Category Archives: property market opinion

Attempted intimidation by a PLC or fair comment?

05/09/2017 UPDATE: Another independent agent has been sent a heavyweight lawyers letter by Purplebricks demanding they stop making public statements regarding certain trading practices and insisting they refrain from asking Purplebricks to substantiate claims they have made in public. This letter, like mine, was timed to arrive late on a Friday evening and demanded immediate action, to ensure maximum worry by the recipient.

It is quite right and proper that every company and individual is entitled to protect its interests if it believes it has been misrepresented, libelled or slandered. It is also the case that some companies use the law to silence journalists, the public or competitors who are asking awkward questions or making perfectly fair and reasonable complaints which the company were rather not aired.

What follows below is the edited and redacted (for legal reasons) correspondence between Schillings solicitors, acting on behalf of Purplebricks PLC following a range of questions and statements posed asking, what I honestly believed at the time and continue to believe, were pertinent, reasonable and in the public interest.

These questions followed a series of claims and statements made by Mr Michael Bruce CEO of Purplebricks PLC and the PLC itself in its marketing (some of which have since been declared misleading by The ASA).

The email, from one of the UKs’ leading specialists in this form of litigation, was sent at close of business on a Friday night and required a response within a matter of hours over the weekend.

In my opinion now, and at the time, the timing and tone were clearly intended to cause panic and worry in any small business or individual without out of hours access to high power barristers and the funding with which to respond. The reader may reasonably believe otherwise and should draw their own conclusions.

For a number of reasonsand life experiences, I don’t respond to threats (real or imagined) in the way the average person responds . On this occasion, therefore, decided to do what my conditioning and training in the Light Infantry had taught me to do when ambushed by a significantly more powerful adversary. Turn towards the threat and fight back with the maximum force proportionate to the circumstances.

That I have to date received no further response to my reply confirms, I believe, that this was a simple act of bullying and intimidation by a PLC embarrassed and worried at the points being made and the questions being asked. However, I would ask that the reader looks at the following exchange and reads it conjunction with other posts I have written that relate to this matter and form their own conclusion.

Purplebricks what is really going on

Is my expert local or even an expert? How do I check?


From Schillings 

(My original response is included in quotes and italics, preceded by ‘CW’)


Our Ref: MB/CW

20 January 2017

URGENT

Dear Sir

Purplebricks Group PLC

We act for Purplebricks Group PLC (“Purplebricks”).

We write in relation to a series of allegations you have made about our client using the Twitter handle @PDQProperty and on your Twitter page, which is accessible at the following URL: https://twitter.com/PDQProperty?lang=en-gb (the “Twitter Feed”).

We set out below a number of defamatory statements that have been made about our client via your Twitter Feed, this is by no means an exhaustive list:

  • “Good morning @purplebricks still no explanation for customers or PURP investors on @LSEplc why you made false claims during your IPO” (14 January 2016)

CW – Purplebricks (PB) stated pre-IPO that all of their LPEs were “qualified”. This was a knowingly false statement by PB.

It is reasonable for the public, investors and other businesses expecting to compete with PB on a fair and level playing field that this meant the LPEs’ held industry specific, nationally recognised qualifications such as the Diploma, certificate or NVQ in estate agency from awarding body the NAEA/ NFoPP. There is an exchange of emails between myself and Mr Bruce (which you have presumably been shown), that confirms Mr Bruce knew that the majority of PB LPEs did not hold any such qualifications whatsoever. Furthermore, at that time and since, the recruitment section of the PB website continues to make it clear that qualifications are desirable but not essential.

 

  • “Two questions @PurplebricksUK. How many times have you claimed this as a ‘new listing’ to your investors & other potential sellers? @LSEplc” [Property listing attached] (2 November 2016)

CW – This is a reasonable question based on ample screenshot evidence held on file and made available to The National Trading Standards Estate Agency Team, The Property Ombudsman Scheme, as well as data collected on a daily basis by Rummage4, that demonstrates PB have relisted many, many properties.

PB acknowledged they had audited a number of properties following a report in The Times in August of 2016 and confirmed that they allowed their clients to list and re-list properties at will without PB ensuring the adverts complied with Consumer Protection Regulations as is required in statute and by The Property Ombudsman Scheme code of practice. In doing so, I believe it is reasonable to contend that PB are in clear breach of the CPR and TPOS, as well as its contract with Rightmove and Zoopla, giving them an unfair advantage over other law-abiding businesses.

  • “#Purplebricks investors take Let alone that many LPEs’ trading without required legal redress, money laundering registration etc.” (4 November 2016)

CW -It is a statement of fact that none of PBs’ self-employed LPEs were members of a redress scheme prior to June 2016 and, certainly not prior to the IPO. This is illegal. That some have since joined, is not contested.

It is a requirement that all businesses engaged in estate agency must register for money laundering

  • “ [Retweet of REDACTED to @PDQ Property: reasonable arbitration fees willing paid by a tenant client to negotiate a tenancy with the landlord client costs split 50/50] @PDQ Property: Genius! However, I’d rather we simply had better enforcement of rogue agents” (25 November 2016)
  • “@rightmove @zoopla can you confirm that you checked all of @PurplebricksUK s LPEs complied with current legal requirements before listing?” (8 December 2016)

CW – Rightmove have a contractual obligation with all of its customers and with the public who use the site expecting, agents who are advertising on the site to go through a vetting process to ensure that they have met all of the requirements to work legally within estate agency.

By allowing LPEs who were not members of a redress scheme onto the site, Rightmove had failed in its contractual duty and this was and remains a perfectly valid question.

PB had every opportunity to respond to that and previous, similar statements at the time and, provide evidence to the contrary taking appropriate action against me and other persons who had raised similar concerns.

  • “@PurplebricksUK Can you confirm that all of your LPEs were members of an approved redress scheme, & with @ICOnews &HMRC prior to June? 1/2” (8 December 2016)

CW – PB have not and cannot confirm this for the reasons been stated above. I believe this to be fair comment.

  • “@PurplebricksUK Can you also confirm that all of your LPEs are currently registered with @ICOnews and @HRCgovuk for money laundering?” (8 December 2016)
  • “@TheMarkSadler @naea_uk @PurplebricksUK The law is clear. All agents must belong to a recognised redress Not to do so is an offence” (9 January 2017)

CW – This is self -evidential true https://www.gov.uk/redress-scheme-estate-agencies

  • Did @naea_uk really endorse @PurplebricksUK for transparency? *Blocked Facebook reviews *Threatens press with libel over LPEs legal status” (9 January 2017)

CW – It is factually correct that PB has taken down reviews on its Facebook page which were predominantly less than complimentary and, in some cases, alleged illegal activity by PB.

I am aware that PB has used similar legal threats (such as the one I am responding to here) to silence mainstream, broadsheet media and professional journals for publishing questions and statements that state factual information that PB does not like.

This is not, in my opinion or, I would contend, that of any reasonable person, the way a business conducts itself with transparency.

  • Currently trying to help one VERY frightened lady who says she is being threatened by a loan company working for a well-known PLC agent.” (12 January 2017)

CW – This was factually correct. The PLC is not mentioned however, I have a fully evidenced transcript (screenshot etc.) of the conversation with the lady concerned prior to her receiving a call from a senior person within that PLC and being threatened with legal action if she did not withdraw all comments that she had published on Twitter stating that she had unknowingly been signed up to a loan agreement as well as allegedly having her statutory 14 day cooling off period ignored.

Prior to stating that she could no longer discuss the issue with anyone, the lady stated she was “terrified” at what this company was threatening to do to her legally and had had to take the cowards way out.

If PB wishes to associate itself with this despicable and cowardly behaviour by the, as yet, unnamed PLC publicly in court, that is a matter for it and its advisors.

  • “Hilarious but have missed off choosing a DIY agent where you pay £1k up front but only have a 14% chance of selling” (15 January 2017)[CW1]

CW- This, again, is factually correct statement based on a report by an internationally renowned investment companies analyst.

