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Do you know who you're dealing with when you move house?

Time to look again at the way homes are bought, sold and let.

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

It is fair to say that most people would not allow their children to be taught by an unqualified teacher or get a filling from a dentist with no formal training. Why, then, when buying, selling or renting a home do many still seem happy to use an agent with no formal qualifications or training?

We have been campaigning for a long time to see greater regulation in the residential market and to ensure agents are working to properly enforced standards. Those who sell and let homes have for far too long been allowed to operate without the necessary training or knowledge to properly serve their clients and provide the sort of professional advice and guidance that people need when taking such a big step. All in all, we have a bit of a problem on our hands.

There are two issues at play here. One is that of agents selling property; the other is agents letting property.

Firstly, let’s look at the sales side of things. Although all agents are obliged to offer a redress scheme for customer complaints should anything go awry, those who are not members of a professional body, such as RICS, are not forced to meet professional competency standards. Why is this important? Well, it could mean that when buying or selling a house, people are potentially dealing with an agent who, while technically abiding by legislation, doesn’t necessarily understand or follow all the processes involved. Selling property is no easy business and agents who are not subject to the educational and regulatory requirements of a professional body could even be providing inaccurate advice. All this at a time when people need all the help they can get.

Significantly, with the property market turning a corner and confidence returning, the need for compulsory standards is greater than ever. The government has established schemes such as Help to Buy and Funding for Lending to help buyers and sellers. However, one thing the government hasn’t addressed is those responsible for the transactions - the agents. What we need is legislation ensuring all agents meet minimum professional standards before they start trading. Both this and existing legislation on property sales need to be tightened. And, importantly, there need to be consequences for all those agents who don’t abide by the law.  

A similar approach is needed in the lettings sector to protect both tenants and landlords. Until a recent amendment was passed in the House of Lords, agents who let property and weren’t a member of a professional body such as RICS could operate completely unchecked. There was no comeback for consumers if things went wrong. After a long campaign industry campaign, including RICS, the government finally agreed to introduce compulsory redress schemes for all agents. However, this is not enough to properly protect the consumer, as redress only tackles problems once they arise. Tenants and landlords will still be left exposed as long as agents can continue to operate without any formal qualifications or training.

All told, with the worst of the housing crisis now behind us, the time is right to look again at the way homes are bought, sold and let. Standards are everything. They make sure agents understand current law and legislation, that ethical principles are followed and observed, and that offer consumers have the peace of mind that they are dealing with a competent, skilled professional. So, next time you are moving, make sure you know exactly who you are dealing with before you sign on the dotted line.