It was with great interest I read this week about an estate agent who was selling a house for a client and stole sufficient documentation from their home to enable him to open a fake bank account and raise loans in excess of £30,000 which he then spent on his indulgent family lifestyle. The rogue in question was referred to by acquaintances as a ‘nice chap’. He was charged with 9 counts of fraud and has been sentenced to 18 months at Her Majesty’s pleasure. What is to stop him setting up or working for an estate agent and doing the same again when he’s released (which is likely to be in 9 months time, if not sooner, with our judicial system)? With a criminal record he couldn’t set up a company but as there is no mandatory licensing system for estate agents in the U.K. he could be a self-employed estate agent or work for a company by not declaring his past.

The Judge, Andrew Albright sitting in St Albans Crown Court, when sentencing said “… you have abused your position of trust as an estate agent.” I found that inspiring in these arduous commercial times. The legislature still upholds the doctrine that estate agents are ‘agents for the client’ and hold a position of trust. This flies in the face of the self-centred, avaricious, sales people the press would portray estate agents to be. Don’t misunderstand me, I accept there are “bad apples” in all industries – some find themselves in a difficult position and make poor choices, and others, like the chap in this case, set out to defraud. The Judge went on to say “You are a deeply devious and dishonest human being.” How did this chap ever become an agent? Because there was no system to prevent it from happening.

Government, over the years, has maintained that the British public do not need protecting from such individuals by way of legislation e.g. estate agency licensing. They consider that the public are quite capable of being able to judge an estate agents character. In the case of the client in St Albans it would appear a mis-judgement took place! Or they were simply conned! Wouldn’t it have been better that the client in this case could have checked on the agent’s trustworthiness by reference to his voluntary membership of PropertyMark or the RICS, or ARLA, or NALS, or even the local Estate Agents, Surveyors and Valuers Association for their own town or city. Not only do such self-regulatory organisations pro-actively ‘keep watch’ of their membership, they are a deterrent to the cowboys and criminals who would avoid joining so as not to expose their nefarious dealings.

Many countries around the world have statutory licensing, and although one may view such schemes with a degree of cynicism over their policing, such systems do have ‘teeth’. Purplebricks opened in Australia in 2016 and have very recently been fined by the State of Victoria for promoting their listers as ‘Real Estate Agents’ when in fact they didn’t have licenses and were ‘unqualified sales people’. I don’t know whether these sales people had any experience of estate agency, but the licensing system in Australia, like America and Canada, is quite thorough therefore it is unlikely the sales people had anything but the basic knowledge that say our office juniors have after 12 months in the job. The same organisation has been castigated more than once in the UK by the Advertising Standards Authority for misleading the public, yet they were not penalised and the public were not alerted to the issues nor advised to check their listers credentials or past experience. How do sellers and landlords in this country know they are getting good advice from someone who may have only been in the job a matter of weeks?

Anyone thinking of selling or letting a property should select their estate agent carefully. The valuation and the fee are only two elements to consider when choosing an agent. You wouldn’t go to an unqualified doctor, dentist or solicitor, therefore when it comes to selling or letting your biggest asset why leave it to chance that the agent is trustworthy and has the experience to handle the matter professionally?