Furthermore, independent data collected since that date, shows that PB do not complete on 88% of all transactions as publicly stated by Mr Bruce on BBCs’ MoneyBox programme but, more likely, less than 25%.

Again, PB have had ample opportunity to set the record straight or take action against me and others prior to this point in time.

  • (12) “Another person contacted me to say online agent has unknowingly signed when up to a loan agreement and is refusing to allow them to cancel” [Image] (20 January 2017)
  • (13)[Retweet of Trustpilot review]  @PurplebricksUK What address would you like the hundreds of ‘anomalies’ we’ve found sent to?You? @ntseat? @TPOmb? (20 January 2017)

CW – I was looking to assist PB following what I took to be a request for information allowing them to identify potentially misleading adverts. https://uk.trustpilot.com/reviews/588224520dc2f6030cac05f6

  • (14)“[Retweet Michael Bruce: @JJGiheany @PurplebricksUK Sorry to hear that. I am new to this so bear with me and I will do what I can”] “ Property Expert” (20 January 2017)

CW – I suggest Mr Bruce develops a sense of humour. However, I also contend that as the CEO of a PLC that has set up an operation whereby the majority of its’ alleged ‘experts’ are not registered for mandatory redress schemes says that it is reasonable to call into question with a tongue in cheek comment in the spirit of #Commisery aimed at agents such as myself that his personal expertise may should be lampooned

  • REDACTED

CW – I believed the statement made in ‘15’ was a fair one to make at the time given the legal status of LPEs prior to June 2016 and their status within HMRC and ICO etc. However, I felt it reasonable to withdraw the tweet.

‘16’ I contend that the statement made by PB is utterly baseless and is, in conjunction with other defamatory statements about agents with different business models such as myself offensive. Asking whether they were trading REDACTED was, as has been stated above, a fair and reasonable question to pose. However, I chose to withdraw it.

(together, the “Tweets”).

In addition, we write in relation to a complaint to the National Trading Standards Estate Agency Team (“NTSEAT”) about our client and comments made on this by you to the publication, Estate Agent Today (“EAT”). On 8 December 2016 EAT published an Article online, in which you were quoted as accusing our client of the following:

REDACTED

CW – The post and my comments were withdrawn and an apology was issued as soon as was practicable. No action or contact was made by PB at the time.

I have evidence that shows properties advertised by PB have been regularly withdrawn, and re-marketed as ‘new in’ or had their status changed many times over a very short period which fits the definition of portal juggling.

Such activity, if proven, is clearly disadvantaging agents who do not undertake such activities and who comply with the law of the land in relation to membership of redress schemes, HMRC money laundering, ICO, not falsely advertising qualifications etc. etc. I am aware that the NTSEAT is investigating a number of complaints based on the above.

If an agent claims that all of its’ representatives are qualified when they are not. That is misleading

If an agent allows properties to be listed and advertised as ‘new in’ or under offer’ or sold stc’ when they know this not to be the case; this too is misleading

If an agent uses the statistics gleaned from any misleading advertisements to obtain new business or investment by claiming shorter sale times, a higher percentage of listed properties sold than competing agents or, to appear as if they have listed more properties as new in in a month than they have (thus appearing to be more popular than they are or, potentially, a better investment than might be the case, that is quite rightly, a matter for the NTSEAT to assess and investigate. REDACTED

In addition, we write in relation to a complaint to the National Trading Standards Estate Agency Team (“You have also made the following defamatory comments on the Property Industry Eye website:

REDACTED IN TOTALITY

 (Together, the “Comments”).

The Tweets and Comments contain a number of very serious allegations about our client, including (a) REDACTED (b) that the Local Property Experts (“LPE”) employed by our client are operating REDACTED (c) that our client is REDACTED (d) that the share price REDACTED (e) that there are grounds to believe that REDACTED (f ) that our client engages in REDACTED (the “Allegations”).

Along with the Tweets and Comments, you have constantly posted further tweets and comments about our client in various industry publications, repeating the Allegations and seeking to spread mis-information about our client to the sector.

Falsity of the Allegations

The Allegations are undoubtedly of an extremely grave nature and are not only false but also highly defamatory of our client, such that continued publication would be likely to cause our client serious harm to its reputation, as well as serious financial loss*.

*24/08/2018 – CW – It is of note that in the intervening period since this letter was sent by Schillings, Purplebricks share price gained significantly in value and is still (at the time of writing) over 200 points higher than at the end of January 2017.

Further, the onus is on you as the publisher of the Tweets and Comments to prove the truth of what you have published, as opposed to our client demonstrating they are untrue. In the circumstances, should our client take civil proceedings against you in respect of your sustained campaign against them, you would have to produce to the Court sufficient evidence either or both, orally and in writing, to prove that on the balance of probabilities what you have published about our client is true.

As the publisher, you are liable for the Tweets and Comments and any reasonably foreseeable republications of the Tweets and Comments. Given the seriousness of the Allegations and to whom they are published, the republication of the Tweets and Comments would be reasonably foreseeable.

We deal with each allegation below to put you on notice of the true position.

CW – The statements that I have made which have not been withdrawn immediately and an apology already issued are based on self-evidential information available in the public domain or with the NTSEAT and, can be made public if PB so wishes.

Membership of a Redress Scheme

It is wholly untrue to suggest that our client is acting unlawfully as it does not require its LPEs to have a proper redress scheme in place. All of the LPEs who act for Purplebricks are members of a redress scheme and comply with their relevant codes and regulations. Further, all of the initial and ongoing Purplebricks’ training is conducted in accordance with the rules of The Ombudsman Scheme and The National Association of Estate Agents (“NAEA”). In addition, Purplebricks’ CEO and co-founder, Michael Bruce, has met with both the Ombudsman, Gerry Fitzjohn, recently and the CEO of the NAEA, Mark Hayward (who presented at the Purplebricks Annual Conference 2017) and they work closely together to help increase the standards of the overall industry and transparency of service.

CW – The LPEs who are trading now, may well be members of a redress scheme and I have made it quite clear that I do not dispute that. However, as your own wording suggests, this has not always been the case and your client does not provide any evidence to the contrary. It is self-evident that PB has not complied with all of the codes of the TPOS nor the law prior to its IPO and since as described above.

HMRC Registration

As far as your allegation regarding any alleged failure by our client to ensure that its LPEs are registered with HMRC for money-laundering purposes, we can comment as follows:

1. Our client is registered with HMRC for anti-money laundering purposes and maintains a money laundering policy overseen by its Anti-Money Laundering Officer who is a Solicitor Advocate, a Deputy Money Laundering Officer and a compliance administrator.

2. Given the nature of the engagement and role of self-employed LPEs in the process acting on behalf of Purplebricks, and because our customers operate within the Purplebricks’ platform, as the role of an LPE does not include any access to money or indeed the processing of payments in any way there is no requirement for a separate registration.

3. Notwithstanding this, our client does require registration as a condition of its Licence Agreement with any LPE and is pleased that all of the LPEs do seek to register in any event. In fact during the LPE training every participant logs onto the HMRC website and completes the registration form MLR100, prints off two copies, provides one copy to our client’s Compliance Administrator and is required to complete their registration direct with HMRC. Our client’s Compliance Administrator maintains a full and complete log of every completed registration form for every LPE.

4. We recognise that some of the LPEs do not yet appear on the Supervised Business Register due to applications submitted but returned by HMRC for further information or registrations in process, some of which will be delayed registrations due to reasons such as awaiting company cheque books following incorporation etc. It should be noted that it can take 45 days for an application to appear on the register. An LPE employed by another LPE does not need a separate registration.

5. There is absolutely no commercial advantage to Purplebricks of the LPEs not registering, and similarly no advantage to registration.

