OFT orders Countrywide North estate agents to change their ways

Following action by the Office of Fair Trading, two directors and one former manager of Countrywide North, the Scottish subsidiary of Countrywide, have been required to change their conduct and be more transparent in their dealings with consumers.

Mairi Eckford, managing director, Michael Miller, sales director, and Stuart Black, ex-area manager have given undertakings to the OFT that they will comply with the provisions of the Estate Agents Act and the Estate Agents (Undesirable Practices) Order.

They have breached these provisions by failing to disclose their personal interest in new build properties that they had bought and were selling via Countrywide. They will ensure that in the future they will promptly disclose to their clients in writing when they or a connected person have an interest in the sale of any property. Countrywide plc and all the named individuals have fully co-operated with the OFT.

The estate agency market in the UK is estimated to be worth around 5.3bn per year in gross income. Countrywide Estate Agents is the largest estate agency business in the UK with a turnover of 536.6m per year. Action was taken by the OFT following the receipt of information from a former employee of Countrywide North in June 2004.

Christine Wade, director of consumer regulation enforcement at the OFT, says: Estate agents must be transparent in their dealings with consumers. The OFT will take whatever action is necessary to ensure that estate agents meet their legal obligations and consumers can deal with them in confidence.

If an agent breaches undertakings given to the OFT, the OFT may seek an Enforcement Order from the court. If the agent then breaches the Enforcement Order, this would amount to contempt and could be punished by a fine and/or imprisonment. If any of these individuals were found to have committed the same or similar breaches again, the OFT could also alternatively consider banning them from estate agency work. The OFT has obtained undertakings from six estate agents and one estate agency business and has decided to ban seven estate agents and warn three estate agents and two estate agency businesses so far in 2005.