Estate agents forced to tell the truth

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There will be shock and horror in many estate agencies across the country, as it emerges that the OFT is cracking down on dodgy description practices. No longer will you arrive at what you expect to be a secluded cottage, to find a major motorway at the end of the garden.

So what will be outlawed, and will this protect us?
The new rules
The Office of Fair Trading has issued draft guidelines (which are still under consultation) explaining exactly what isn't allowed any more when agents are selling a property.

Some of this is designed to protect buyers: Estate agents won't be able to use blanket claims misleadingly when they only apply to particular parts of the property. So, for example, they couldn't say it is double-glazed if the owner only bothered with the front of the property. Neither will they be able to make assertions about central heating if only half the house can be adequately heated.

This should help protect people who don't notice the building's shortcomings on a quick browse round the property, and then don't follow up with any kind of survey (or don't read the survey they get).

Another major difference in the guidelines is that certain descriptions have been specifically outlawed. So, for example, they can't call it a 'secluded garden' if people are allowed to walk through it. They can't call it peaceful if there is a major road planned nearby, and they can't talk about 'nice views' where there aren't any. Meanwhile, the photos have to reflect what the actual property and its surroundings look like.

They are banned from one or two things designed to push up the price. So, for example, they are not allowed to quote broad range of prices for a particular property when they know the seller would only consider selling at the top end of the range.

Other guidelines set out to protect sellers. So, the agent can't claim to have buyers already keen to buy the property when they are trying to win your business - unless they actually do have the buyers in place. Neither can they claim to have sold something similar in the area recently if they haven't done anything of the sort.

If the agent breaks the rules they can be fined or prevented from working as an estate agent. If they do so maliciously and consistently then there will be powers to jail them, so this thing will have teeth.

Will this protect you?
It seems this will offer specific protections. However, it's impossible to legislate against every possible dodgy practice. There's nothing stopping them from talking up the interest in the property to put you under pressure to make an offer. There's nothing stopping them negotiating hard to get you to push up an offer, and there's nothing stopping them putting you under pressure to accept an offer when they are desperate for the commission.

In the final analysis we will have to stay on our guard. We will have to view everything the agent says with suspicion and remember that caveat emptor applies when we're buying a property - it's up to us to check every small thing to be sure we're not being ripped off.
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