The Reader's Digest annual "most trusted" list has recently been announced and, although I haven't scoured the names, it seems safe to presume there's no real estate agents included. In fact, last time I checked, they were ranked even lower than journalists in terms of trustworthy occupations, which is really saying something. What's that? You didn't think anything could be lower than a journo? Precisely my point.
Not that I'm setting out here to demonise real estate agents. Perish the thought. In any case, they seem to have managed that quite successfully on their own.
What has been fascinating, however, has been the reaction to proposed changes in the Consumer Law Reform Bill, and specifically the idea that property agents should be legally bound to tell the truth. It's hard to listen to either side without breaking out in hysterics.
The Real Estate Institute of NZ was the first to draw laughter when it deemed the proposed prohibition of "unsubstantiated claims" too hard. Whether that was because it believed its members incapable of telling the truth is unclear but it certainly went some way towards explaining their ranking in the Readers Digest poll. To have a reputation for dodginess is one thing, to actually argue for it to be deemed beyond the law is something entirely different again.
Having said that, some of the responses from householders interviewed have seemed just as absurd. Talk about abdicating all personal responsibility. I'm talking about people who've expressed support for the new legislation on the basis it's needed to prevent misrepresentation in areas such as photograph catalogues, descriptions of property, suburb location and estimations of selling price. Essentially anything from judgements on decor to the quality of the neighbours.
Good grief. As the Readers Digest list hinted, no-one in the world expects real estate agents to tell the truth about this sort of stuff; least of all their vendors. And there's a good reason for this: the truth is often in the eye of the beholder. What's one prospective buyer's rubbish is another's treasure. What might seem like a nightmare for some is viewed as a paradise by others. Romantic and rustic one minute can become ugly and dilapidated the next.
Of course real estate agents often cite lower likely sale prices to prospective buyers. But, quite apart from never being certain themselves, it's not as if anyone's being forced to buy against their will. Inconvenient perhaps, for those who find an eventual selling price beyond them but hardly a cause for new legislation. Same goes for location and aspect. They way these people are complaining you'd think they were being forced to buy sight unseen.
A question. If all the money you had in the world was to be invested in a property, would you take a real estate agent's word at face value? Or would you perform your own checks and balances? You'd hope the answer would be the latter. The idea that a person who stands to make several thousand dollars from a transaction might not gild the lily on some issues is fanciful and naive in the extreme. If anything, it should be taken as a given.
Still, in terms of more meaningful transparency, the proposed changes are generally good, don't you think? Even if we accept that prospective buyers should always perform their own background research, agents shouldn't be allowed to lie about matters of tangible importance. Development plans that might be about to impact on a property; looming escalations in local body rates; if they're asked and they know yet they choose to mislead; they should be held accountable.
Beyond that? We should just get back to accepting responsibility for our own decisions, shouldn't we? Isn't that what the old Latin saying "caveat emptor" is all about?
» Read more of Richard Boock in the Sunday Star Times.
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