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Ombudsman: few agent complaints compared to those over new homes

One of the three official redress bodies serving the estate and lettings agency industry has conducted a survey of complaints across the whole housing sector - and problems concerning agents form only 10 per cent of the total.

Late last year the former Secretary of State for Housing, Sajid Javid, surprised many by saying he wanted to move towards having just one Ombudsman spanning every aspect of the housing sector, including agents and developers and leasehold issues amongst many others.

That has spawned a rivalry between the existing agency redress services, of which at least two appear to be attempting to portray themselves as possible candidates for the all-housing role.

One is Ombudsman Services, which recently conducted a survey to see how complaints should be handled in the housing sector in order to better protect consumers.

Between March 9 and April 5 it conducted what it calls “a dialogue” of over 400 responses from tenants, renters, homeowners, landlords and those working in the sector. 

Responses overwhelmingly indicated a need for change, with 69 per cent of consumers finding the system for complaining in the housing sector confusing, and 55 per cent not knowing where to go to complain about housing and property.

OS has now released the dialogue findings and the most common issues faced by consumers were with new build properties (56 per cent of respondents), maintenance and upkeep (10 per cent) and lettings and estate agency (also at a rather modest 10 per cent).

Other areas of concern included unauthorised parking, gas leaks, asbestos, dangerous electrics and even theft.

Consumers also used the opportunity to go into more detail about some of the issues they had experienced, including a case where a homeowner battled with the freeholder for two years to fix a leaky roof, a tenant who has sheets of mould on the walls of their kitchen but doesn’t dare complain for fear of being evicted, and neighbours who are faced with spending nearly £500,000 each to make their new build homes safe.

The full report - called Building Balance: Restoring Power to Consumers in the Housing Sector - has been submitted as part of a response to the government’s official consultation over its proposals to strengthen consumer redress in housing. 

It makes several recommendations to the government including:

- The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government should put consumers at the heart of the sector, offering a simple complaints ‘journey’ with strong regulation and easy access to help and advice for consumers;

- The creation of a single Ombudsman for housing, underpinned by statute (supported by 84 per cent of the Building Balance respondents);

- The introduction of consistent standards that firms operating in the housing sector must comply with when handling complaints to provide clarity for consumers

OS launched Building Balance following its decision to withdraw from the agency redress sector from August 2018, saying it would no longer offer “a broken solution to a broken market.”

The OS Chief Ombudsman, Lewis Shand Smith, says: “The current system for redress in housing is ineffective, confusing and complicated, and clearly doesn’t provide the service that consumers need. The recommendations put forward in our report are underpinned by real insights, as well as the experience we have gathered during our 10 years of helping consumers with complaints in the housing sector. 

“For example, the dialogue showed overwhelming support for the creation of a single ombudsman.

“We know this model can work well - the scheme we operate in energy handles around 40,000 complaints every year, and with oversight of the whole sector we’re able to identify issues and help companies improve their processes to reduce consumer detriment. Now it’s up to the government to take our recommendations forward and put into place a new system; one that is fair, balanced and has the legal powers to put things right.”

There has been no word yet from the new Housing Secretary, James Brokenshire, about the issue of redress reform, but it is presumed he will continue the same agenda.

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