British consumer rights group takes on rogue agents

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 May, 2005, 12:00am

Which? renews call for legal safeguards to protect buyers after survey finds that residential valuations can vary by up to 65pc

Britain's top consumer rights group has dismissed estate agents' property valuations as a 'lottery', saying in a new survey that market appraisals can vary by up to 65 per cent.

Fourteen researchers at Which? invited estate agents to value their homes across England. Each property had at least three evaluations and in six cases the top valuations were 25 per cent or more above the lowest.

In the worst case, estate agency Halifax valued a three-bedroom home in Tyne and Wear, in the north of England, at GBP200,000 ($2.85 million) while rival Moody suggested GBP325,000, 65 per cent more. Bradford and Bingley put a price tag of GBP125,000 on a three-bedroom flat in Liverpool, which was valued by Halifax at GBP180,000, up 44 per cent.

In the best case, appraisals were 3 per cent apart for a London three-bedroom flat which was priced at between GBP199,950 and GBP204,950.

Which? accuses some agents of deliberately overvaluing properties to get business. It claims that when the seller is locked into a contract with these agents, the companies then suggest a more realistic price.

Sellers have also written to the organisation to complain of estate agents undervaluing their homes. One consumer said two agents valued his Devon home at under GBP250,000, but a third, Bradleys, said it was worth GBP325,000. Bradleys sold the property for GBP320,000.

Malcolm Coles, who edited the Which? report, said: 'The current consumer protection system is hopelessly ineffective and allows rogue estate agents to get away with daylight robbery.

'For two years we have been demanding that all estate agents are members of an independent redress scheme. This new government must put legislation in place to protect consumers when making what is often the biggest purchase of their lives.'

The National Association of Estate Agents supported these calls, but stressed the findings of the Which? survey were not representative of the industry as a whole.

In the wake of the Which? report, property data services company is offering an automated market appraisal service to homeowners concerned about the accuracy of estate agents' assessments.

Mark Witherspoon, chief executive of Hometrack, said: 'Property valuations can never be a 100 per cent objective, but variations of GBP125,000 are without justification and absolutely unacceptable. Our service can verify an estimate of an individual property's value with unrivalled accuracy.'

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) said the only way to get a true valuation was to contact one of its members, who were all qualified valuers.

'An automated valuation system does not have enough detailed information to know whether the property has an old or new kitchen, or whether it is an Ikea kitchen or a Smallbone kitchen, or about very current changes in the market, and so on,' said Andrew Gooding, director of Rics' property faculty.