'Inadequate' reform of the murky middlemen

Laura Brady asks if a beefed-up code of conduct will stop the bad operators 'who wouldn't sign up in a month of Sundays'
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The Independent Online

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has approved a voluntary code of conduct used by 40 per cent of all UK agency branches.

Its backing for the scheme, originally launched in 1990 by the Ombudsman for Estate Agents (OEA), should improve the fragile relationship between the industry and home buyers and sellers, says Bill McClintock, chairman of the OEA.

"The OFT endorsement requires that [our] scheme members are monitored on a regular basis to ensure they are adhering to the codes of practice. These will now come under review every three years - with one probably next year."

The OEA code demands that all 4,800 members price properties in good faith and provide sellers with written details of fees and expenses before they commit to an agent's services.

If customers have a complaint, they will have access to independent redress that can lead to financial compensation.

And to monitor the code, a series of customer satisfaction surveys are carried out.

However, consumer body Which? is astonished at the OFT's backing. "We're amazed that, in its current form, the scheme gets the stamp of approval," says Louise Hanson, head of campaigns. "The monitoring of member agents is not adequate: they rely on surveys of recent buyers and sellers and not the people whose house deals have fallen through."

The OEA's code is now the most prominent in the industry. Others are operated by the National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA), which has one third of the UK's 30,000 individual agents as members, and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics).

But this hotch-potch of codes means not all consumers are treated equally. If they complain to either the NAEA or Rics, these bodies can only fine the agent or remove it from their list of members. Recompense is not offered in the event of poor service, as it would be under the OEA code of practice.

The OEA (www.oea.co.uk) receives around 6,000 inquiries a year from the public, of which 600 turn into official complaints. Of these, a third are found in favour of the consumer and a third of the agent; the rest are settled by negotiation. Most complaints relate to poor administration, high commission and fees, inadequate viewings and failure to secure a sale.

"The trouble with voluntary trade bodies is that only the good agents join," says Peter Bolton King, chief executive of the NAEA. "Bad ones wouldn't sign up in a month of Sundays."

The NAEA and Which? are in talks with government officials to see how regulation can be best achieved, but for now, consumers must simply adhere to "buyer beware". Check to see if an agent is a member of either the OEA, NAEA or Rics; many operate without belonging to any of these bodies.

Amber Burns recently lost out on a dream first home in Wallasey, Merseyside, thanks to an estate agent's behaviour. Al- though the owner of her target property had already accepted an offer from somebody else, delays along a complex chain had given her the opportunity to make a matching offer. It was accepted and Ms Burns paid for a basic valuation.

But the agent was also selling the home of the original bidder and so it froze her out, she says. "The owner told me the agents had pressured her to sell to the first buyer - which meant more money for them."