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1. Property agents kept in check
What should you expect from professional property agents? The UK government has announced that residential property letting and managing agents will have to join a compulsory redress scheme, as part of a package of measures to ensure high standards across the residential lettings market.
These professions sometimes get a bad press. Are they a law unto themselves? On the contrary, the law requires all types of property agent to observe the same standards of fairness and transparency as any other business that deals with consumers and, in the case of estate agents, a whole lot of additional rules.
That’s all very well but do these rules have teeth? They are backed up by various sanctions but enforcement agencies such as Trading Standards Officers and the OFT have limited resources and private court proceedings are a big step for most people to take. The government plans to legislate to force all letting or managing agents who deal with homes to join an ombudsman scheme, so it will be easier for consumers to get their complaints resolved. Many reputable agents already belong to a scheme and it is already compulsory for residential estate agents.
What standards can I expect from property agents? They must be straightforward in their dealings with consumers. For example, they must be clear about when their fees will be triggered, how their fees are calculated and how the client can end the contract with the agent. Confusion on these points could lead a seller to incur multiple fees. The agent’s terms of business must not conceal hidden traps and, if they contain jargon, this must be explained. Agents must never try to gain work by inflating the figure they expect to be able to get for a property or overstating the potential buyers or tenants who are on their books.
What about the way they treat buyers and tenants? They must treat those looking to buy or rent homes in an equally transparent way, even though buyers and tenants are not usually their clients. This doesn’t only mean giving accurate information about the property; examples of illegal practice include continuing to advertise a property that is no longer available as “bait” to generate interest for another property, or misleading a buyer or tenant into thinking someone else is about to snap up the home they are looking at. It is no defence that information is literally true if it is presented in a misleading way.
Sometimes it’s not what they say, but what they don’t say. It is equally wrong to omit important information, if that would mislead an average consumer. For example, when telling a prospective tenant about the rent, the agent should also explain any additional administrative charges. Key information must be provided at the right time, not sprung on the consumer at the last minute.
Is my deposit safe? Rules aimed at safeguarding deposits provide considerable protection, although not the equivalent of a government-backed guarantee. If an estate agent holds a deposit for a house purchase, this must be kept separate from the agent’s own money. For most private lettings, a tenant’s deposit against damage and breakages, whether paid to the landlord or to his agent, must be protected using an approved tenancy deposit scheme.
2. Living with bats
A couple in Devon face possible prosecution if they demolish a building which is a roosting site for bats, even though they’ve been ordered to tear it down for contravening planning rules. How can that be? As one of the hundreds of animals and plants protected under the European Union’s 1992 Habitats Directive, various species of bat are classified as “European Protected Species”. The Directive lists types of habitats and animal and plant species which must be given legal protection by Member States.
But surely if I have bats roosting on my property and I don’t want them there, I can do something about it? It is a criminal offence for anyone deliberately to kill, injure or handle a bat, to possess a bat (whether live or dead), disturb a roosting bat, or sell a bat, unless they have obtained a licence. It is also an offence to damage, destroy or obstruct access to any place used by bats for shelter, whether they are present or not at the time. These offences carry a maximum sentence of six months in prison and a £5,000 fine.
That sounds serious. Can anything be done? Yes. It is possible to obtain a licence to move bats. However, a licence can only be granted if there is no satisfactory alternative and it will not be detrimental to the population of the species concerned. Licences are granted by Natural England (or its equivalents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). You’ll need a professional bat removal consultant. The Bat Conservation Trust has a help line and is a good place to start.
What other types of animals do these rules apply to? There are hundreds of European Protected Species across the European Union but besides bats, two of the other most commonly encountered species in the UK are the great crested newt and the common dormouse.
These laws seem ripe for change. The UK Law Commission thinks so too. It has acknowledged that the legal framework for wildlife management is overly complicated and does not always work terribly well. It is carrying out a review of UK wildlife law and we may see draft reforming legislation being published sometime next year.
Kay Balaam is a solicitor in the London office of international law firm SJ Berwin