I often receive correspondence on the negative aspects of estate agents, all letters received having some ghastly story to tell.
As yet I’ve not heard from anyone with anything good to report and I’m not really expecting much either, to be frank. From what I’ve read it seems that leaving your spare key with the agent results in nothing more than irritating unannounced visits. Elsewhere I mentioned a friend who was greeted by an agent who’d let himself in as she stepped out of the bath. Without even a word of apology, and in the same bombastic manner, he was back again a few weeks later showing someone else around whilst she lay in bed with flu. To his credit he at least stepped back on entering the room and promptly left, but that was probably more to do with disease-avoidance than anything else. However, one Manchester correspondent tells a similar tale that goes one step further.
While his wife lay ill in bed one afternoon, their agent turned up unannounced and brought a couple round to view the house. He happily took them into the main bedroom and continued his sales pitch while the poor lady-of-the-house lay there sick. She recalls that the viewers seemed very embarrassed while the agent, completely oblivious of any indiscretion, kept up his patter for a good couple of minutes. When the husband called to complain the following day, the agent just couldn’t understand what the fuss was all about. Talk about balls!
I was also amused by the agent who lit a cigarette in the lounge of a non-smoking seller ’s house. But perhaps my favourite story came from Cardiff. One chap’s friend was selling a large, detached house in one of the nicer parts of the city and had entrusted a local agent with keys for times when he or his wife were away from home. Informing the agent that they were off on a short weekend jaunt, he was quite happy leaving matters in their hands, especially as he had been told that some interested parties were wanting to view on the Saturday. His friend and his wife left late Friday afternoon, but mid- evening in London received a call concerning damage to his factory which obviously warranted their immediate return.
Driving back through the night, the couple reached Cardiff in the early hours of the morning. They decided to call home first before they went to visit the damaged factory and were alarmed to see a light coming from inside their house. Cautiously entering, fearing burglars, they were shocked to hear laughter coming from his lounge as he quietly turned the key in the lock. Stepping inside, he was even more alarmed to find his estate agent who’d decided to invite a mate and two girls back to the house for a small party. The agent, you’ll be pleased to hear, was relieved of his duties and left the house with a throbbing head from a fierce left hook.
The moral of these little tales is simple: agents cost money and are frequently not trustworthy. More and more people are wising up to this and there is now a marked upturn in the process of selling homes directly, consequently by- passing the agents completely. And the good news is that it’s really quite easy.
Estate agents are only too eager to promote the myth that selling a property is a complicated process that only a ‘professional’ can deal with, but when you stop and analyse the matter, there isn’t really that much work involved. In fact, as sellers, all we have to do is advertise the property privately, through newspapers or the internet. This way you can deal with your buyer face-to-face and talk to your solicitor direct, thus avoiding any contact with one of those moral subversives known as estate agents.
Doing it yourself will, of course, save you a small fortune into the bargain. I met a couple in London the other week who sold their three-bedroom flat for just over £200,000 by simply advertising in the papers. The cheapest commission deal they had been offered was 1.5% and so they decided to do it themselves. For a little extra work they saved over £3,000. The estate agents claim that they earn their money by marketing the property effectively, but as the couple pointed out, they’re not required in a market where more and more people are handling things themselves and dealing with an owner is becoming standard practice, from eBay to Amazon. The couple had people calling the very day they placed their advert and actually had an offer within the first week of its publication. Their costs for the sale ran to just a few hundred pounds, once the solicitor ’s fees had been included.
Most towns and cities produce a publication that offers free adverts to readers. Even if it costs, it’s not much and you usually get free inclusion on their websites, and sometimes a ‘For Sale’ sign for sellers to erect outside their house. Some mags offer a free 24-hour legal helpline and supply a marketing pack, which shows the seller how to draw up property details, and it also lists advice on the selling process. They can even offer a phone line to take calls on the seller ’s behalf if they don’t want their telephone number advertised. I’d suggest you call your local paper to find out what they can offer as a package. Most evening papers have one night each week where properties are highlighted.
