What estate agents have to tell you – changes to the law

Tue 05 Nov 2013

Sarah* had spent £800 and invested a lot of time and mental energy into buying her dream house when suddenly she had to call the whole thing off because she found out the house was subsiding.

She knew there were uncertainties involved in buying a house but hadn’t expected anyone to deliberately mislead her into buying something under false pretenses.

It turned out all three of the houses in the terrace had been underpinned and her estate agent had hidden this from her because he knew it would put her off.

Up until recently the law was not on Sarah’s side – the buyer had the responsibility of finding out if a property was faulty and if they didn’t ask, the estate agent wasn’t obliged to point out problems.

But, as of this month, the 1993 Property Misdescriptions Act (PMA) has been scrapped and estate agents now have to comply with much stricter measures under Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (CPRs).

The law applies to estate agents, property developers and websites that introduce buyers to sellers. If any of these are deemed to be acting unfairly they can be issued limitless fines and individuals and imprisoned for up to two years.

Paula Higgins CEO of Homeowners Alliance welcomed the changes. “Although there are a lot of estate agents that act fairly we have heard too many stories in the past about ones who’ve exploited loopholes and taken advantage of their clients.

“It’s good to see the law adapting and updating itself and we hope this will result in a better deal for homebuyers and sellers,” she said.

What do these changes to the law mean for me?

CPRs mean that estate agents now have to disclose “fair” information to homebuyers and sellers. That includes making “material information” about a property clear, unambiguous and not deliberately misleading or withholding information from buyers.

It also stipulates that estate agents must be honest about their credentials, and not falsely claim that they are part of a professional body or redress scheme.

They must provide “accurate descriptions of properties they are marketing”, that means pictures of the property should be realistic – so no spending hours looking for the one angle that doesn’t show the motorway at the end of the garden.

A number of things can now be classed as withholding information from buyers. For example, not revealing planning permission or development in the area or proximity to a power station or sewage works is illegal and could result in prosecution.

The law also calls for “open, honest, clear and timely sharing of relevant information”. So no hiding information from buyers until it’s too late.

And if a number of sales have fallen through agents now have to find out why and alert the buyer.

This means situations like Sarah’s (mentioned above) will be less common because buyers are more likely to know about problems before starting the process.

Local schools, night clubs or halfway houses also have to be mentioned, as do neighbours with ASBOs and whether there have been burglaries in the area. Buyers also need to know whether there has been a murder or suicide in the property.

But the OFT warns that estate agents act for the seller, not the buyer and recommends that homebuyers contract their own solicitor or licensed surveyor to act for them. The OFT has also issued information packs on the process for both homebuyers and sellers.

However, Mark Hayward, managing director of the National Association of Estate Agents, said he had reservations about the guides. “We welcome the guidance document on compliance with Consumer Protection Regulation, but we believe that the unique and important nature of property purchase means consumers deserve further, stronger protection.

Hayward suggested when the guidance was first published that it should be used in conjunction with the now defunct 1993 Property Misdescriptions Act (PMA). “We have long advised that both pieces of legislation could exist concurrently to the benefit of the consumer,” he said.

The OFT say consumers should take control of the situation by doing their own research into the buying process, being clear with estate agents about their requirements and keeping written records of conversations about buying the property.

Buyers can now expect estate agents to investigate potential problems they think might become an issue, such as suspicions of damp or probable leaks. Although it may be hard to prove that your estate agent had a suspicion unless they specifically tell you so.

They also have to mention Green Deal loans (which allow owners to make improvements to the property and then pay them back with the savings on their electricity bill), because these debts are passed on to new owners.

Other practices that are considered unfair include putting buyers under undue pressure to skip the survey, raise their offer or exchange contracts. Estate agents should also offer their own complaints procedure.

If you think your estate agents are acting unfairly but you are not sure what to do,  then take a look at our guide on How to resolve disputes with estate agents. The guide for buyers is coming soon.

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