The priority and importance which our client places on its anti-money laundering policies and procedures is evidenced in the fact that it has never been the subject of money laundering investigations, issues or complaints in the three years it has been trading.

CW – Whichever way Purplebricks try to angle this, each of their LPEs as a separate entity working within estate agency, has a ststutory responsibility to be registered with HMRC for money laundering.

I am well aware that PB encourages LPEs to canvas friends, family and their local connections to generate more business. These are customers who will come to PB via the LPE and not to the LPE via PB. Consequently, the LPE trading as PB.

Of the scores of LPEs who have been checked on the HMRC website (going back many months (well over the 45 days registration period!) not one is showing on that register. I would also hazard a guess that, if required, the LPEs’ registration dates would not match their start date and, none of the LPEs’ who started trading pre-IPO are yet showing in the register either (In some cases, these people have been LPEs’ since 2013!).

There may be no obvious commercial advantage to not being registered bar a small monetary one for the LPE concerned however, the fact remains that people passing themselves off as ‘experts’ are not REDACTED.

I am aware the HMRC has been made aware of many LPEs not being registered for AML by a number of agents across the UK who feel similarly aggrieved and I would guess that HMRC will report its findings on PB in due course.

ICO Registration

Various Tweets published by you allege that Purplebricks’ LPEs do not comply with their obligations under the Data Protection Act 1998 (“DPA”); this is incorrect.

Purplebricks as a data controller is registered with the ICO. The individual LPEs are data processors rather than data controllers (as such terms are defined under the DPA). Accordingly, the LPEs are not under any obligation to register with the ICO.

It is our client, rather than the LPEs, that has the contractual relationship with the data subjects whose personal data it collects (e.g. the sellers) and is the entity that is instructed on which particular services the customers require. Throughout the term of the engagement, our client retains control over and determines how and why the personal data that is collected by it (or by LPEs on its behalf) is processed. Any data that is collected by LPEs on behalf of our client is uploaded directly onto our client’s platform. Our client also determines which items of personal data is collected via its online portal, whether to disclose the personal data collected to third parties, and if so, to whom (including to LPEs).

The LPE’s represent our client in performing property valuations etc. and in doing so only process our clients customer’s personal data that they access via our client’s eZie platform (or that they subsequently collect from individuals) on our client’s behalf. They have no authority to use the personal data collected other than as instructed by our client and are not permitted to use the personal data of our client’s customers for any other purpose.

CW – This is at least in part or, possibly, a wholly false statement by your client. PB encourages LPEs’ to canvass their local market and develop new business from personal 2nd and 3rd party contacts within their local area. 

Under the definitions of the ICO, this means they are recording, storing, sharing and processing data in their own right. This requires them to be registered with the ICO for data protection.

24/08/2017 CW – Readers may wish to read this in conjunction with ICO guidance leaflet; in particular section 12, page 5. and page 9 “sub-contractors
UPDATE: 28/08/2017 – PurpleBricks own LPE business agreement confirms that LPes’ are processing data and, thus, ar erequired to register with the ICO: “14.2.1 it is permitted (notified or exempted) or will before the processing commences be permitted under the Data Protection Act 1998 (“The Act”) to process Personal Data to be provided to it under the terms of this Agreement.”
Extract from ICO Data controllers and data processors 20140506 Version: 1.0
Sub-contractors, professional advisers and consultants
25. There can be a tendency for the ‘main’ data controller organisation to deem its sub-contractor, professional adviser or consultant to be its data processor. Sometimes this can be written into a contract. However, the fact that an organisation contracts or employs another organisation to provide a service to it does not mean that the other organisation becomes its data processor in every case. Whether an organisation is a data controller or data processor will depend on their role and responsibilities in relation to the processing.

 

‘Portal Juggling’

Through your Twitter Feed you have sought to imply that our client is practising ‘portal juggling’. By this, you are stating that our client is manipulating internet portals to give a false impression of the status of a listing and, as such, they are in breach of the Property Ombudsman: Code of Practice for Residential Letting Agents. Further you have accused our client of misleading investors by reporting a current listing as a new listing and therefore new income. This is wholly untrue and is a further example of a mis- informed defamatory allegation designed to tarnish our client’s reputation.

As part of the service provided by our client to their customers, a customer may choose at any time to have a marketing break. This may be for reasons such as holidays, home improvements or simply because they cannot accommodate viewings during a particular period. The process is designed to provide choice and convenience for the customer.

It is entirely a customer’s choice as to when they wish to take a marketing break. The power is in the hands of our client’s customers to press the button to commence the marketing break and it is their decision as to when to put the property back live. This is subject always to a maximum period of three months for a marketing break. The property will automatically go live on the date that the customer sets or three months later although in every instance the customer is notified 24 hours prior to the property going back live and also notified as soon as the property goes live. They can of course set a new marketing break or set an alternative date themselves as they so wish.

When the property goes live again, an automatic notification is sent by Purplebricks to the property portals and in every instance, Purplebricks uses the original unique identification number that is attributed to the property from day one. Our client has no influence over how the property is then labelled by the property portals.

Rightmove, Zoopla and The Property Ombudsman have looked at ‘portal juggling’ in respect of Purplebricks and in each and every case they have concluded that our client’s platform is clear and transparent, with no form of ‘portal juggling’ undertaken. Our client receives no benefit from a property being taken off the market. Our client does not record them as “new listings” in any of their records, accounts or announcements. As you know, Purplebricks is a PLC and is therefore subject to strict auditing procedures.

CW – See comments above about the vast amount of data gathered showing PB are REDACTED by listing and re-listing properties without ensuring (as is their statutory responsibility) that these adverts are not misleading.

It is no defence to blame Rightmove or Zoopla for misleading data being placed there by its customers. Both portals provide facilities for preventing overwriting of information. Furthermore, PB also has a statutory obligation to show professionalism and due-diligence to protect its customers and those of its LPEs from providing misleading information to prospective buyers in the form of the status of the property.

If properties are not advertised with the correct data, it is the agents responsibility in law. If that data is misleading due to constant “marketing breaks” or multiple changes of ‘available’ to ‘sold stc’ in the course of an hour or two as is evidenced by screenshot and Rummage4 data, that is REDACTED.

Criminal Investigation

REDACTED IN TOTALITY

Deferred Payment Option

Our client takes very seriously the suggestion you have made that they mislead people about the nature of their deferred payment option. This is an extremely serious allegation which you have sought to make through various tweets, such as the tweet quoted above on 20 January 2017, where you seek to depict the co-founders of Purplebricks, Michael and Kenny Bruce as criminals running from their customers.

The nature and extent of the deferred payment option is clear, transparent, understood and explained in detail to all customers. Our client has thousands of customers every month who freely choose the deferred payment option which makes very clear what they are entering into, the nature of the relationship, the nature of the agreement, with whom they are entering into the agreement and the terms upon which they are entering into the agreement. It is fully explained to them by the LPEs and everything is clearly set out when a customer is instructing Purplebricks and consenting to enter into the agreement and completing their direct debit details. Full details of the agreement are also immediately emailed to the customer.

CW – As detailed above. I have now been approached by a number of people who claim that they have been signed up to an agreement by an LPE without having this explained to them. Furthermore, these people also independently allege that when they ask to cancel the agreement within the statutory cooling off period, they are told that this is not possible.

As I write this, my partner has been contacted by a friend from out of the area who has had a similar experience and is deeply worried at the response she has received from PB.

These are clearly not isolated incidents. REDACTED

(24/08/2017 CW – read in conjunction with the BBC You and Yours and Watchdog programme on the 4th of August.)

Whatever the reason, I now have a number of independent people who have stated on the record that this is what PB has done.

REDACTED Report

We are also concerned with the libellous comments you make in respect of the content of a report (REDACTED – Published in error by the analyst concerned and since withdrawn, however, a copy is held on file for evidential purposes – CW 24.8.17). You use the content of the report to infer and declare that Purplebricks only sell 14% of the properties that they take to the market. This is untrue and highly defamatory. You should note that Purplebricks have provided REDACTED with evidence that, rather than the 14% referred to in the report, the actual number based on his sample analysis should have been 91.6%.”

