Until the moment when – either as a buyer or seller – we feel badly let down by an estate agent, most of us will not have given the matter of a complaints procedure so much as a thought. Full of optimism, we are happy to leave our property in the hands of our chosen agent. Think again, is the advice from Stephen Carr-Smith, the Ombudsman for Estate Agents, who urges sellers to do business with only those agents in the scheme.
Given that only about 36 per cent of the total number of estate agents' offices in the country are signed up, our options are somewhat limited. His rallying call is rather more to the agents themselves, many of whom give elaborate reasons why they can deal with grievances just as well through other means.
But during the past year, Carr-Smith has seen the number of complaints against non-members rise by 20 per cent – out of 6,462, only 2,306 involved members and of those, a record 583 merited a full investigation.
The most common dispute was over commission fees. One seller, who argued that the higher multiple-agency fee charged was incorrect, received more than £6,000 in compensation. The other main complaints were about valuations and assessing a buyer's status.
Among buyers, inaccurate sales particulars and badly handled offers headed their list of complaints. The buyer who managed to acquire the house he had set his heart on, despite every effort of the agent involved to thwart him, was awarded £3,000.
But if this begins to look like a conspiracy against agents, it is worth pointing out that the Ombudsman found in their favour more often than not. This makes it all the more puzzling why so many should choose not to join a scheme that is even-handed and, above all, free. The explanations range from the top-of-market, where agents argue that the RICS imposes tough regulations and protects clients with its own arbitration service, to the other extreme, where those agents who are careful to avoid any kind of scrutiny at all operate.
Since we are constantly told that property is the biggest purchase most of us will ever make, the public might be entitled to ask whether membership of the scheme should be mandatory rather than voluntary.
Certainly, Carr-Smith is dismissive of those who claim it is not necessary. "The RICS arbitration service is a totally different concept, not least because it usually involves taking legal advice and can be expensive.
"The Country Life sort of agents are not beyond complaint and a number are in the scheme. All agents should be able to look their customers in the eye and say, 'if you are not satisfied, you can go to the Ombudsman'."
There are plenty of occasions on which they might be grateful for an impartial view. A buyer who found the press camped on her doorstep one morning complained that if the agent had told her one of the sellers was on a murder charge, she would not have bought the house. Her complaint was dismissed – even this kind of information is confidential. Perhaps the real lesson here is that there is no substitute for a friendly chat with the neighbours before signing on the dotted line.
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