Before you can advertise, the property must be valued. One way is to visit your local estate agent and ask to view similar properties. This would give a fairly accurate indication of the value of your own home. A more devious way would be to pretend you’re interested in selling through a particular agent and get them to give you a no-obligation valuation. Get three or four agents to do this and then pick the mid-price or most realistic of the figures. However, you might feel better going to The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (rics. org), to arrange a formal valuation. However, the downside is that they charge and costs can exceed £100.
Estate agents will counter that they can filter out the timewasters, but this can never be true as there are always a few odd characters who view houses for reasons unbeknown to any of us. However, it is important that you make sure your details are accurate and descriptive and you don’t tell half-truths about the property. You don’t have to highlight the bad points, though – it is the responsibility of the buyer ’s surveyors to pick up any negatives.
Next, you would need to appoint a solicitor to act on your behalf and once done, instruct them to obtain deeds from your bank or building society.
Once your advert is placed and you’ve received some response, you’ll to need book appointments for viewings. Firstly, I should add that it’s wise to have someone with you when you have callers to the house. Although the chances of a real undesirable paying a visit are highly remote, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Once there, question them about their mortgage situation and ask whether they are part of a chain. Also take a note of their solicitor ’s telephone number.
It is also important to present your property in the best possible light. The London couple I met told me that they pre-baked cakes and made fresh coffee before their viewers arrived. This obviously impressed the viewers and of course gave the house a delicious aroma.
Of course the internet is a great way to sell property, with numerous sites for both sellers and buyers. Just do a Google search and you’ll find a good number. To select which is best for you, search around for similar properties to yours and see if any of them are sold and/or how long they’ve been listed. Make some phone calls or send some emails if that information isn’t immediately apparent.
Dealing With Estate Agents Q&A
Here are some typical scenarios relating to buyers and sellers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and guidance on consumer rights.
Why can I be gazumped?
The practice is perfectly legal in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Even when your offer has been accepted, the estate agent has a legal duty to pass on any other offers received, unless specifically told not to by the seller. This can lead to the practice known as gazumping, where a higher offer is put in and accepted at the last minute before contracts are exchanged.
I’ve been told the seller has received a higher offer. Should I believe that?
Badly handled offers are one of the top complaints at The Property Ombudsman (tpos.co.uk). People who try to increase the price of a property after accepting an offer can cause heartbreak for a buyer. Ethically questionable it may be, but if you are the vendor and are offered an extra £20,000, then you are likely to accept.
But could a higher offer simply be a ruse to get you to part with more money? It can be difficult for the buyer to know.
According to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT, oft.gov.uk), an agent must not invent a bid, or claim to have a cash or first- time buyer, unless it is true. Nor can they state that they have a potential buyer unless that is true. The OFT suggests that people should demand to see evidence if they have suspicions.
This can be difficult in practice, though, particularly if you want to keep on good terms with the agent. Is the estate agent obliged to pass on my offer?
When an offer is made for a property, the estate agent must pass it to the seller promptly and in writing, except when the seller has requested otherwise; offers, for example, which are below a certain price.
Can I force the estate agent or seller to take the house off the market, or to stop advertising, after I have had my offer accepted?
You cannot force an estate agent or seller to take the property off the market, or to stop advertising, just because you don’t want to lose your ‘dream home’. The agent is working to get the best price for the seller and is employed by him, not you. However, some will offer to do so out of goodwill, or if you are seen as a good buyer; if, for example, you are not in a chain.
Can an estate agent demand a deposit?
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, yes, but the estate agent should not hold a deposit or any other money unless they are covered by adequate insurance. All money must be held in a separate client bank or building society account, as set out in the Estate Agents’ (Accounts) Regulations. Receipts for deposits must also be provided.