CW – I am not sure how a making a statement based in good faith, relying on data published by an independent respected analyst can be regarded as libellous.

‘Sell’, as opposed to ‘agree sales subject to contract on’ (or similar wording), is a very clear statement that a company has introduced a buyer to a property who has successfully completed contracts on that transaction.

Mr Bruce and PB as a whole seem rather uncertain on these figures. Mr Bruce explicitly claimed that PB SOLD 88% of all property it listed (the word “sold” and its meaning when used by Mr Bruce was repeated after further clarification was requested by Paul Lewis on MoneyBox). Yet now you claim 91.6% sell.

This is patently false. Data clearly shows that PB are not completing on anything like that number of transactions and to suggest otherwise is grossly misleading to the public and investors.

I will happily make a full retraction and apology if PB will produce evidence that for every 100 properties they list, they introduce a buyer to 91.6% of those same properties which go through to successful completion at a fair market price.

The data I have and am happy to make available to you or your client, is that PB complete on a significantly less than that and that amount is before being able to verify whether PB were the effective introducers to that property.

Trustpilot Reviews

You have today posted a libellous and damaging tweet requesting the address to send details about the hundreds of “anomalies” you infer you have found about what we can only assume is our client’s Trustpilot reviews, you having posted one of their reviews below the tweet. You are openly suggesting irregularity regarding the posting of reviews which we do not accept in any way. Please now provide the evidence to which you refer to this firm which can then be examined in its entirety before acting further on this issue.

CW – As already detailed above. PB regularly removes TP reviews that are less than glowing.*

PB do not make it clear to consumers that these reviews are taken at the time of instruction and not post completion which, it has been argued by a trading standards officer I work with, is misleading in itself.

I will happily exchange evidence with PB in exchange for the evidence I have requested above.

*24/08/2017 – CW Clarification – PB remove unverified negative reviews within a matter of minutes or hours however, unverified positive reviews are permitted to remain published indefinitely in the majority of cases.

Property Expert Tweet

You have today also posted a libellous and damaging tweet which is misleading and inaccurate about the CEO of Purplebricks, Michael Bruce. You used the headline “Property Expert” and then post a response that Michael Bruce sent to a customer in respect of an issue they were having. Michael stated “I am new to this so bear with me and I will do what I can”. You are inferring that because he said he was ‘new to this’ that he was referring to being new to the property industry. This is entirely misleading. Michael was referring to being new to the issue and to infer otherwise is libellous.

CW – It was clearly tongue in cheek, however, in the interim, Mr Bruce may find these useful https://www.amazon.co.uk/Kleenex-3717705-Tissues-Pack-White/dp/B00COM91WK/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1485012451&sr=8-4&keywords=mansize+tissues 

Answer previously detailed above

Liability

You have over 7,400 followers on Twitter and defamatory tweets by you have been retweeted on many occasions. As such, dissemination and re-publication of the defamatory material is foreseeable and inevitable. This is aggravated by the fact that many of your followers are members of the property industry who have an implicit interest in the material you are tweeting about our client. You are further liable for the republication of the Comments on Twitter by other users, which is clearly foreseeable as they were posted on an industry website.

Our client’s business is built on the highest level of customer care and satisfaction while adhering to all compliance and regulatory requirements. As such, it considers the Allegations made by you to be of the utmost seriousness and will take all steps necessary to vindicate its reputation.

We trust that now you are on notice of the falsity of the Allegations made on your Twitter Feed and in the Comments, you will take appropriate steps to remedy the situation. Your continued publication of the Allegations is entirely indefensible and aggravate any damages awarded in future legal proceedings.

You should also be aware that the continued publication of the Tweets and Comments, now you are on clear notice the allegations therein are untrue, would give rise to a claim by our client against you in malicious falsehood as well as libel.

In the circumstances, we require that you:

(1) Immediately remove the defamatory Tweets;
(2) Confirm that you will not repeat the Allegations in any future tweet, comment or other publication; and
(3) Agree to publish an apology and correction on your Twitter Feed, the contents of which are to be agreed with us in advance, making clear that the Allegations are categorically untrue.

CW – Notwithstanding the various issues raised about PBs alleged legal status and professional standing, your clients have made many baseless and misleading comments about the business model I employ which affects my business and standing as a professional and, of thousands of other agents in the UK.

It relies on data and makes claims that are knowingly false:

*Comparing savings on an average fee which is significantly higher than the published average UK agents fee by its own conveyancing partner

*Comparing savings per sold customer without when in fact, this is a misleading comparison as it does not factor in those customers who do not sell and are not charged in my business model. On a like for like (average cost per listing) basis, PB are significantly more expemnsive than my business model (using REDACTED original data) and almost identical cost per customer listing when using data from Rummage4.

Your clients business has not, with respect been built on the highest levels of customer care and satisfaction (as the many Facebook reviews (removed) and unflattering TP reviews (removed) show. No, as the public accounts show, PB has built its market share using huge investments of cash subsidising each listing using claims that are, at best, dubious* and, as has been indicated above, at odds with itself.

As I have said separately, I have yet to consider whether to take legal advice however, my very limited understanding of this area of the law is that for damages to be made for defamation or libel, the claimant must prove I have been malicious and made knowingly false statements. Neither of which is true.

*24/08/2017 CW An opinion since vindicated by the ASA

We look forward to hearing from you as a matter of urgency and, in any event, by no later than 12pm (GMT) on 24 January 2017 to REDACTED of this firm (REDACTED@schillingspartners.com and REDACTED@schillingspartners.com).

In the meantime, all our client’s rights are reserved. Yours faithfully

SCHILLINGS

 

Is my agent, local, an expert or even legal?! How do I check?

Dedicated to ‘Cyberduck’

Most people buying or selling a home assume that the agent they are dealing with probably has to be qualified or licensed in some way, knows the local area and has some experience of the local market and the job they do (especially if that agent describes themselves as an expert, local, property professional or, a ‘maven‘).

Sadly, many people are badly mistaken in this view. There are very few legal barriers to entry as an estate agent and absolutely no requirement to have any formal qualifications (though they certainly exist and many agents choose to take them)

To visit someones’ home or property investment as an employed agent to provide marketing and pricing advice, to (possibly) conduct viewings, actively try to sell that property, conduct negotiations on your behalf which may run into the millions of pounds and, then, to successfully coax it through the archaic and combative English conveyancing system (and equally bad Scottish system) requires no legal checks, no qualifications and no experience. No wonder there are some horror stories out there. There is no definitive legal definition of an expert or ‘local’ (though the ASA is currently looking at whether or not such claims by some agents may be misleading)

robot football fail gif

The Crown Prosecution Service says this about what defines an ‘expert’:

It is a matter for the court to rule upon in each case. However for the purposes of this guidance, an expert is defined as: “a person whose evidence is intended to be tendered before a court and who has relevant skill or knowledge achieved through research, experience or professional application within a specific field sufficient to entitle them to give evidence of their opinion and upon which the court may require independent, impartial assistance”.


However, I would argue that LinkedIn profiles showing someone was working in the fitness and entertainment business one week and describing themselves as a property expert the next, does not classify them as an ‘expert’.

As a self employed agent, franchisee, or as a sole trader, there is greater protection for consumers but, few know where or how to check. This post aims to show the reader how and where to look.

The following list is not exhaustive but covers the basic requirements that a customer should be able to expect from an estate agency business or franchise/ licensee.

“if carrying out estate agency work by way of business then you must register with HMRC under the Money Laundering Regulations” – HMRC Money Laundering Team. May 2017

  • Agents must, by law, be members of an approved redress scheme such as The Property Ombudsman (TPOS)
  • Agents must register with HMRC to help prevent money laundering
  • Agents must (usually*) be registered with the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) for data protection “failure to register is a criminal offence”
  • Agents must have suitable public liability insurance and professional indemnity insurance (TPOS)

How do I check my agent is local and legal?

