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OFT guidelines aim to pull up estate agency standards

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18/09/2012
The OFT published guidance last week laying out the legal obligations of estate agents after a 2010 study revealed many estate agents were outside of regulations.

The OFT’s Home Buying and Selling market study examined a raft of issues including, for example, business relationships with partners such as financial advisers and surveyors and the potential for competition in property sales from online providers.

Issues outlined in the guidance include ensuring information and pictures are accurate in adverts and marketing literature.

Other problems include falsely claiming to be a member of a professional body, exaggerating the benefits of a property for sale or making unfair comparisons with rival estate agents.

Guidelines also include omitting important information that consumers need to make informed decisions. In one example, throughout the buying and selling process, businesses must provide the necessary information to enable informed choices to be made on viewing a property, making an offer or instructing conveyancers or surveyors.

Guidelines also stipulated agents must avoid pushing consumers to act quickly when consumers put in an offer, raised their price, skipped the survey or exchanged contracts, said the OFT.

All firms must also offer an effective customer complaints procedure that is understood and followed by staff who come into contact with the public.

The guidance aims to assist traders and others, including enforcers and consumer advisers, as the government intends to repeal the Property Misdescriptions Act 1991.

The guidance is governed by two pieces of existing legislation: Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (CPRs) and the Business Protection from Misleading Marketing Regulations 2008 (BPRs).

Non-compliance with the CPRs and BPRs could lead to enforcement action under the Enterprise Act 2002, including civil court proceedings or criminal enforcement action, an unlimited fine and up to two years’ imprisonment for a conviction in the Crown Court, or Sheriff Court in Scotland.

OFT spokesman, Cavendish Elithorn, said: “Buying and selling a property is usually one of the biggest purchases we make and can also be one of the most stressful. Unfair business practices can cause substantial losses or frustration to buyers and sellers either when transactions collapse or afterwards when the truth is uncovered.

“In response to feedback, this guidance has been developed with help from the property sales industry and Trading Standards Services, to provide clear and comprehensive, but practical, advice.”

Consumers with a complaint should be pointed towards the Citizen’s Advice Bureau or alternatively, complaints not resolved by the agent can go to an OFT-approved redress scheme.

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