This year's scam

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The Independent Online
I was lucky enough last week to lunch with a home-seeker who had become a home-owner. I was envious as he regaled me with stories of ripping out kitchens, putting in central heating and living without running water, gas and electricity. What bliss.

It was not all unmitigated bliss, however. His stories of the actual purchase were altogether more depressing. The most disturbing insight was into the conduct of the estate agent.

The conversation went something like this.

My pal: "I would like to buy a house, please."

Estate agent: "Any particular house?"

MP: "Yes, number 32 Groning Drive."

EA:"The asking price on that is pounds 250,000."

MP: "When do you want the money?"

EA: "What money?"

MP: "The money for the house."

EA: "But you haven't made an offer yet."

MP: "Yes I have - pounds 250,000."

EA: "You misunderstand sir, that is the asking price."

MP: "Indeed - and that is my offer. When do you want the money?"

EA: "So what you are telling me is that you are prepared to pay the asking price?"

MP: "Indeed I am."

EA: "I see."

MP: "Is there a problem."

EA: "No, no, no. pounds 250,000, you say. Right. Well, you will have to exchange contracts in 10 days."

MP: "Very well."

EA: "That is 10 days, not 10 working days."

MP: "Fine."

The conversation took place on Wednesday afternoon. On Friday morning my pal received a telephone call.

MP: "Hello."

EA: "About 32 Groning Drive. I'm afraid you've been gazumped."

MP: "You jest. We had a clear understanding that if I completed in 10 days the property was mine. I have spent a small fortune to ensure that deadline can be met. You cannot do this."

EA: "I don't know how old you are, sir, but it is about time you grew up."

I am forbidden by the laws of decency to repeat any more of their conversation.

The estate agent clearly thought he had seen my chum off but did not count on his resourcefulness. By close of play on Friday he had marshalled the support of the DTI, the local council, the National Association of Estate Agents, the Consumer Council, the world's media and probably the UN.

On Monday morning my friend received a call from the estate agents asking why he was was trying to get them a bad name. By Tuesday, miraculously, the rival buyer had withdrawn and the property was once again offered to my chum.

It later transpired that the rival offer was probably fictitious given that the owners had gone away and could not possibly have accepted any new offer.

One of the problems for estate agents in a London property market which is spiralling ever upwards has been to set the asking price. In the face of this uncertainty some agents have decided that if someone is prepared to pay the asking price then the house is undervalued. They devise a scheme to up the ante. The fictitious buyer is one way of doing it. Another friend was told by the estate agent that if someone offered the asking price they would take the property off the market and put it back on a couple of weeks later with an extra pounds 20,000 tacked on.

This is outrageous behaviour from so-called professionals who are forever bleating about the evils of gazumping and who are institutionalising the practice. I am assured that such behaviour is unusual. But these rotten apples tend to sour the barrel.

The message is clear. Never offer the asking price. If an offer is accepted, withdraw it immediately. This will make buying a house more difficult, but it does mean you will never get ripped of by an estate agent.