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The summer of change for estate and lettings agents

Friday 14 June 2019

Lloyd Clarke, Partner at Attwells Solicitors writes for Propertymark and discusses the expansion of National Trading Standards and how this impacts the estate and letting agency sector.

You may be right in thinking that Brexit has dominated the thinking of the Government in the last three years. However, closely behind Brexit is the issue of housing and the regulation of those working in the sector, particularly estate and letting agents.

As recently as April 2019, the Government expanded the National Trading Standards (NTS) arm responsible for policing agents. It did so by increasing its funding and personnel, as well as including lettings agents within its remit for the first time. This move now ensures that NTS has sufficient resources to make its presence known to agents.

It will now be the responsibility of NTS to regulate the private rental sector in England, protecting tenants and consumers, most notably the Tenant Fee Ban which came into effect from 1 June 2019, preventing agents from charging tenants for background checks and any other additional pre-letting vetting fees. Furthermore, the new enforcement team will also police estate and letting agents working methods.

The new bulked up NTS team will oversee estate/letting agents and consumer protection legislation, issue prohibition and formal warnings and approve and oversee Ombudsman schemes. Although on the face of it, these steps are designed to protect consumers, some feel this is an attack on smaller, independent estate agents operating on the high street, with concerns that such further enforcement will limit revenue at a time of shrinking housing stock and increased sale abortion rates.

Given the political football that is housing, now more than ever agents are being placed under the spotlight, with more and more focus around the way they work. There is a continued movement against the sector and the conservative party leadership contest is sure to involve competing candidates seeking to use the issue of housing to their advantage.

So, apart from the tenant fee ban and the new NTS team, where is further change going to come from and what will it means for agents?

The first port of call is the Government’s own ‘Regulation of Property Agents Working Group’, which is due to announce its final report this summer. In terms of what it is likely to deliver, this includes the following:

  • Advice around the establishment of an independent property agent regulator;
  • Setting up of a single, mandatory and legally-enforceable Code of Practice for Agents; and
  • Introducing a system of minimum entry requirements for Agents and continuing professional development (CPD).

The recommendations of this report are likely to be put into effect by the end of year meaning there will be little time for agents to get their ducks in a row. All of this is on top of increased speculation surrounding referral fees and the banning of section 21 notices and the renewed focus on anti-money laundering.

Having advised estate and lettings agents for many years I am aware that instances of non-compliance in the sector remain all too common, something which those in Government are now cottoning onto. Also, having recently delivered a talk for NAEA Propertymark on essential law for estate agents, I have seen first-hand the ‘information gap’ between what an agent thinks they should have in place and what they must have in place, indicating that important legislation is being ignored at a time where the net is closing in on non-compliance.

It’s now more important than ever to ensure that your terms and conditions comply with the information obligations under the Estate Agents Act 1979, that your marketing, advertising and working practices of your Sales Neg’s is compliant with the Consumer Protection Regulations and that your Customer Due Diligence meets the requirements of the Money Laundering Regulations 2017.

For more information please call Lloyd Clarke on 01206 239761 or email