  1. To search the TPOS website find a member section enter the name of the company and area (e.g. for my loyal reader Cyberduck from Twitter, I’ll  use the example of Purplebricks – Cornwall) – If they are registered you should also check how long have they been trading/ been a member by contacting TPOS
  2. To check if your personal data will be held and processed correctly, you need to check the ICO website (you’ll only need the postcode from ‘1’ above to check).
  3. If there are more than one company listed at that address, you can check which one by looking on companies house here (make sure you also try the registered office postcode as well as the address in ‘1’ above). This will also enable you to see how long that business has been trading and compare the commencement of trading dates with membership of TPOS in ‘1’, ICO registration in ‘2’ and HMRC registration in ‘4’.
  4. To check if the company in question is complying with HMRC money laundering regulations for registration, click here 
  5. Not a legal requirement but, a good place to start is to check to see if the agent is a licensed and protected Propertymark agent

Propertmark logos before and after v4 JF

 

MAKE A COMPLAINT TO THE ICO

*Dependent on how they process personal data. Here is an example of the ICOs’ reference guide for a typical franchised agent.Registration self assessment ICO

Purplebricks – What is really going on?

Laurel and hardy sad gifPurplebricks is one of a raft of new-breed estate agency companies making some bold and questionable claims in the property market at present but how many of these claims stand close scrutiny and are they even trading within the law?

(This post has been updated on a number of occasions and these are all located at the bottom of the page – Last updated – major update 14/05/2017). Given the amount and length of some updates, this post may be split at some point to make for easier reading. CW

25/08/2017 – See latest related post – “Attempted intimidation by a PLC or fair comment?

03.08.17 BREAKING Purplebricks has now been subject to an in-depth investigation by BBC Radio4s’ ‘You and Yours‘ consumer program, as well as BBC Watchdog, forcing Michael Bruce, the CEO of Purplebricks, onto the defensive. Further complaints have been aired by consumers on Social Media and more is likely to break on this story over the coming weeks.

Over the years there have been many businesses who have seen what they believed to be an opportunity to change the property market in the UK (more specifically England and Wales) but, despite making bold claims to the press and investors, have failed spectacularly. Remember The Prudential?

In the late eighties it was the insurance companies wanting to sell endowment policies on the back of mortgages with cross selling opportunities (remember endowment policies?).

More latterly, a new raft of entrants have leapt onto the scene throwing the current corporate buzzwords of ‘disruption’ and ‘proptech’. These companies are the online* agents, promising allegedly huge savings for consumers with the same or even better service than the traditional full-service estate agents and big profits for investors.

In this post, I focus mainly on Purplebricks as the largest of these firms however, I also refer to other firms and the model in general too. In 2014, Purplebricks promised investors it would have made £25 Million profit by the end of 2016 (though these figures were subsequently challenged by PB . However, Hardman & Co predicted more modest profits of £8 Million EBITDA by this financial year-end).

Fast forward to December 2016 and PB issued a statement claiming that they had made just £300,000 profit using the EBIDTA method of calculation for the half-year results, some way short of the previous figure. Their full year-end figures are due out on the 29th of June for their financial year-end April the 30th but many industry experts believe PB will have to work hard to have grown their income in a property market where instruction volumes have fallen so significantly and the market share of the online sector as a whole has shrunk from a claimed (but unverified) 6% in mid 2016 to a verified 4% in March 2017. Readers may also wish to see the sector claims in light of other predictions from EasyProperty and eMoov of market dominance by 2017-18 with 20% or higher market share by sector.

Are Purplebricks and the call-centre agents heading for a tougher time in the press and with the authorities?

Those who have read my blog or Twitter feed will know I have called out a number of call-centre agents over their claims on many occasions resulting in a number of rulings made against them by the ASA. Whilst it is bad enough that this sector appears to have more than its fair share of complaints upheld about misleading the public and, by extension, investors, there are other, potentially more serious issues that may yet play out.

In the case of Purplebricks, there is an ongoing issue of whether their self-described LPEs (Local Property Experts) are classed in law as local or, indeed, as ‘experts’. Purplebricks have since removed this claim but were only recently advertising for new LPEs’ to join the firm with an immediate start but with “no experience required”

Certainly, pre-IPO, PB had publicly claimed that all of their LPEs’ were “qualified estate agents”. It would be reasonable that the public or investors may make a transactional decision on the assumption that such a statement would mean that the LPEs’ all held formal industry specific qualifications such as these NVQs‘.  However CEO Mr Bruce, himself a qualified solicitor, knew full well that this was not the case at all (extracts of the correspondence between the author and Mr Bruce at the time have been lodged with Purplebricks solicitors, Schillings).

Then there is the matter of whether Purplebricks and their LPEs’ have been trading legally. Purplebricks maintains that all of their LPEs’ are self-employed franchisees (PBs’ service agreement refers to utilising the British Franchise associations code of conduct in the determination of any disputes. See also HMRC update below) .

However prior to June 2016, none of these LPEs’ were individually registered with a property redress scheme, the Information Commissioner’s Office or HMRC for money laundering; all of which are legal requirements under the 1979 Estate agents Act. The author is currently awaiting a formal response on the LPEs’ legal employment status but believes that whether they are classed as formally employed or self-employed, it will leave Purplebricks looking at a possible investigation into their legal status surrounding trading, redress, money laundering, the sale of loans, VAT and associated employment and tax issues.

The claimed savings the public can make are also worthy of closer scrutiny, with PB seemingly very clear to muddy the waters and avoid using their own conveyancing partners firms data in its comparisons whose published estate agency commission figures** are considerably lower than the figures used by PB to estimate the alleged savings made by consumers.

Not only is the savings comparison flawed in its methodology (it is not a like for like comparison) PB claims savings on sold properties but steadfastly refuses to make figures available for how many consumers pay to sell but fail to do so – estimated to be circa £24 Million PA. Consumer and property journalists are now taking this seriously with many asking PB to shed light on their figures.

#PortalJuggling In a recent report on this activity, a number of well-known high street names including Purplebricks were mentioned as having very large numbers of property listings that were apparently anomalous. The author wishes to make it clear that he is not claiming or implying that any of those firms mentioned were deliberately undertaking such an activity merely that there were a large number of anomalous properties highlighted which bear closer inspection.

More disturbing is the use of heavyweight lawyers to silence critics or negative reviews. Purplebricks claims over 5,000 positive reviews yet a very high number of these are from unverified customers. Negative reports from un-verified customers however, are often removed within the hour.  Purplebricks recently removed their entire Facebook review page which certainly did NOT reflect five-star rating on Trustpilot and other review sites posters are not so complimentary about the PLC.

The author has been contacted by a number of customers who allege they were threatened with legal action for making negative posts on Social Media and on review sites and has screenshot evidence of these claims. There are also screenshots of reviews (since removed) by un-verified customers that allege they were not informed that by deferring payment of the Purplebricks fee, they would be signed up to a loan agreement with Close Brothers.

Furthermore, the author himself received a strongly worded email from heavyweight law firm Schillings threatening legal action for raising inconvenient facts and asking reasonable questions. All of the points raised by Schillings were rebutted with no further correspondence being received.

LPE numbers. LPEs’ were and continued to be recruited in large numbers however, what is not clear is how many of these are replacements for other LPEs’ who haven’t made the cut. Whilst the author does not have empirical evidence, there is strong circumstantial evidence echoed by other analysts that the turnover of LPEs’ is very high, suggesting that the promised rewards have not been forthcoming. Certainly, a cursory look at companies house suggests that there are not many who could be regarded as ‘long-term’ franchisees.

