Countrywide: ‘Staff can push too hard’ on in-house services

Countrywide: ‘Staff can push too hard’ on in-house services

The group legal consultant at Countrywide has admitted some staff are “perhaps over-exuberant” and “push too hard” on in-house services following allegations of conditional selling made by brokers against the firm earlier this year.

Peter Speak said conditional selling was a practice which has been aimed at the business “on a number of occasions” because it employs in-house brokers, conveyancers, and surveyors across Connells, Countrywide and Sequence branches.

Countrywide, which is part of estate agency behemoth Connells, claims to be the UK's largest mortgage broking company with a network of 500 brokers.

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Conditional selling involves an estate agent telling a prospective home buyer they have to use the agent’s in-house services - such as a broker, or solicitor - in order for their offer to be put forward on a property.

The practice is considered 'undesirable' in the rules governing estate agent business, and in extreme cases, agents which fail to pass on offers when required to do so can face a formal warning or a banning order from the regulator. 

On a monthly policy call last month, Speak argued in the majority of cases, brokers and their clients have been found to have misunderstood the definition of conditional selling.

They have been mistaking mandatory appointments with in-house brokers to perform anti-money laundering and financial checks as an insinuation that the buyer has to use their broker.

“As a business, if we don’t do it [set up in-house broker appointments], and then later on there’s a complaint from the vendor because the sale falls through because financially they weren't able to buy it, then we are castigated by the [Property] Ombudsman for having not done that. So we’re twixxed in between.”

FTAdviser put allegations made by multiple brokers earlier this year to Speak, which included some claims where clients felt “pressured” by Connells’ employees to use in-house services in order to validate their offer.

“Staff are encouraged to share information with prospective vendors and purchasers, and encourage them to use the services. But not to impose that service as a condition of selling or buying the property,” he explained.

“I accept what you’re saying. Yes, sometimes perhaps an over exuberant member of staff pushes too hard, whereas others don't push hard enough. Either way, we end up with a penalty.

“There are penalties. There are trigger actions under the Estate Agency Act. So if we, as a company, were found to be falling foul of it and had three trigger actions, then we've got a serious problem. To date. I'm not aware of any trigger actions which have been imposed by trading standards on us.”

One instance reported to FTAdviser alleged a Connells employee told a buyer they would get a better mortgage deal with them than with their own broker, despite already having an agreement in principle from a lender in their hands.

Another instance alleged a buyer had to post a letter through a seller’s door to get their offer accepted, after they said they were pressured to use an in-house mortgage adviser.