Spring Property Survey: This deceptively spacious Act

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The Independent Online
A YEAR ago, you had more legal protection buying a tube of toothpaste than buying a house. Brought in to end the anomaly was the Property Misdescriptions Act, making property sellers legally responsible for the accuracy of their descriptions. One year on, and only one prosecution later, the Act is now being criticised as creating more problems than it solved.

Today it is an offence to make a false or misleading statement about 33 specified aspects of land or buildings. Statements such as 'a stone's throw from local shops' could be misleading if only Steve Backley could throw a stone which hits a shop. As a result, 'details have become unnecessarily bland' according to David Goldsworthy, President of the National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA).

Not only the cliches have disappeared, however. As estate agents are only liable for the inaccuracies in the information they provide (written, orally or in pictures), they have cut descriptions to bare facts. If the fact is not attractive, such as subsidence, there is no obligation to reveal this to buyers unless asked. 'People are getting less information,' says Brian Grainger of the Incorporated Society of Valuers & Auctioneers (ISVA).

This is one explanation for the low number of complaints received by trading standards officers, who enforce the Act. 'There was much overreaction from the trade initially,' says Paul Browne, of the Wandsworth Borough Council trading standards office. He is investigating 'a few' complaints.

The Consumers Association has heard nothing from its members this past year. It campaigned for over 15 years to bring estate agents under these controls, similar to the Trades Descriptions Act.

The Act does offer more recourse to law for the man who bought an acre of ground and discovered it was only half the size. Or against the agent that advertised a house with the overlooking tower block missing from the photograph.

But this may not last. Concerned with the criminal charges that estate agents face as the result of an innocent mistake, the NAEA is pushing for deregulation. 'The 33 matters should be torn up,' declares Mr Grainger. 'This would leave the body of the Act in place, with agents having general liability for descriptions which are false or misleading to a material degree.'

The NAEA is suggesting a review of the Act to Neil Hamilton MP, who heads John Major's deregulation unit.

With building societies reporting increases in mortgage applications, the Act will face a stronger test in its second year - if it lasts that long. As it stands, house-hunters face a more difficult challenge than before - to spot details which are not in property descriptions.