With Purplebricks year-end due within the next couple of weeks, there are many more questions unanswered than settled. Why, having made a categorical statement on BBCs’ money box that Purplebricks completes on 88% of all instructions, has Mr Bruce failed to provide any evidence for these figures?

A simple question Purplebricks. For every 100 customers who listed with you in the last financial year (your fee earning event) how many went on to sell (legally complete, not just sold stc) having had the buyer found via Purplebricks?  (There are a great many properties listed as under offer and sold by Purplebricks which are also listed as sold by other agents with a later listing date, suggesting that a significant number of sellers pay up front for Purplebricks, who fail to sell and then switch to high street agents who go on to successfully sell the property (legally complete).

This means 68 customers paid at least £57,732 at a minimum of £849 per listing (excluding  any additional services such as viewings/ deferred payment charges etc.) but did not sell. What was their average ‘saving’? Purplebricks do not seem to factor these customers losses into their heavily advertised ‘savings’.

With Purplebricks aiming for 3,000 property listings per month nationally, this means (if these figures were repeated across the UK evenly) that 75% of these customers would pay in the hope of selling but fail to actually sell within a 12 month period. That equates to those customers paying a whopping £24,165,000 without selling.

The difference in price between the original quoted average asking price on listing (£295,514) and the average final price quoted when the property was marked as exchanged (£228,145) is a whopping £ 67,368* – 23% below the listing figure.

And the news doesn’t appear to be much better for those that did go on to exchange. Of the 25% who did exchange contracts, the difference between the average prices from all of the original listings and of all of the exchanged properties is £67,368* per property. A total difference in price of £1,549,464. Repeated nationally (using the same average figures as in West Cornwall) this could equate to a £606,312,000 difference between asking and selling figures for the 25% of customers who were successful in selling.
*A misnomer as all agents are online. A more accurate description of these firms is ‘call-centre’ estate agents as they work from a centralised or regionalised office with no public access.

Update 17.4.17

Not the only example I’ve recently been sent/ seen but, this persons linkedin profile also suggests they went from zero estate agency experience to being a “local property expert” within a few hours.

UPDATE 21.4.17

Using publicly available data from Zoopla and Rightmove for the period Apr 21, 2016 – Apr 20, 2017 inclusive (the last 12 months) in the following postcode areas*** there were a total of 3,947 new instructions, of which, Purplebricks listed 91 (a 2.3% market share).

The average price quoted on listing by Purplebricks was £295,514

Purplebricks exchanged on just 23 properties during this time (giving a sale success rating of 25% or, a 75% failure rate. Take your pick)

UPDATE 24.4.17 For transparency and fairness, I have been asked to include the figures for all other agents success/ failure ratio during the same period. Between the same dates and exactly the same criteria, the complete dataset (including Purplebricks) exchanged on a total of 2,441 properties, a 62% instruction to sales ratio. Please note, the 38% of those customers who did not sell would, in the vast majority of cases, have not paid a penny to an estate agent.

So, using this data set, paying to list your home with Purplebricks suggests you have a 25% chance of selling. Whereas if you opt for the no-sale,no-fee model you have an average 62% chance of selling.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, when those who fail to sells’ costs are factored in to the lucky 25% who do, the cost to the average consumer who lists their home is almost identical between full-service agents and Purplebricks.

UPDATE: 28/04/2017 – I have now received a response from HMRC Money Laundering Team. At present, I can say no more until I have received further responses from other organisations.

In the meantime, if you wish to personally check whether an agent needs to be registered individually for money laundering as a franchisee (and by extension, individual redress scheme membership) HMRC Money Laundering Team can be contacted on 03000591009 mlrcit@hmrc.gsi.gov.uk

UPDATE 15/05/2017 – HMRC have now confirmed that all agents operating as a franchise who are sole traders or limited companies in their own rights ARE classed as separate businesses under HMRC classification and, as such, must be registered for Money Laundering with HMRC. I believe that this classification confirms previous assertions that such firms/ sole traders (‘LPEs”) who were not registered were doing so in contravention of a legal requirement.

I also believe that this clarification strongly suggests that all of these businesses were required to have had individual membership of an approved redress scheme such as The Property Ombudsman Scheme (TPOS). I have been informed by TPOS that many of these firms are now registered however, that they were not until recently. Again, this adds weight to the argument that these firms and their parent firm had been trading in contravention of the law.

At the recent #PROPTECH conference in London, property data company GetAgent.co.uk claimed that it had researched Purplebricks figures and found  that over 40% of all Purplebricks customers failed to sell with that company despite having paid over £1,000 up-front, on average, in that expectation (Source: estateagenttoday.co.uk – https://www.estateagenttoday.co.uk/breaking-news/2017/5/purplebricks-blasted-by-rivals-at-industry-technology-conference ) The author estimates that this figures represents over £12 Million is lost by consumers who paid in the expectation selling their homes but did not.

Data protection – Purplebricks franchisees (LPEs’) are predominantly individual companies registered at Companies House or sole traders. It follows (but I have no evidence to substantiate this assertion) that they take, hold, process and share information with sub-franchisees, other companies, the franchisor (Purplebricks PLC) and, separately, Close Brothers PLC and, MyHomeMoveConveyancing/ Premier Property Lawyers etc.

Of the fifteen LPEs’ and head territory owners (has sub-franchisees under them) I checked today (and have done so previously), not one is registered with the Information Commissioners Office (ICO).

The ICO process to see if you need to register is quite clear and simple https://ico.org.uk/for-organisations/register/ as is their warning: “Failure to register is a criminal offence”. Below are two screenshots of the process I followed prior to posting this update.

ICO ‘do you need to register’ process


ICO register of data controllers

 


*The difference in asking prices and selling prices may not be a true reflection of the price difference between asking and selling prices of the few properties that sold and could be explained by more highly priced homes simply not selling.

 

**Purplebricks conveyancing partner is the largest property conveyancer by volume in the UK. Accordingly, it has arguably the most accurate database of fees paid by agents in the UK. In 2015 Stephen Hayter Sales Director of My Home Move, published two articles which appear at odds with Purplebricks recently claimed average agents rates. The average percentage rates in 2015 were reported to be under downward pressure at that point and there is every reason to suppose that the average fee charged for a successful sale by a full-service agent in the England and Wales is now closer to 1% than the 1.8% or more claimed in many adverts.
***TR12 TR12 6 TR12 7 TR13 TR13 0 TR13 3 TR13 8 TR13 9 TR14 TR14 0 TR14 7 TR14 8 TR14 9 TR17 TR17 0 TR18 TR18 2 TR18 3 TR18 4 TR18 5 TR18 9 TR19 TR19 6 TR19 7 TR20 TR20 8 TR20 9 TR26 TR26 1 TR26 2 TR26 3 TR26 9 TR27 TR27 4 TR27 5 TR27 6 TR27 9

IMG_0071


About Chris Wood: Chris is an estate agent with over 25 years of property experience. His business, PDQ Estates Ltd is based in Penzance and Helston, West Cornwall and was included in the Daily Telegraphs’ list of the UK’s top 20 best small estate agents “who go above and beyond to help their customers” in 2013. He is currently championing the fight against #PortalJuggling in the media along with a number of other agents, journalists and agency suppliers.

He has worked with all sizes and types of businesses from single office independents to the management team and board of RBS and Tesco.

A former President Elect of the NAEA and board member of NFoPP until he resigned in 2009, Chris has always championed the highest professional standards for estate agents in the UK.
No stranger to the media, he has appeared on various programs including BBC, News 24, ITV, independent and BBC radio and is a regular contributor to trade journals, local and national Newspapers. Chris is on KloutLinkedIn Ecademy Facebook and Twitter
Chris has previously competed in the National Laser sailing championships and, as a Sabreur with a top 300 UK ranking in fencing. A long-standing member of the Territorial Army; in 2010 he mobilised for a tour of duty in Afghanistan with 1 Rifles as part of 3 Commando Brigade but was medically evacuated back to the UK before deploying to his forward base with his unit and is now medically discharged from the army.

