Property problems – and why preparation can help to prevent them

The processes of buying, selling, letting or renting a home look straightforward on paper but can in practice sometimes become taxing and emotional experiences.

Good estate and letting agents do their utmost to keep problems to a minimum by working in a professional manner to strict codes of conduct and striving to maintain high levels of customer service. Whilst the majority of transactions proceed smoothly, if something does go wrong it is often the agent that shoulders the blame, whether fairly or not.

We cannot cover every issue that might arise but this guide from OnTheMarket.com looks at a few practical problems which can arise. It will help you to understand how and why agents may handle matters in a certain way and what to do if things go wrong.

1. Agents act for their clients

The primary fact always to bear in mind is that estate agents and letting agents act on behalf of a client – the seller or the landlord of a property. The agent has a legal obligation to look after the best interests of their client and, within the law, to act on the instructions of that client. Nonetheless, agents are sometimes wrongly blamed if things go awry for a prospective buyer or tenant. Of course, the duty to act for their client does not mean that agents can disregard the interests of buyers and tenants. Agents are obliged to treat all customers fairly, with courtesy, and to provide them with accurate information.

2. Preparation and communication

Those who do their homework and follow professional advice (see OnTheMarket.com Top Tip guides “Choosing your estate agent”, “Finding a home to buy”, “Financing a property purchase”, “Letting a property” and “Renting a property”) are far less likely to experience transaction problems than those who are less well prepared. Good preparation goes a very long way to ensuring that the process of buying, selling, renting or letting is as smooth and stress-free as possible. Hand-in-hand with the requirement for good preparation goes good two-way communications. Agents will keep in regular contact with their customers and customers should keep in close contact with the agents, advising them of changes in circumstances or of matters affecting transactions. This ensures that if issues do arise they can be dealt with early, before they grow and become more difficult to resolve.

3. “I was buying a property and I’ve been gazumped!”

A sale is agreed to a buyer. Later on, the seller accepts a higher offer from a different buyer. The first buyer is naturally upset and may wonder why the property was still being shown and why the estate agents allowed someone else to make an offer. In fact, the agent has done nothing wrong. Unless the seller agreed that the property should temporarily come off the market while the first sale proceeds, the agent was correct in continuing to offer it for sale – not least because sometimes buyers pull out of transactions! Even if the property was temporarily off the market, until exchange of contracts, the agent is under a legal obligation to inform the seller of any and all offers. The only exception to this rule is if the seller has instructed the agent in writing that they do not want to hear about offers below a certain figure. Changing buyer in mid-transaction is entirely a decision for the seller, not the agent. As a buyer you can reduce the chance of being gazumped if you are properly prepared for the purchase. This will help to cut down the period of time taken to exchange of contracts and so reduce the possibility of another buyer coming on the scene.

4. “I rented a property and they won’t return all my deposit”

A possible cause of friction between tenant and agent is when a tenancy comes to an end and deductions for dilapidations are made from the deposit. If the tenant feels that the deductions are not justified, they will often blame the agent. But the agent holds the deposit on behalf of the landlord and can only return it when the deductions are agreed and the landlord instructs them to do so. A good agent will always try to resolve disputes over deposit returns but they cannot override their client’s instructions. If they cannot get both parties to agree, then the matter may be referred to an independent alternative dispute service (or ADR) that is part of a tenancy deposit protection scheme. All deposits in assured shorthold tenancies (the most common form of tenancy) must be registered with a protection scheme. Avoid deposit disputes by making sure there is a detailed inventory at the start of the tenancy. This should make clear any existing faults or dilapidations and head off arguments at the end of the tenancy.

TDS has recently launched a Code of Recommended Practice. This Code of Practice sets out the recommended requirements which letting agents and landlords should meet as members of the Tenancy Deposit Scheme.

5. “The agent won’t accept my offer”

If your offer to buy or rent a property is not accepted, it is the seller or landlord that is making the decision, not the agent. However the agent will always tell their client about the strength of a particular offer. In sales for example, if there is more than one interested buyer, then the agent will advise the seller about the ability of each to proceed and may well recommend one over another. This could be because one buyer is a cash purchaser or has their mortgage arranged in principle and does not have a property to sell, whilst another buyer has not even put their existing property on the market. The first buyer is clearly in a better position to go ahead. To avoid being disappointed put yourself in the strongest position by properly preparing your finances before making an offer.

6. “Why is this sale taking so long?”

When an estate agent introduces the buyer of a property, they will have found out as much as possible about that buyer’s circumstances and how they are going to finance the purchase. They will pass that information on to the seller in good faith but they can only rely on what they are told and what they can reasonably find out. Once the sale is under way, the agent should have a process in place for checking its progress and reporting to all the parties on a regular basis. Unfortunately, the agent is not in control of either the buyer or seller, nor the legal or the financial processes, and sometimes delays can occur. If they do, then don’t automatically blame the agent. They will be doing their very best to keep matters moving along by talking with everyone involved – the buyer, seller, conveyancers for both, other agents involved if there is a chain, mortgage brokers and surveyors. Agents are often the glue that binds the transaction together!

7. Something more serious?

The vast majority of agents do all they can to comply with legislation and codes of conduct but on rare occasions, as with all industries, a serious error may be made. If you really do feel you have a legitimate grievance against an agent, you should discuss the problem with them before deciding if you have a case which needs to become a formal complaint. If the matter cannot be resolved by a conversation with their branch, you should ask for details of their formal complaint procedure. All good agents will have one. It will tell you who to complain to and what process will be followed in dealing with your complaint. You should also be told how long it will take to deal with each stage of the process. If the firm’s complaint procedure is followed and you are still dissatisfied, you may take your complaint to an independent Ombudsman. All estate and letting agents must belong to a recognised Ombudsman scheme. The agent should provide you with the contact details. The Ombudsman will normally only consider complaints that have already gone through a company’s formal complaint procedure.

Content provided by OnTheMarket.com is for information purposes only. Independent and professional advice should be taken before buying, selling, letting or renting property, or buying financial products.

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