Estate agents this week took a big step towards ensuring a better service for the consumer. STEPHEN LEWIS reports

They may rank alongside politicians, lawyers and journalists at the top of the list of people everybody loves to hate, but signs are estate agents are beginning to get their act together. As recently as ten to 15 years ago, almost anybody could set up in business as an estate agent, admits Ben Hudson, of York firm Hudson Moody. It meant very often that customers who came to them for help with buying or selling a house were being badly advised.

"Often, people didn't really know what they were talking about," admits the president of the York Association of Estate Agents. "You could get someone with six months experience, and they could be dealing with most people's biggest investment, their house."

Since then, things have been changing, as awareness of the need for proper regulation of the house buying and selling industry has grown.

This week, estate agents took a giant step forward.

An estate agents' code of practice has been in place for some years - but it has not been approved by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), largely because it did not guarantee a right to independent redress if there was a dispute between an estate agent and a customer.

But the Ombudsman For Estate Agents, Stephen Carr-Smith, has been in discussion with the OFT on a new code of practice which would include such a guarantee - and this week it passed the first milestone towards OFT recognition.

The new code, Mr Carr-Smith says, involves some major changes to the old one. Most important is that it does guarantee clients access to "independent redress" - in other words to an independent body, the ombudsman, who can rule in cases where a customer has lodged an official complaint.

Under the new code, estate agents who are members of the scheme undertake to accept the ombudsman's word as final - and could be required to pay compensation of up to £25,000 if a complaint against them is upheld.

The new code also introduces random monitoring of estate agents' performance - so agents who misbehave could find themselves in hot water even if a client does not make a formal complaint.

It is not going to change the industry overnight. The Ombudsman For Estate Agents has yet to demonstrate to the OFT that its code works in practice by bringing it into force - something that should happen early next year, Mr Carr-Smith says.

More of a problem is the fact that the scheme is voluntary - and so far, only about a third of estate agents are signed up to it. Many belong to reputable professional bodies such as the National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA ) or the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), which subscribe to the old code of practice. But while membership of such bodies is a precondition for membership of the ombudsman scheme, not all NAEA or RICS members have signed up to it.

Stephen Carr-Smith is hoping that recognition by the OFT will provide more estate agents with the incentive to do so.

"I'm convinced that the single biggest thing that any estate agent can do to improve their own individual company's reputation would be to join the ombudsman scheme," he said. "Because what they are saying by doing so is that they are giving a very public commitment to consumer protection.

"They are saying that if we slip up, Mr Buyer or Mr Seller, and you think we have not done a good job and so make a complaint which we cannot resolve between us, then please feel free to go to the ombudsman. We are prepared to be judged by an independent third party, and we will co-operate with his investigation and will abide by whatever decision he comes up with."

Another way of encouraging estate agents to sign up, of course, is by insisting on an estate agent that is a member of the scheme when buying or selling your house. The Ombudsman For Estate Agents (OEA) website at lists all members and there are plenty of them about locally.

It is in your own interests. Ben Hudson, whose company Hudson Moody subscribes to the ombudsman scheme as well as being a member of both the NAEA and RICS, agrees that when it comes to providing a good service for the consumer, the more regulation there is, the better.

"Anything that stops cowboys setting up and giving people poor advice and poor service has got to be good for the consumer," he says.

- The office of the Ombudsman for Estate Agents can be contacted on 01722 333306.

Updated: 10:12 Thursday, October 31, 2002