Business

Private home sales to be easier, says government

Houses
Image caption The government says that changes would reduce the amount of regulation

Property websites will be given more of a free hand to matchmake private buyers and sellers under government plans.

At present, some websites that display property for private sale are treated as estate agents by the law.

This means that they need to check that the descriptions of homes in adverts are accurate.

This responsibility is set to be lifted from websites, but an industry group warned that buyers could now get a worse deal.

Traditional estate agents charge a fee for selling services and offer advice. Some people may want to avoid these fees by making a private sale, and websites have been set up aiming to link them to potential private buyers.

The government plans to allow the two types of business to operate under separate rules.

But Peter Bolton King, of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics), said: "These [planned changes] mean that prospective homebuyers and sellers will find it harder to distinguish between intermediaries and traditional estate agents.

"Consumers could, perhaps unknowingly, be left responsible for undertaking their own detailed sale negotiations without the advice and guidance of a property professional.

"This could lead to delays, increased costs and even sales falling through, causing frustration and stress for all involved."

Checking accuracy

The vast majority of buyers and sellers in the UK use the estate agency network to find, buy and sell properties.

The government argues that regulations need to be cut to assist the market in private property sales, instead of through a traditional estate agent.

In the past websites have struggled to remain free from some of the rules that estate agents face, even though they were not involved in the sale procedure and did not offer advice during the process.

For example, Tesco had a website in 2007 that charged private sellers £199 for a web advert and noticeboard.

However, it found that at that price it could not afford costs such as conducting checks on the accuracy of sellers' house descriptions, so it shut down the site and sold it.

Tepilo, owned by TV presenter Sarah Beeny, has managed to operate, but has required extensive and expensive legal advice to do so.

'Unfair'

Now the government plans to amend the Estate Agents Act and repeal the Property Misdescriptions Act.

Image caption Some popular websites only allow estate agents to advertise properties for sale

"These intermediaries help buyers and sellers contact each other at a low cost, but do not engage in other estate agent activities, so it is unfair to expect them to go out and check all the property details of all the sellers on their websites," said the new consumer affairs minister, Jo Swinson.

"Reducing the regulations for these businesses will open up the market and increase choices for consumers looking to save costs when buying or selling a property."

But property market commentator Henry Pryor said: "As well as making life potentially more confusing for house buyers, the changes could lead to the longed for goal of for-sale-by-owner websites being able to advertise their inventory on the big property portals like Zoopla and Rightmove.

"The industry is watching nervously as these changes could open the door to the biggest retailers like Tesco and Marks and Spencer who are known to be keen to grab a slice of the £1bn a year estate agency sector."

Ms Swinson said that selling privately could be a "useful and cost efficient method", but warned that - in order to avoid estate agents fees - consumers had less protection during the transaction.

In the meantime, the traditional estate agency sector would still be covered by consumer regulations and guidance, which has been refreshed, from the Office of Fair Trading.

Traditional estate agents must, for example, ensure information about properties is accurate, no pressure is put on customers, and an effective consumer complaints procedure is in place.

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