The advertising watchdog has told the agency industry to clean up its act on four issues, with clarity over fees being first and foremost.
1. Fees: In a guidance note issued by the Advertising Standards Authority, agents are told in no uncertain terms that their marketing must be clear with any ‘limitations and qualifications’ made obvious to consumers.
In a reference to past ASA probes about adverts - including those from online firms HouseSimple (the online agency now known as Strike) and Purplebricks, the watchdog tells agents: “The ASA has previously investigated and upheld complaints about an ad that claimed to sell a property for a flat fee but failed to make clear that consumers would have to pay an additional fee to use their own conveyancer.
“Similarly, the ASA upheld a complaint where the ad quoted a 0.5 per cent commission fee for the sale of homes, without making it clear that the advertised fee did not include accompanied viewings.
“Further to this, the ASA also upheld against an ad which failed to make it sufficiently clear that an upfront, fixed fee was payable regardless of whether the property sold or not.”
The new guidance note from the ASA also makes it clear how agents should express their VAT charge.
“The ASA has previously judged an ad that offered a VAT-exclusive selling fee of “0.9% + VAT” to be misleading because the percentage fee should have included VAT. Therefore, remember to present your fees inclusive of VAT, wherever this applies” insists the authority.
2. Comparisons: The ASA demands that agents making comparisons with rivals must include sufficient information to ensure consumers are not misled.
“Comparisons with identifiable competitors must be based on objective criteria, make the basis of the comparison clear and should be presented in a way that is unlikely to mislead. Adequate documentary evidence must be held to support any comparison” says the ASA, which also wants any such comparisons to be verifiable.
Any claims regarding savings must be supported with “comprehensive documentary evidence” and the ASA insists that “a simple customer survey will not be sufficient.”
3. Facts: The ASA says it receives frequent complaints about ads that inaccurately describe properties or their location.
“Although this might seem obvious, property ads should not exaggerate the features of a property, and marketers should ensure they hold adequate substantiation for any objective claims that are made. For instance, an agent’s ad was found to have broken the rules because it claimed a property offered a ‘private drive’ when the drive was shared with other residents.”
4. Local Experts: There have been several claims in the past that some agents have stretched the interpretation of ‘local’ when claiming they have offices or expertise linked to one location.
The ASA says: “Depending on the context, access to a “local property expert” could be considered to refer to local knowledge of a geographical area rather than necessarily the physical location of the ‘agent’.”
But it then adds: “However, particular caution is advised if marketers wish to make direct or implied claims about having a “local” presence and should not imply the existence of physical branches or being ‘based’ in particular locations, when that is not the case. The ASA upheld a complaint where it was felt an estate agent ad had implied they had a fully operational branch, when it was only a serviced office.”