Overview: Regulation is the only way forward

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The Independent Online

Three weeks ago, two London estate agents were found guilty of breaching the rules of the National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA) and were expelled. In one case, the agent had paid a manager in a major corporate estate agency to deliberately undervalue a property and made a back-to-back deal to disguise the purchaser - his own business partner. But that wasn't all: he had also fraudulently applied for mortgages and misused client account funds. It doesn't get much worse than this, says the NAEA, which also fined him £3,400. The second agents may not have transgressed to the same extent, but their poor service to landlords on a number of scores follows a horribly familiar pattern of complaint.

Well, at least something has been done to remove them from the NAEA, we might reassure ourselves. However, the two agents deemed unworthy of NAEA membership are still plying their trade, a matter of huge concern to Melfyn Williams, president of the NAEA. If estate agents had to hold a licence, he says, those two would have been debarred.

"As it is, they can carry on serving the public badly. The perceived poor image of estate agents is caused by a small number, but if you have an industry where you can be butcher, baker, candlestick maker one minute and an estate agent the next, is it surprising? Licensing is long overdue."

Good agents might argue that their professional standards and qualifications would deem this unnecessary, that their services are constantly under review and they have more to lose in reputation than can possibly be guaranteed by a licence. But such agents (whose skills we examine on page 15), are not always aware of how badly the public is served by some operators.

Williams reckons that of the 12,000 or so estate agencies, only a third will be members of a regulatory authority. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, a professional body with 9,000 members in residential estate agencies, suspects the figure may be even lower. What they are certain of is that regulation must be compulsory, says a spokesman. "Voluntary regulation has not worked."

We only have to look at the level of support given to the Ombudsman for Estate Agents to see the evidence. Despite a rising number of complaints, just over a third of agencies are members of the scheme, with many others arguing that they can deal with grievances through other means.

Light will be shed on the path towards regulation when the Office of Fair Trading reports on its investigation into the industry, which is almost four months overdue. (Any fears that its inquiry might be rushed can now safely be ruled out.)

There are those who argue that exaggerating the effect of poor agents could result in more bureaucracy with little benefit to the public. But this view does not impress those who feel they deserve better, particularly in the lettings sector. This is the greatest cause of disquiet, Williams says - a belief echoed by the ombudsman even though his brief doesn't extend to this area.

The agent expelled for his desultory treatment of landlords, for example, had failed to arrange for the renewal of a gas safety certificate; nor did he provide the tenant with a copy of the tenancy agreement. These are issues with which tenants, particularly those living in lower value properties, are having to struggle every day.

No wonder anyone starting out on an independent life with a similar experience comes away with an unfavourable picture of the estate agency world. The least the public can expect, says Melfyn Williams, is a minimum level of training and experience from the person handling their affairs. Until then, whatever estate agents say, anyone can do their job.