More than just Sour Grapes: A wake up call to a complacent and complicit industry

Sour grapes. It’s hard to avoid them in business. Sometimes, someone has you beaten fair and square. In which case, you have no choice but to swallow those sour grapes as quickly as possible. It’s unbecoming to bitch and moan about someone that for whatever reason won the race, without cheating.

It’s when they start to mix the hard work with cheating that things start to go awry. There are plenty of athletes who train for months for the big race, but when that day comes, and they are caught out on a drugs test, no one cares about the months of hard work. They genuinely could have been the strongest contender that day, with or without the drugs, but there’s enough evidence to cast the doubt that cannot be ignored.

I don’t tend to go in for impulsive or irrational behaviour. For that reason, I haven’t always understood or seen eye to eye with my competitor over the years. Price wars, targeted revenge campaigns, smear campaigns — these have become the hallmarks of some of the less principled of our profession. All of which is ok with me, as they say “all’s fair in love and war”. I can’t fault a man just because he doesn’t share the same business logic as me. Ethics however are a different matter — and that’s when the Portal Juggling started. It happened once, twice, three times and then it happened a whole lot more. Too often for it to be a mistake or a coincidence.

The decision to write about it openly was difficult enough. I contemplated the decision for a long time. I took people’s advice on it. I tried to work out whether it was just sour grapes or whether there was the greater good to think about here. In the end, I decided that it was wrong of me not to stand up publicly and highlight these practices in the industry. After all, the more of us that remain silent whilst injustices are committed, the more we are adding fuel to the fire. Most of us are just sat idly by, whilst the public trust is abused and the law continues to be broken. It was clear, at the time, that neither the portals, nor the “authorities” had the resources, nor any intention of detecting this sort of activity under its own steam. The authorities would gladly leave other agents to sound the warning, in fact it’s something that they actively encourage to “educate the public” or as I see, do their job for them. Therefore, it inevitably comes out sounding like sour grapes — a business dispute amongst two agents.

It’s more than that though, isn’t it? Isn’t it about the fact that we live in a world where every single pop survey includes estate agents in there top ten list of least trusted professions. I even participated in a charity fundraising stand up comedy competition. My routine started with a lampooning of those pop-surveys. In my comedy version of the survey, I placed agents somewhere between mass murderers and sex offenders and it got the biggest laugh of the evening. That’s because in our national psyche there is so much harm that has been done to the industry over the years by its notoriously low barrier to entry and its toothless regulators and professional bodies.

The RICS will claim to be the grand knight of the property industry, representing the sensible and almost always disapproving voice of the professionals. Its entry requirements are quite robust and lengthy. Although they have introduced several and more easily attainable routes to entry, including an Associate membership, it’s still seen as quite a closed public schoolboy’s club.

Anyone who wants in, really has to be prepared to put in the time and not to forget the money, on membership and application. If you want in on the vault of valuable information in their library there’s another fee for that too. There are courses at university that will essentially approved by the RICS but graduation doesn’t guarantee you membership. You still need to complete an APC assessment. It’s a tight outfit. You cannot be a surveyor without joining. It’s a monopoly in that respect and because of the way it has been run historically, it is not well subscribed to by estate agents overall. As estate agents, we are still seen as the dirty, unwashed sector of the market that traipses mud into their clean house all the time. I get sent a survey once a month by the RICS and a very posh gentleman calls every month without fail to remind me to get it returned to them. It’s tremendously important this survey, as it gives them something to tell the press when asked for comment about the state of the market. They don’t seem to care that it comes from an entirely unaffiliated source. The figures are not subject to any scrutiny and the survey is literally just soundbite fodder and nothing more.

The NAEA? I’ve been a member of that organisation and its sister organisation ARLA. I sat the exams one after another in a two-hour window. Its all multiple choice and there’s a certain percentage of questions you are allowed to get wrong and still be able to pass. To be fair, the study material was a good back ground guide to most of the issues our profession encounters. There was enough in there to give you a taster session. A little bit of ethics, a little bit of health and safety, just a pinch of good practise etc. But considering you were allowed to get a good percentage of the questions wrong, sometimes I just feel these organisations have a ‘barrier to entry problem’ that is all of their own making.

