Too much phoney regulation… and not enough of the real thing

Why do we have three ombudsman-type services now?

There was a time when The Property Ombudsman was the only show in town, with a little help from the Royal Institution for Chartered Surveyors’ mediation service. But now there is TPO, Ombudsman Services Property and the Property Redress Scheme.

What’s more although two of the three bodies remain not-for-profit stalwarts, some are flirting with becoming more commercial - the last press release I received from TPO was about Client Money Protection and, quelle surprise, included quotes from an insurance broker who was just happening to be organising a special offer for TPO members.

So what, you might say? The more ombudspeople the better, surely?

But what are the poor members of the public to make of all this?

What sense can they make of visiting three agents’ offices and find that each is carrying a different ombudsman-style service’s sticker?

The residential sector is absolutely besotted with trade bodies which represent only part of the trade (what proportion of the country’s estate agents are in the NAEA, for example?). It’s in love with rival groups which to the general public appear to serve the same purpose (did anyone say the NLA and the RLA, or did I mean ARLA and ARMA?).

Oh - and we are very keen on kitemarks and stickers which denote someone’s idea of quality (but what, pray, do the actually mean to the wider public?)

Contrast that with, say, food hygiene.

You go to almost any pub, restaurant, cafe or food-stall in the country and you can find a roughly similar one-to-five star rating awarded by the local tradng standards office, denoting the hygiene standard of the establishment. No one gets confused saying it denotes good or bad food - but it is clearly good or bad hygiene.

Whatever the merits and de-merits of the scheme to hygiene aficionados, it has several advantages to the rest of us: it is uniform throughout the UK, it is simple to understand, it is clearly posted, and people can make an informed judgement based upon its result.

It’s really not like that with the property business, is it?

With so many residential property associations and bodies in business - and I do mean business because many thrive on revenue from rival membership schemes, award events, and training - is it any wonder that the public shows a certain scepticism to the industry?

And with that scepticism comes a DIY attitude where members of the public thumb their nose at yet another sticker denoting membership of yet another network or group, and instead are starting to use online rating.

We all know how breathtakingly easy online systems can be to manipulate (just ask a restaurant owner whose reviews on Trip Advisor have been corrupted by a nasty rival operator).

But few can deny the simple appeal of them. Haven’t you used one either to see whether your next hotel is up to scratch, or to let other people know of your experience? I bet you have.

And so it is with letting and estate agent rating sites. I’ve written several stories about them in the past 10 days, each describing a new service no doubt being launched with the best of intentions but - by the nature of online - open to manipulation by accident or design.

Yet my money is on at least one or two of these rating services succeeding.

It won’t be because it’s inherently good and heaven knows it won’t be because it’s written by an authoritative source.

But it’s because in the absence of real sensible regulation, the public wants guidance.

A sticker on the branch door isn’t enough, nor is membership of Another Body for the Preservation of Standards. What the industry needs is an expression of clarity to the public and one, maybe two, governing bodies that people recognise and respect.

Good luck with that then...

(This blog originally appeared on the Industry Views section of Estate Agent Today)

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