UK group calls for agents to be licensed
Richard Warren in London
Rogue traders in Britain are ripping off the public and the present law is toothless, association says
Pressure is mounting on the government to license estate agents because many are operating illegally and unethically.
At present, Britain's estate agents are self-regulated. Anyone can open an agency without training or relevant legal knowledge, a situation that has allowed rogue traders to enter the profession.
The Consumers Association launched a campaign last week calling for the mandatory regulation of estate agents. It also wants the government urgently to review the Estate Agents Act, which governs the market, because it leaves consumers at the mercy of untrustworthy estate agents.
The association said the law offered no real room for redress for dissatisfied customers and did not place estate agents under any obligation to protect them.
It also slammed a recent report from the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) which called for greater self-regulation and price competitiveness for being 'wimpish' because it opted out of calling for the same tough measures the association wants.
The association found that estate agents regularly broke the law by giving preference to buyers who used their mortgage services, inventing offers to tempt buyers into upping their prices and failing to pass on all offers to sellers in writing.
It has created a website, www.which.co.uk/moveit, where buyers and sellers can go for advice because it said there was no independent source offering information on the homebuying process.
Britain's estate agents are highly unpopular.
The organisation's survey found only one seller in 10 fully trusted them.
Nick Stace, director of the association's 'Which?' campaigns, said: 'Dodgy practice has left the public exposed to the unchecked, often illegal whims of rogue estate agents for far too long. And the recent OFT report wimped out of a perfect opportunity to protect long-suffering home movers. The situation is ludicrous.
'With agents reaping huge financial rewards but, at best, offering very little service in return and, at worst, extracting large sums of cash from consumers on false pretences, the government must step in and reject the OFT report and order an immediate review of the unenforceable Estate Agents Act.'
The industry called for better regulation, recognising the need to protect honest practices and individuals in the industry.
The question, however, remains: Why are the regulatory powers shying away from providing consumers with the basic right to be protected from unscrupulous estate agents?
Mr Stace said: 'We are stepping in where the OFT has failed to ensure people get a fair deal when making the biggest purchasing decision of their lives.'
The National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA) also wanted members of its profession to be licensed, though it believed this should not be mandatory.
Association chief executive Peter Bolton King said: 'We have long campaigned for the licensing of estate agents. Our own code of practice provides the public with redress from rogue agents. However, although we can expel and heavily fine members, we cannot stop them from continuing to practice.
'We believe the OFT should have taken its recommendations further with the introduction of minimum qualifications and self-regulatory licensing.'
Strong support for the Consumers Association's stance has come from the home loans industry.
Michael Coogan, director-general of the Council of Mortgage Lenders, said: 'In an environment where everyone else involved in the transaction will be regulated - the conveyancer, the surveyor, the broker, the mortgage lender - it is ironic that the estate agent, who is in many ways the most important player in determining the outcome of the house sale, is the only professional who does not have to meet stringent, compulsory standards.'