Interview with Christopher Hamer, The Property Ombudsman

After nine years as The Property Ombudsman, Christopher Hamer’s term of office is coming to an end on 30th November 2015. He told Today’s Conveyancer what he’s learnt about the property sector over that time – and what he believes all property professionals can do to make it operate more smoothly.

You’ve been property ombudsman for nine years – what have been your proudest achievements in that time?

“Yes, I’ll have completed nine years on November 30. My greatest achievement, I think, is putting The Property Ombudsman on the map – increasing the profile of the scheme through greater consumer awareness and encouraging more estate agents to sign up and abide by the code of practice. Indeed, it’s now a legal obligation for agents to sign up with a redress scheme and we have about 95% of sales agents operating in the UK and about 75% of lettings agents signed up with us. That means there’s a structure within which agents are working, ensuring consistency of approach both for them and for the customer.

“I always said I wanted to work closely but not collusively with the industry and consumer groups and I’ve achieved that. It’s all about keeping people informed and my approach has been to try and educate agents so complaints don’t happen in the first place. I’ve made every effort to go out and speak at conferences; we’ve put articles in the trade press about issues that are arising and we’ve posted summaries of those issues on our website every month. And all that has meant, I hope, that I’ve been a valuable contributor to improving standards in this industry and raising its game.”

Obviously you didn’t have a property background when you became Ombudsman – what surprised you about the property industry?

“That’s right – had I been in the property world I would have been disqualified for the role as the idea is that someone completely unencumbered by any particular view is appointed.

“I suppose two things surprised me – first, the high degree of professionalism in the industry. Like anybody else, prior to taking on this job, I could have come up with an anecdote about terrible estate agents but I soon discovered that the majority are very professional and dedicated and hard working.

“The other thing that surprised me – amazed me, really – is the way that buyers, sellers, landlords and tenants launch themselves into the property sector without undertaking any research about what commitments they’re taking on and what their responsibilities are. So, whichever forum I speak at, I repeat my opinion that education of the consumer is one of the key issues that has to be addressed in the property market. When somebody is buying a house they should know what the agent’s role is; what the surveyor does; the limits of the conveyancer’s responsibilities; how to get a mortgage – it’s so important. Of the complaints I receive 99% are caused by miscommunication and a lack of understanding. Obviously there’s a responsibility on the agent as the professional in the transaction to explain things but the consumer has to have some knowledge too.”

How do you think consumers can become better educated?

“The problem has been that here’s no consolidated place to go for information – agents issue a buying guide but everyone’s coming at it from disparate angles. I believe that some form of teaching about renting and buying houses should become part of the National Curriculum, along with financial services. There has to be education – when people go to university and set up a bank account, for example, they could be given some instruction in the lettings side of the property market so they know what to expect.

“We need some sort of consistent approach by a group of stakeholders in the property sector – I don’t like the word stakeholders but I can’t think of an alternative – and, on top of that, I think estate agency should become a profession, like accountancy or law. If you consider what estate agents are dealing with – people’s lives and vast amounts of money – then of course they should almost have to go through Articles (like an accountant, for example) to practice.”

What has been the biggest challenge in your nine years?

“The biggest challenge has been the year-on-year growth in cases referred to the Property Ombudsman – in my first full year we had around 500 cases and last year we had 2900!”

Why do you think there’s been such a growth in the number of cases?

“I deal with double the number of sales complaints I used to – but 65% of my workload is now lettings related. That’s a sign of the times. There’s been a shift away from people purchasing property to people renting property. If you go back ten years or so renting a property was seen as a bit sort of second class but that’s changed – now people think if I rent I can have a far nicer place than I could afford if I buy and I can move on when I get a new job. It’s a much more flexible approach. So there’s been a big increase in my workload there.

“Generally, though, for both sales and lettings I think the number of cases has increased as there’s a greater awareness of the scheme and that’s a good thing. Consumers now know there’s somewhere to go for dispute resolution. And this is purely a subjective opinion on my part but I think younger people, who are perhaps more likely to be in the rented sector, are less ready to accept what they’re being told by an agent and less ready to accept poor service without question so they will raise a complaint with us.”

You don’t deal directly with conveyancers?

“No, they are outside my jurisdiction so I can’t really remark on whether they treat their customers fairly or not. But what I do believe is important is that conveyancers and estate agents are communicating – if they don’t the only person that’s disadvantaged is the consumer.

“I was talking to a group of agents yesterday and I told them: ‘You are the professionals in this transaction so when there’s a problem it’s up to you sort it out.’ And that’s what I truly believe. Yes, the complainant may have not equipped themselves with an adequate understanding of the process but it’s up to the professional to know what’s going on.”

What have the highs and lows of your tenure been?

“Doing the job is my high – it’s great to be in this position and I believe I’ve made a difference.

“I can’t think of any lows. But what I’ll take away is the understanding that complaints are not an intrusion on business – they are part of business. No matter how diligent a firm is complaints will arise through misunderstanding and miscommunication and whether it’s justified or not it’s important for the professional to deal with that complaint swiftly and diligently.

“There are some big estate agency chains undertaking lots of transactions and clearly the number of transactions gives some correlation to the number of complaints they receive. And that’s not necessarily a sign of bad practise – it’s the law of averages.

“But dealing with the big firms – well most of them have compliance departments and are easy and open to deal with. What concerns me more is the agent who sets up one day just because he can – there’s no entry level qualification so he opens a shop and starts to deal. He might not have a clue about legislation and probably interprets the standards to his own benefit. Particularly with letting agents there’s the potential for real money to be passing over the counter so that’s the sort of firm that presents the greatest risk to the consumer. So, again, it’s educating the consumer to know that they need to go with a firm that is affiliated to a trade association and registered with TPO.”

Your successor hasn’t been named yet? What attributes do you think the next Property Ombudsman requires?

“The process of recruitment is currently underway but whoever takes on the role needs a wide range of experience from the business world generally and from the ombudsman world particularly. The ability to maintain impartiality and to grasp the main factors of an argument is vital and the Ombudsman also has to understand the machinations of government. While we don’t receive any money from central or local taxation there is a lot of work to do with government in terms of trying to influence legislation and providing input to new legislation. So that’s essential – being savvy about government machinery and being able to project that to agents and the public.”

The Property Ombudsman is at www.tpos.co.uk

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