The most senior Trading Standards officer policing the agency industry says he hopes the public will ask about referral fees in a bid to discover the scale of problems surrounding the controversial payments.
In March 2019 the National Trading Standards Estate & Letting Agency Team produced guidelines saying that agents must disclose to customers in writing, at the earliest opportunity, details of referral fees they enjoyed from other suppliers. The guidelines were the result of a government request for more transparency for consumers about such fees.
Just weeks later The Property Ombudsman followed that up by saying its members must in future disclose referral fees in a bid to make previously-hidden costs open and transparent to consumers.
However since then - largely because of the pandemic changing government priorities - little has been heard of any clampdown on referral fees and the issue remains cloudy.
Now James Munro, leader of the NTSELAT, has told a podcast that his team would be able to increase their knowledge of the issue - and whether agents were abiding by the guidelines or ignoring them - if members of the public quizzed agents.
“Consumers - the public - they’ve got to be made aware of their options and the questions to ask. Because of the nature of referral fees it would be great if consumers when they’re using estate agents actually ask ‘What arrangements do you have?’” Munro tells podcast host Rob Hailstone of the Bold Legal Group.
“That would give us [NTSELAT] far more information if things go wrong” Munro continues.
He also wants Citizens Advice to be more specific on the information it gets from members of the public who use CA as a form of redress if there is a dispute with an agent.
In the podcast - the first of a series to come from Hailstone’s BLG - Munro says he relies heavily on Citizens Advice and the two government-approved industry redress schemes to find out about referral fee problems, as they are difficult to monitor routinely.
The podcast is a fascinating listen, covering possible risks agents run by accepting referral fees in relation not only to NTSELAT guidelines but also, potentially, the Undesirable Practices Order 1991 (an adjunct of the Estate Agents Act 1979) and even the Bribery Act 2010.
The whole podcast is some 25 minutes long and the referral fees discussion begins around eight minutes in - here’s the link to the podcast.