When do you want to sell?

When do you really want to sell? On the first day of marketing? After four weeks? Three months or, are you prepared to wait for over a year  before agreeing a sale?

Not many agents ask this question of home-owners when they are about to go onto the market but, whenever I do, I usually see the owners mouth open slightly and a look of bewilderment as they pause to think about the answer. The answer is invariably a variation of the following: “Actually, I hadn’t thought about that…. I don’t know. As soon as possible?”

As any agent will tell you; if a property takes ages to sell, it’s the agents fault for not marketing it properly and, if it sells within hours or days, we “gave it away” or should drop our fees because “we (apparently) didn’t have to do any work”. So, the question remains. When do you want to sell?

When most people are pressed, they usually say they they’d ‘like’ to sell as soon as possible but, most usually expect to sell between four and six weeks after going onto the market. Which then should beg a series of other thoughts and questions.

Depending where you live in the UK, average selling times can vary dramatically. Just across West Cornwall, which my business covers, there is a 16 week difference between the fastest and slowest selling areas (Penzance 17 weeks and 1 week in Lelant*). Times also vary dramatically between agents within those areas. So, how do you choose?

For those customers who need to move for the usual reasons (work, family etc), they usually want to move quickly. Their priority is speed. For those who are moving for non-essential lifestyle reasons would ‘like’ rather than ‘need’ to move; the motivation is less strong and the emphasis shifts to being unconcerned about timing until they find ‘the right place’ at which point; agents usually receive a flurry of calls asking them why the hell they haven’t sold it yet.

Peoples priorities and emphasis changes all the time but, having a clear idea of what you want to achieve and by when is critical if you want your agent to give you the best advice and achieve the result you want.

Incidentally, except in highly volatile and fast-moving markets, the price achieved by a good agent will remain fairly constant. The best prices are usually achieved by setting a sensible figure that attracts lots of serious attention and not, as so many agents seem to suggest, setting an overly optimistic price that only attracts tyre kickers and silly offers before you ultimately drop the price having spent months on the market with your home getting ever more stale in the eyes of potential buyers.

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chris-signatureAbout Chris Wood: Chris is an estate agent with over 25 years of property experience. His business, PDQ Estates Ltd is based in Penzance and Helston, West Cornwall and was included in the Daily Telegraphs’ list of the UK’s top 20 best small estate agents “who go above and beyond to help their customers” in 2013. He is currently championing the fight against #PortalJuggling in the media along with a number of other agents, journalists and agency suppliers.

He has worked with all sizes and types of businesses from single office independents to the management team and board of RBS and Tesco.

A former President Elect of the NAEA and board member of NFoPP until he resigned in 2009, Chris has always championed the highest professional standards forestate agents in the UK.
No stranger to the media, he has appeared on various programs including BBC, News 24, ITV, independent and BBC radio and is a regular contributor to trade journals, local and national Newspapers. Chris is on KloutLinkedIn Ecademy Facebook and Twitter
Chris has previously competed in the National Laser sailing championships and, as a Sabreur with a top 300 UK ranking in fencing.

A long-standing member of the Territorial Army; in 2010 he mobilised for a tour of duty in Afghanistan with 1 Rifles as part of 3 Commando Brigade but was medically evacuated back to the UK before deploying to his forward base with his unit and is now medically discharged from the army.

*Publicly available data taken from Zoopla

Portal juggling – What is it, and why you should care

3d people - men, person juggles with a balls

Portal juggling – What is it, and why you should care

What is portal juggling?

#PortalJuggling

Updated 01/11/2016

Portal juggling is a ‘cover-all’ term for a range of illegal practices whereby estate agents de-list and then re-list properties on property portals such as Rightmove and Zoopla in order to:

  • to give consumers the false impression the amount of time a property has been up for sale or rent
  • to mislead home sellers and landlords looking to employ an agent that the agents concerned are more successful at selling or letting property more quickly or, at a better price than is the case
  • to falsify data on the percentage of final asking price achieved in order to obtain more business from false advertising, press-releases and during sales-appointments
  • to create the impression that the agents are listing or selling far more properties than they are
  • to mislead consumers that the agents have sold far more homes than they have
  • in the case of private and publicly quoted limited companies and businesses looking to raise investment funding; to use all of the above data to mislead investors and potential investors/ the stock market as to the current or future success or prospects of a business

How big is the problem?

In the past 12 months there were thousands of recorded instances of portal juggling events in the London property market alone, equating to an estimated 2.8 BILLION* Pounds worth of portal juggles or, £240 Million per month.

Why you should care

Anyone buying, selling or letting a property or land or, investors in stocks and share in property related companies, this practice affects you. It also affects all estate and letting agents too.

Buyers and tenants rightly make important decisions on which properties to view and how much to offer based on a range of factors, one of which, is how long a property appears to have been up for sale or rent. The Consumer Protection Regulations Act, make it an offence (amongst other offences) for agents to misdescribe the status or condition of a property to you and this includes the length of time a property has been for sale or, its status on the market. Portal juggling is such an activity. It is now a specified offence within The Property Ombudsman code of conduct

Property sellers and landlords make financially important decisions on which agent to use based on a range of factors, including marketing claims made by agents and news stories in the media. How much an agent might achieve, how quickly and how successful an agent appears to be will be major influencing factors in this decision-making process.

If you have chosen an agent who has misled you with claims of sales/ lettings successes, many other customers, higher achieved prices and seemingly quicker sales times/ shorter void periods, you have been the victim of a breach of portal juggling and as a result of this deception, it has been argued, you may be a victim of fraud.

Estate agents too, are victims of portal juggling and it is affecting their income, their job security and their local reputation. Competitors who are deliberately flouting the law and getting away with portal juggling are unfairly taking business from honest firms, wages from the pockets of its owners and staff and make their genuine, honest sales and lettings successes seem less so or, non-existent.

This is an illegal practice and one which the portals grudgingly acknowledge exists but, despite fine words, seem unable or unwilling to tackle.

Most agents each pay many thousands of pounds for the service of the portals and, whilst these practices are banned in the portals terms and conditions, agents do not seem to be receiving this part of the contract honoured. As the customers of the portals agents are not being treated equally, legally or fairly.

The portals, separately, have a duty as advertisers to ensure that all of their advertising is legal, decent, true and honest. The portals, despite having been regularly supplied with large volumes of evidence since last Summer, have yet to take any obvious action against persistent offenders.

Given that the portals own usage and visitor numbers are bolstered by the illegal activities of portal juggling agents, it has been suggested by some agents that the portals have an inherent interest in the status quo, though that is hotly denied by them.

For more information and further reading on this topic, there are a number of stories concerning portal juggling within the excellent trade publication, Property Industry Eye

Related stories:

Estate agents accused of ‘portal juggling’ on websites – FT.com 

Housing Market – Perception Is Everything

Rightmove confirms launch of inquiry into ‘portal juggling’ – Property Industry Eye

Agent set to withhold payments to Rightmove over ‘portal juggling’ – Property Industry Eye

Regulator asks to be handed list of ‘portal juggling’ allegations – Property Industry Eye

Industry regulator promises it WILL ‘fully’ investigate portal juggling – Property Industry Eye 

Agents are listing ghost properties on portals, says BBC – Property Industry Eye

Portal Juggling on Google

#PortalJuggling on Twitter

*I was provided this information in good faith but have not seen the data and am currently unable to reveal my data source for this information as they are under a press embargo regarding a related story and a specific well-known PLC. However the company has proved to be an excellent source of property market information in the past and I have no reason to doubt its authenticity.


 

Chris Wood

Chris Wood

About Chris Wood: Chris is an estate agent with over 25 years of property experience. His business, PDQ Estates Ltd is based in Penzance and Helston, West Cornwall and was included in the Daily Telegraphs’ list of the UK’s top 20 best small estate agents “who go above and beyond to help their customers” in 2013.

