Controlling unruly agents

by Ed Mead

The Tories want to issue controls on the unpolished young guns, out to make a fast buck, who are tarnishing the industry’s image. A noble goal, but it will take more than soundbites to realise it.

So the Tories threaten us with legislation, do they (The Negotiator, May 16)? This is encouraging news from all sorts of angles, not least because of the underlying assumption that they will soon be in power.

Large public organisations, and governments in particular, do not have a good reputation for achieving even the most laudable aims but surely anyone could do a better job of putting our house in order than this current bunch.

I’ve met a few MPs, including Treasury secretary Yvette Cooper. But I’ve never met anyone who clearly wanted to be anywhere other than where she was sitting.

The feeling of powerlessness in dealing with such a gargantuan matter as legislation is inevitably overpowering, both in terms of the scope of the issue and the sheer size of the problem.

Vested interests The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the National Association of Estate Agents, along with other industry groups, has struggled for years to get to grips with the problem of professionalism among agents.

The difficulty seems to lie with the disparity of vested interests; while the RICS represents the professional surveyors – most of whom still look on us as a bunch of wideboys to be kept at arm’s length – the NAEA has the inordinately difficult task of representing the most loathed profession in the country. Well, actually that’s probably politicians but they are less likely to be treated with the same contempt because they have power, which is not a luxury we exactly have in spades – or do we?

Why don’t people treat estate agents with more respect, given that we look after their most valuable assets and are trusted, really trusted, to squeeze the last penny out of it? Surely that is a powerful position to be in. Of course it is but sadly first impressions are everything and for the majority of people, the first time they meet an agent is at a property they’ve seen online. They’ll have never met the agent and there’s a good chance the appointment will pass by in a blur of dropped keys, or even failure to get into a property; silence or too much chatter; and quite possibly a serious lack of knowledge on the subject to hand, sadly on the part of agent. This is most likely to be the case in a busy and rising market where unscrupulous or plain lazy agents know they don’t need to employ knowledgeable types because buyers will be desperate to buy a property.

Nothing like a downturn

Most of the current legions of untrained agents simply haven’t been around in a downturn and are they going to have to start working for a living. There’s nothing like a downturn, and a serious one at that, to make people think twice about doing the job. This is why I welcome the Tories’ ‘threat’ of legislation and, I hasten to add, wonder why on earth we should consider it a threat at all. I’m not 100% sure exactly what the Tories are saying – a failing on their part – but I hope it’s not just another way of trying to speed up the housebuying process. Most of us know how to do that.

And as for getting our ‘house in order’, with the best will in the world, how does shadow housing minister Grant Shapps think we can achieve this? As Chris Wood, president-elect of the NAEA, says, there’ll always be two thirds of agents operating outside even the most lax of codes of conduct. And the Ombudsman for Estate Agents scheme, while wellmeaning, simply lacks the teeth to make a difference. So, as long as the quality of people entering agency remains unregulated, you’ll always get greedy people sparing little thought to what anybody else thinks, including their buyers and sellers, as long as they make money. And let’s face it, the money to be made from this business is absolutely huge.

Unfortunately, it’s these individuals who make the national newspaper headlines, which the public read and reasonably assume are representative of the agency industry at large. Could we perhaps finally get a new administration with the courage to engage in a really exciting project to ensure that all agents are licensed, ensuring that consumers get the agents they need? It’s a really great business to be in, and surely a reasonable level of basic competence isn’t an unrealistic expectation.

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