I have to give the boys at NFOPP and the NAEA, ARLA et al their dues. The minute the press needs a quote, they never fail to tow the line already laid out by their more impressive, posher brothers at the RICS. They are also pretty hot on auditing. If your accountant fails to sign the form in the right place, they will come down on you like a ton of bricks. But make a complaint about the conduct of one of their members? Well, firstly they send you back to the member. As long as they don’t manage to totally exhaust you with their prescribed version of a complaints procedure then you stand a chance of eventually being referred back to the NAEA, by which time, several weeks will have passed and the historic offence hardly seems worth bothering with.

If you are an agent looking for back up, resources, practical advice or any kind of guidance from your professional governors, then think again. There are a few things you will get though. Everyone gets the pre-negotiated discounts on health insurance, pet insurance and a range of other services that you might never use. There is also the legal advice line. It goes through to a firm of solicitors who then ask you to email your enquiry and state that they will only provide a one paragraph reply. If you need a longer reply, you will have to pay for the advice. So as long as your question can be answered by a magic 8 ball or a fortune cookie, you are going to be A-OK. A total waste of the membership and the annual audit fees.

What the RICS and the NAEA do both have in common is their total failure to campaign and lobby parliament effectively to ring-fence and guarantee the livelihood of its members. It does very little to proactively provide positive press for the industry and is all too often left ‘tutting’ in the background every time anything newsworthy happens to bubble to the surface. A standard RICS or NAEA press release is pretty much the same every time:

“We are disappointed at the need for this to be addressed once again. This follows repeated warnings by this organisation that our industry needs tighter unified regulation (unabashed self promotion for the role of regulator). We welcome tighter regulation from government and are consulting with ministers to provide them with the views of our members.”

Just look at the banning of letting fees and the introduction of increased landlord taxation. The silence from the flag bearers of our industry has been deafening. Don’t get me wrong, there has been a bit of rhetoric, but it’s been mere lip service and is totally unlikely to ruffle any feathers. Behind closed doors, these organisations don’t have the power to effectively lobby against changes which will literally wipe thousands off their members’ bottom lines.

So where does that leave us? One organisation with its trousers round its ankles most of the time, too lax on some issues but not brave enough to properly lobby parliament nor police its own members adequately. Another organisation too elitist to be relevant to the vast majority of agents in England.

Even though I did not name the agent that was the offending party in the local portal juggling Olympics, the message was clearly received. I know this because that very same day I was subject to an impromptu interrogation from Rightmove (we passed with flying colours and it went away in about 60 seconds), we were subject to quite disparaging remarks in the comments section of the Property Industry Eye article on our campaign, but we expected that of course. What I didn’t expect was the massive outpouring of warmth and support from agents I’ve never even heard of before, as far north as Scotland and as far south as Bournemouth, who all got in touch to say that they too have suffered in silence for too long and were too afraid to speak out. No one wants a turf war. No one wants to have to raise formal complaints direct to a competitor. Most of all, no one wanted to make themselves a target for retaliatory gestures or smear campaigns. Some of them have complained to the industry captains. Some of them have complained to the portals. But not a single one of them has had justice. So, the slap on the back that we received was very welcomed, but also served to highlight the need for proper and real support for thousands of honest and well-meaning agents in the country.

I am reliably informed that changes are afoot at one of the organisations that I speak about here, and that is great. Hopefully the people that will take the organisation forward will be tackling the practices that have left so many honest agents feel bereft of all hope. I also hope that in time, the organisations will bring its voice to bear on parliament and stand up for the good work carried out in our sector and most importantly shout about the value we add to people’s lives every day, from every roof top. Heavens knows that these individuals are not afraid to take on the hordes of fraudsters. They have been singular voices of protest, consistently for long enough, across the press and social media. Some anonymously and some proudly declaring their war on fraud. The danger is that once in control of the establishment, that diplomatic dead zone opens up, which paralyses the freedom fighter turned politician. But something tells me these people have the integrity and the tenacity needed to make a real difference in the industry.

Lastly, I need to finish with some advice on how to avoid sour grapes. It’s simple. Don’t commit the crime in the first place. That way, you won’t need to bellyache when someone brave enough to stand up to lies and fraudulent behaviour finally speaks out.

To find out what happens in practice when reporting Portal Juggling, click here: