Consumer protection from rogue agents ramps up

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From today, prospective landlords have a 14-day cooling-off period in which they can cancel an agreement to rent a property through a letting agent.

An updated code of conduct for lettings and estate agents issued by The Property Ombudsman (TPO) has come into force, which aims to clean up the industry and ensure consumers are treated fairly.

The code stipulates to letting agents that they should operate with integrity and warns they should "not seek business by methods that are oppressive or involve dishonesty, deceit or misrepresentation".

It adds: "You must avoid any course of action that can be construed as aggressive behaviour or harassment."

The revised code also states that the letting agent cannot charge both the landlord and tenant for the same things – which property expert and managing director of Kate Faulkner said is important as "agents are fequently being accused of this at the moment". 

The code of conduct is currently voluntary but it comes into effect ahead of wider legislative changes expected later this year that will require all letting agents to register with an approved redress scheme.

TPO is the UK's largest property redress scheme to date, with 60% of UK letting agents already members.

The code also states that estate agents cannot "discriminate or threaten to discriminate against a prospective buyer of the seller's property because that person declines to accept that you will (directly or indirectly) provider related services to them".

While independent buying agent Henry Pryor points out that "estate agents have never been 'allowed' to discriminate on such grounds, Faulkner welcomes the emphasis placed on the issue by TPO to deal with rogue agents. 

"I think the discrimination issue is really good to highlight – consumers think that agents will hold back properties if they don’t take their services and this is ‘normal’, so don’t fight it or report it when it happens. It’s about time we really rammed home this is unacceptable behaviour." 

The code will be adhered to in cases whereby the Ombudsman is called into adjudicate disputes between consumers and agents, with TPO able to make agents pay redress up to £25,000.

In the most serious cases where the code is found to have been breached, TPO can fine or expel rogue agents and refer them on to Trading Standards and the Competition and Market Authority.

Robust framework

Gerry Fitzjohn, chief operating officer at TPO, said: "The Codes provide a robust framework in which registered firms should operate. They cover the entire process of selling, buying, letting and renting a property, including information disclosure, offers, deposits, conflicts of interest and the agent's duty of care.

"The codes are widely recognised as an essential tool that TPO agents can use to assure buyers, sellers, tenants and landlords about the fair and honest service they can expect to receive."

In 2013, complaints about estate and lettings agents to TPO jumped by 23% to the previous year. It handled 16,000 disputes, of which 60% concerned problems with letting agents.

While the number of complaints enquiries to do with letting agents rose by 22% to 10,179 compared to 8,334 in 2012, the 2013 figure had doubled since 2009 (5,551).

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