He has worked with all sizes and types of businesses from single office independents to the management team and board of RBS and Tesco.

A former President Elect of the NAEA and board member of NFoPP until he resigned in 2009, Chris has always championed the highest professional standards forestate agents in the UK.

No stranger to the media, he has appeared on various programs including BBC, News 24, ITV, independent and BBC radio and is a regular contributor to trade journals, local and national Newspapers. Chris is on KloutLinkedIn Ecademy Facebook and Twitter

Chris has previously competed in the National Laser sailing championships and, as a Sabreur with a top 300 UK ranking in fencing. A long-standing member of the Territorial Army; in 2010 he mobilised for a tour of duty in Afghanistan with 1 Rifles as part of 3 Commando Brigade but was medically evacuated back to the UK before deploying to his forward base with his unit and is now  medically discharged from the army.

Cheap agents could cost UK consumers half a £Billion in wasted fees

Cheap agents could cost UK consumers up to half a £Billion in wasted fees

the 60 to 70% of customers who didn’t go on to sell would have paid almost half a billion pounds to these firms for nothing.

Confused girlAlso see “Online agents – Big savings or, paying up-front for failure?”

There has been a great deal of press coverage of the savings that owners might be able to make with an on-line agent as opposed to the more traditional agents. However, notwithstanding, recent ASA rulings that some of these claims are misleading; the hidden costs of putting your home up for sale with an on-line agent do not appear to have been calculated by many journalists or consumer champions and, has been conveniently left-out of these agents ‘savings’ calculations in their advertising literature.

the hidden costs of putting your home up for sale with an online agent does not appear to have been calculated by many journalists or consumer champions and, has been conveniently left-out of these agents ‘savings’ calculations in their advertising literature.

Put simply, if on-line agents had every property currently up for sale on Rightmove (1.2 Million homes) and sold a typical percentage of that stock (average industry norm’ for online agents is estimated to be circa 30% to 40% of stock) then the 60% to 70% of customers who didn’t go on to sell would have paid between £468,000,000 and£500,000,000* (half a billion pounds) to these firms for nothing. Not much of a saving for the vast majority of their customers in my view.

The traditional high-street agent, however, would have charged all those unsuccessful customers a cumulative total of around £0.00

The difference between the cost of selling with an online agent and a traditional one when all of the successful and unsuccessful fees are added in? Around £650 per sold property (assuming the current average UK sale price of £177,377 using HM Land Registry figures). A far cry from the thousands of pounds in savings that online agents would have the public believe and, all of which without the expert negotiating, valuation skills and local knowledge a good agent can bring to the table for sellers.

Journalists and consumer champions, please do your sums before singing the virtues of these allegedly cheaper agents.

* Assuming an up-front fee of £600

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I welcome feedback so please feel free to leave constructive criticisms or ask questions below. If you could also take a second to rate my blog and pass it on to others who you think may find it interesting that would be great. Thanks.

Chris Wood of PDQ Estates Ltd

Chris Wood

About Chris Wood: Chris is an estate agent with over 25 years of property experience and is a leading campaigner against #PortalJuggling

His business PDQ Estates Ltd based in Penzance and Helston, West Cornwall. He has worked with all sizes and types of businesses from single office independents to the management team and board of RBS and Tesco. A former President Elect of the NAEA and board member of NFoPP until he resigned in 2009, Chris has always championed the highest professional standards forestate agents in the UK. No stranger to the media, he has appeared on various programs including BBC, News 24, ITV, independent and BBC radio and is a regular contributor to trade journals, local and national Newspapers. Chris is on KloutLinkedIn Ecademy Facebook and Twitter

He lives in in Penzance in his beloved West Cornwall and I n his spare time; Chris likes to keep fit and is a former long-standing member of the Territorial Army. In 2010 he mobilised for a tour of duty in Afghanistan with 1 Rifles as part of 3 Commando Brigade.

“What does your local knowledge add to anything? Tangibly”

“What does your local knowledge add to anything? Tangibly”  

House prices in West Cornwall

Does local knowledge help increase the sale price?

This challenge was laid down by Russell Quirk, CEO of eMoov during a ‘spirited’ debate on Twitter, following some press coverage of online agents in the national press and some hard data I had published in a previous blog*.

So, does local knowledge trump data and achieve tangibly better prices for consumers? (95% or so of that data being provided by traditional estate agents sales, it should be pointed out)

You can help

What I need help with is for agents across the UK (online and high street) to provide a statistically significant sample of genuine, like for like** sales figures of sold properties using HM Land registry and Zoopla/ Rightmove data.

“Local knowledge as a value added is totally unquantifiable and unprovable. Smoke and mirrors” 

The methodology I used was to

  • Use the pro.zoopla search for all agents in my postcode areas for January 1st 2014 to 31st October 2014 inclusive
  • Search for all ‘SOLD’ properties during that period and switch to ‘company’ and ‘data’ view.
  • Eliminate all agents bar online agents from the search and identify all property sales that may offer a ‘like for like’ comparison using HM Land Registry data
  • Identify all the properties for comparison and, using a site such as Nethouseprices.com or Mouseprice.com cross check the sale price achieved by the online agents versus comparable sales within a 0.25 mile radius of near identical properties – condition, size, location, style, number of bedrooms etc. Please do not cherry pick, this needs to be an honest, accurate and fair assessment.
  • Email me the following information: Postcode areas assessed (very important to avoid duplication of data), the number of sold properties during the period by online agents, the sale price achieved (HM Land Registry figures) of those properties and, comparable sale prices achieved for similar stock by traditional agents in the same period – please supply full address including postcode for transparency and checking of data (all of which is publicly available so no data protection issues to worry about)
  • Whilst not essential, it would also be of great help for a future blog about the advantages/ disadvantages of this business model to agents and customers, if you could also provide the following data for online agents at the same time: Total number of new instructions during the period, total number sold, total current live stock levels.
  • Please provide the above information by Friday the 28th of November – Any data received after this will be included in updates to the blog

Once I have this data, I will publish my findings ‘warts and all’.

If online truly offers customers amazing sale and fall-through rates for a greatly lower fee, with no significant difference in selling price achieved, this data will be a wake-up call for all traditional agents to review their business models.

However, I suspect, from the sample I took in West Cornwall (which Mr Quirk is very quick to emphasise was a small sample compared to National figures) the results may shine a cold light on some of the claims made by online agents.


 

*In the data I checked using the only two completed sales in the area for the entire year by one online agent, one of the properties sold for £25,000 less than an almost identical property two doors away.

**By like for like, what I mean is examples of almost identical properties such as 2, 3 and 4 bedroom terraced, semi and detached ‘estate’ style homes rather than large ‘individual’ properties where prices can vary dramatically due to many factors.


 

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I welcome feedback so please feel free to leave constructive criticisms or ask questions below. If you could also take a second to rate my blog and pass it on to others who you think may find it interesting that would be great. Thanks.

20140124-071202.jpgAbout Chris Wood: Chris is an estate agent with over 25 years of property experience. His business, PDQ Estates Ltd is based in Penzance and Helston, West Cornwall. He has worked with all sizes and types of businesses from single office independents to the management team and board of RBS and Tesco. A former President Elect of the NAEA and board member of NFoPP until he resigned in 2009, Chris has always championed the highest professional standards forestate agents in the UK. No stranger to the media, he has appeared on various programs including BBC, News 24, ITV, independent and BBC radio and is a regular contributor to trade journals, local and national Newspapers. Chris is on KloutLinkedIn Ecademy Facebook and Twitter Married to Amanda, they live in Penzance with their children who are slowly flying the nest, along with their three spaniels. In his spare time; Chris likes to keep fit and is a long-standing member of the Territorial Army. In 2010 he mobilised for a tour of duty in Afghanistan with 1 Rifles as part of 3 Commando Brigade.

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