The industry must take this opportunity to jump, without being pushed

price9Richard Price, Executive Director of UKALA, on why agent redress gives the lettings industry a chance to change perceptions.

There’s been a head of steam building up of late and it’s focussed right on private housing and agents in particular. Agents are facing more and more scrutiny with accusations of charging extortionate fees, unaffordable rents, and exploiting tenants and landlords.

However, those within the industry know that the reality is different. Yes, we’re all worldly enough to know that bad practice does exist (there are enough examples), but it is the minority and we agree that it’s unacceptable and must be stamped out. We’re also frustrated that the majority of agents who provide a good service to their clients are tarred with the same brush as the unscrupulous or criminal.

Recent UKALA research shows that nine in 10 tenants said their agent was upfront about the fees they would be charged for their last tenancy. While one in 10 is still too much, does it really sound like exploitation on a large scale?

So why the change?

Simply, there is a greater expectation of customer service and a need for quality assurance in the industry. These changes represent more of a light touch approach and give agents a chance to take the initiative. Indeed, UKALA and many industry partners already do so, for example in 2013 when collaborating to produce CAP guidance on the ASA’s  ruling about advertising fees on property listings. Those who already do a good job will have nothing to fear.

Let’s not forget that around 70% of tenants use a letting agent and just over half of landlords use an agent’s services in some way.  Rudimentary maths places the combined landlord and tenant client-base somewhere in the region of around seven million. That’s a great deal of customers and indeed expectations to meet.

What do the new requirements mean?

The new law will give an independent route for resolving consumer complaints made against property agents once the agent’s complaints procedure has been exhausted.

If you engage in lettings agency and property management work you must to belong to a government authorised redress scheme by 1st October. Failure to do so may result in a civil penalty of up to £5,000, with local authorities responsible for policing compliance. There’s two weeks until the requirement kicks in so if you’re yet to act, you must do so now.

There are three government approved redress schemes to choose from and UKALA has selected Ombudsman Services: Property as its redress provider. UKALA agents will automatically comply with the new provisions as membership to Ombudsman Services: Property is inclusive in our membership offering.

Complaints: how will the process work?
You should still deal with a complaint as usual, and you must first be given a reasonable opportunity to resolve a complaint. However, if you don’t satisfactorily resolve it then the landlord or tenant can take the matter up with your chosen redress scheme. The type of complaints that redress schemes will handle include:

  • an apparent breach of obligation
  • unfair treatment
  • avoidable delays
  • failure to follow proper procedures
  • rudeness or discourtesy
  • not explaining matters
  • poor or incompetent service

The role of redress schemes is to resolve the complaint appropriately for the agent. They are not there to punish agents when things go wrong but all decisions made are binding and enforceable in court.

A chance to change perceptions

The forthcoming requirement should be seen for what it is: a chance for the industry to challenge perceptions, prove that agents do a fine job and, in the process, weed out the very worst offenders.

We must expect that all the major political parties will focus more and more on appealing to the already burgeoning cohort of renters who comprise a significant proportion of the electorate, and for the pressure on the sector to be cranked up in the coming years as a result.

That is unless we can demonstrate otherwise. This framework for redress is likely to be implemented across other industries in the near future so agents can make sure they’re ahead of the game when it comes to quality control in many respects. We should be asking what we can do to turn the issue on its head. We have to take the opportunity to drive best practice and to show that landlords, tenants and other industry stakeholders can rely on the service agents provide.

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