All this breast-beating will cut no ice with groups such as the Consumers' Association, which have campaigned long and hard for more protection. Nor the buyers who have suffered. One was given a wrong address; another was told that a bedroom measured 12ft by 9ft - but there was no mention that it tapered to 3ft 6ins at one end.

When the legislation was going through Parliament, MPs heard of one Cambridge house where the garden was 80 per cent smaller than described. A 'new' roof on a Bristol house required pounds 3,000-worth of repairs and a Lincolnshire buyer was landed with a pounds 55,000 rebuilding bill for a home described by two agents as 'in superb decorative and structural condition'.

Some agents even believe more honesty will help rather than hinder owners. Flats could sell much more quickly, says Stephen Hurford of William H Brown in London, where more than a third of deals fall through because buyers lose patience during the checking of leases and service charges.

'We now have to obtain more detailed information from sellers before we start selling,' he says. That could speed up deals by 500 per cent, helped by a new service called Swift Exchange under which solicitors Philip Hodges make all the pre-sale checks for owners.

But Richard and Jane Faire may not be the only sellers complaining that they are prevented from describing their own homes tomorrow. 'I have been writing particulars in plain English for years, but on countless occasions I have the draft particulars returned rewritten in appalling agentese,' says Edward Waterson of Carter Jonas in York. 'Owners seem to think that no one will be interested in buying without a bucketful of words like attractive, immaculate and spacious.'

Descriptions that would benefit from some attention

Most estate agents will have overhauled their lists by tomorrow but there may be a few resorting to the Tipp-Ex. Here is a list of some of the terms they'll be whiting out or taking special care to clarify:

Handsome, attractive, elegant, outstanding, imposing, ideal, immaculate - all very subjective, but watch them creep back into use if enforcement officers decide they are harmless

Well-equipped - but does the equipment work?

A stone's throw - who is doing the throwing?

Modern - who decides when new grows old?

Nearby, convenient - distances will be required

Newly decorated - when exactly?

Unique - all sellers think their home is one of a kind. Every buyer could find another that seems just the same.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments