In Hong Kong’s sky-high property market, looking for a home can be frustrating, especially when an agent tells an excited flat-hunter that an advertised bargain is actually out of date. It will be even more exasperating if the agent then floods the potential buyer with offers that are not as good, in the hope of closing a pricier deal. It was tactics such as this which led industry watchdog the Estate Agents Authority (EAA) to bring in new rules against misleading or inaccurate property advertisements three months ago. But a Post inspection of 17 agencies posting online or in shopfronts still found two in three suspected of breaches, including major industry players like Centaline Property Agency and Midland Realty. “The new guidelines aim to address the problem of rampant fake ads in the industry,” said Lawrance Wong Dun-king, honorary chairman of the Hong Kong Chamber of Professional Property Consultants, which represents more than 300 agency branches across the city. Wong is also a member of the EAA. Is the vacancy tax just a political gesture that won’t solve housing woes? “It will not wipe out fake ads overnight, but it’s the first step,” he said. “It will be a long war to get rid of this bad habit of the industry.” The guidelines came in at a time when the number of agents kept growing – up by 7 per cent to 17,754 over the past five years. But at the same time, the market has cooled under toughened stamp duties, with transactions on the city’s 10 major housing estates dropping by 11 per cent last year from 2017. Under stiffened competition, agents increasingly resorted to ruses such as duplicated ads, fake prices or outdated listings to lure in consumers. Things got so out of hand that even some industry heavyweights, such as Centaline founder Shih Wing-ching, came out to criticise the practices. Under the new guidelines, apart from getting owners’ written consent to advertise the flat, agents must assign to each property an identification number and state the number clearly on each ad. Agents are also required to remove ads “as soon as is practicable” once the property in question is no longer available, though no time frame was specified. Two weeks ago, the Post inspected 10 ads posted online and 10 on shopfronts by 17 agencies across Hong Kong Island, and found 11 ads – each belonging to a different agency – suspected of breaking the rules. Most of the breaches involved failure to provide a property ID and not removing or updating the ads when the properties went off the market. Failure to provide property IDs was a problem only found online during the inspection. One breach involved advertising a three-room flat for the price for a two-room place in the same building. It will not wipe out fake ads overnight, but it’s the first step. It will be a long war to get rid of this bad habit of the industry Lawrance Wong, Hong Kong Chamber of Professional Property Consultants For example, a 447 sq ft flat in Merit Court in Sai Ying Pun was advertised on 28Hse.com, a popular property ad aggregator, with rent of HK$17,000 a month, lower than average for the district. The ad did not show a property ID. When the Post called Kamson Property Agency, which posted the ad, the agent said the flat had already been let. “You won’t find another flat in the area going for that price any more,” the agent said. “This one is quite special.” The agent did not answer why the flat was special, but repeatedly prompted the Post to describe its budget and preferences so he could introduce other properties. He said the agency had forgotten to take down the ad and promised to do so, but 10 days later the ad was still on the website, without any update. Similarly, a 450 sq ft flat in Lascar Court, Sheung Wan, was advertised on the same website for HK$22,000 a month, or HK$49 per square foot. An agent from Richland Property Investment Company told the Post the flat was rented out. She then followed up with a series of messages introducing two smaller properties in Sai Ying Pun, at HK$57 per square foot. She also promised to remove the ad, but it was still there with the same property ID 10 days later, with the rent changed to HK$26,800. During a site inspection, a Midland branch in Happy Valley advertised a list of rental properties in front of its shop, including a 693 sq ft flat in Sherwood Court for HK$28,000. Upon inquiry, an agent said the flat was leased out. The Post’ s repeated requests to check availability of other flats on the list were turned down, with the agents urging the reporter to leave her contact details. When contacted for comment, the branch said it needed to reconfirm with the owner of the property in question before it updated the ad. A Centaline branch in the same district was also found advertising at least one flat already rented out. The branch, as well as the group’s Asia-Pacific vice-chairman Louis Chan Wing-kit, declined to comment. The EAA spokeswoman said the authority had conducted 362 online and site inspections since the guidelines came in, finding nine suspected breaches. But it had not given any penalties. She said agencies failing to comply with the new rules might be disciplined, including facing reprimand, a maximum fine of HK$300,000, or having their licence suspended or revoked. A 28Hse.com spokesman said the platform did not require agents to fill in property IDs, but would do daily random checks to ensure quality of listings. He said the website would also take down problematic ads that received complaints, and issue warnings to the agencies responsible. James Fisher, chief operating officer of another property ad platform Spacious, said aggregator sites were not regulated by the EAA, so it was down to each website whether it would set standards to ensure ads were verified. Spacious, for example, would ban agencies that received a certain number of complaints and would remove ads for agencies if they failed to update listings within a time limit. But Fisher added that it was not realistic for small agencies to update listings every day in a market where undervalued properties were quickly identified and taken. “[If ads are not updated], it’s not necessarily because the agent is trying the bait-and-switch tactic, but because it’s a fast-moving market,” he said.