Estate agents can be known for using rather ‘creative’ language to describe properties. Is this allowed?
One of the most common gripes handled by the Property Ombudsman is inaccurate sales particulars. While some artistic licence may be acceptable, it is an offence for an estate agent to make statements about a property which are false or misleading.
Can estate agents put ‘For Sale’ or ‘Sold’ signs outside empty homes?
This is generally seen as an ‘undesirable practice’ by the authorities and estate agents can be prosecuted.
Can the agent hit me with extra charges and misleading contracts?
Estate agents must state either the exact amount you will be charged or, when this is not possible, provide details about how the cost will be worked out, or else give an estimate. According to the Consumers’ Association research, contracts can be badly worded and misleading. It warns people to watch out for terms that could catch them out. For example, if you opt for sole selling rights and then find a buyer yourself, you will still have to pay the estate agent.
If you are a seller, another one to watch out for is a ‘ready, willing and able purchaser contract’. Once a buyer is found who is able to exchange unconditional contracts, you will have to pay. This still applies even if you withdraw your property before the sale is completed. In this scenario, you may also be charged for the cost of ‘For Sale’ boards and advertising.
Can my estate agent discriminate against me because I don’t want its financial advice services?
No, under the terms of the Estate Agents Act 1979, estate agents must treat all buyers ‘fairly’. So-called ‘preferential listing’ is also not permitted. This is when buyers are told they will be put on an open and fast-track priority or preferential service list only if they take financial services, such as insurance or a mortgage, offered by the estate agent. However, with limited sanctions in place, the Consumers’ Association believes it can be very difficult for consumers to challenge these sorts of practices when they occur.
What about conflicts of interests an agent may have?
If you are selling or buying a property that your estate agent, a relative or business partner wants to buy, you must be told promptly and in writing.
How do you protect yourself and complain if it all goes wrong?
The main problem for consumers is that estate agents are not required to sign up to a membership body and the area is barely regulated. An individual’s right to complain about their treatment depends on whether an estate agent is a member of a scheme. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS, rics.org) and the National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA, naea.co.uk) both operate internal complaints procedures. The Property Ombudsman offers a complaints service for its member agencies, but the current voluntary scheme covers only one third of all agents. The group publishes a list of members on its website (tpos.co.uk). The ombudsman can award compensation for breaches of its codes.
Who else can I complain to?
If a buyer or seller believes that an agency has failed to meet its obligations, they could complain to their local trading standards department.
The OFT can also issue warnings and banning orders if it has sufficient evidence of a breach of law.
Estate Agent Speak
An estate agent in Somerset has been criticised for being too honest in his description of properties. We offers him a helpful Estate Agents glossary, in order to put him back on the straight and narrow (or deceptively bendy and wide, if you prefer.)
Benefits From: Contains a feature you may expect to be the bare minimum for the extraordinary price you are paying. Example: “Benefits from roof, floors, walls”.
Bijou: Would suit contortionist with growth hormone deficiency.
Borders: Loose term signifying that a property is sufficiently close to a desirable area to ensure the burglars who live next door to you will travel to work. Example: “Fidel Castro’s house is situated in the highly desirable Bahamas Borders area”.
Characterful: A neat disguise for old and falling down.
Compact: See Bijou, then divide by two.
Convenient For: A deceptive term with two possible definitions depending on the object of the phrase: Eg “ Convenient For A40” means your garden doubles as the hard shoulder Whereas “ Convenient For local amenities” means you can run to the shops. If you are Paula Radcliffe.
Four Bedrooms: Three bedrooms and a cupboard. In Need of Modernisation: In need of demolition.
Internal Viewing Recommended: Looks awful on the outside.
Mature Garden: The local AZ marks your garden as Terra Incognita.
Original Features: Water tank still contains cholera bacterium.
Priced to Sell: Please, oh go on please…
Studio: You can wash the dishes, watch the telly, and answer the front door without getting up from the toilet.