A new study of British agents suggests that buyers with accents from most of the rest of the world receive less favourable treatment than those from Eastern Europe, the Middle East or Africa.
The study was conducted by the University of Sheffield and involved a mystery shopping exercise in that city.
According to the results, agents’ clients with British accents were given preferential treatment - possibly due to what the authors of the study call “unconscious bias”.
Women with Romanian names and accents were given the worst level of customer service. The foreign accent that bucked the trend was French - clients with this accent received similarly good treatment to those with English accents.
The study was funded by the British Academy and had clear limitations - it was only in one city and involved just 300 examples, all the prospective buyers were women in their late 20s and had names and accents that appeared to be either from Britain or from countries in central and eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
The volunteers gave only their names to estate agents when inquiring about buying a house for the first time.
The researchers found that while a good level of customer service was given to most of the women - and, critically, there was little evidence of overt discrimination - the agents were friendlier to those with names and accents that appear to be from Britain or France.
The results have been published in the Journal of Language and Discrimination, and details have been given to the various British media outlets.
Researchers from the university’s School of Languages and Cultures are reported to have concluded that there "could be a level of unconscious bias in the way estate agents deal with their customers”.
Nicole Baumgarten, the leader of the research, is quoted as saying: "Our research has found that not everyone is getting the same treatment when they're taking this significant step in their lives, particularly those from minority backgrounds."
She continued: "For example, when speaking to someone who they thought were British or French, the estate agents would typically engage in more informal social conversations such as asking them about their day, where they work, making jokes, or saying things which showed they empathised with the process of trying to buy a first home.”
In one example the treatment towards a woman from Romania improved noticeably when she told them she worked as a nurse in the NHS.