Q. Who can the public turn to if they have an unresolved complain against an estate agent?

A. The Ombudsman for Estate Agents Scheme was set up 10 years ago to fulfil precisely this purpose. The scheme is designed to provide both buyers and sellers with access to a free, fair, and above all independent, complaints handling and redress system.

Membership of the Ombudsman Scheme basically means that an agent has to abide by a Code of Practice approved by the Office of Fair Trading, and is prepared if necessary to submit to independent scrutiny. In practice, this means that if you have a dispute with your agent, which cannot be resolved through the firm’s own complaints handling procedures, then you can take the matter to the Ombudsman, who will consider it and arrive at a judgement. Where appropriate, he can even award monetary compensation, up to a figure of £25,000. What’s more, although the agent concerned is bound by the Ombudsman’s decision, the complainant isn’t – so, if you’re still not happy, you’re free to take the matter further; for example, to court. All in all, then, the OEA Scheme provides much-needed peace of mind for the public.

There used to be one big catch. Until recently, membership was voluntary, which meant that the Ombudsman could only adjudicate in cases involving participating agents. If you were unlucky enough to be in dispute with an agent who did not belong to the scheme, you have nowhere to go, other than the courts. However, since October 1st this year, all agents must belong to an approved redress scheme. Currently only two have received official approval – the other being operated by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

Sadly, despite the change in the law, there are still some rogue agents out there who have not yet signed up to either scheme. Fortunately, they’re reasonably easy to spot – they won’t carry the distinctive OEA or RICS logo, and they will probably be rather evasive if you ask them about their membership. Whether or not you decide to report such agents to your local Trading Standards Office is up to you. But at least it means you have a clear choice – between those agents who abide by laws specifically designed to provide you with real peace of mind, and those that don’t!