ASK THE EXPERT

Q. Shouldn’t all estate agents have to be licensed?

A. Here in the UK, you don’t need a licence in order to practise as an estate agent. Indeed, you couldn’t get one, even if you wanted one. They simply don’t exist.

Not surprisingly, many people see this state of affairs as thoroughly unsatisfactory. Indeed, outside the industry, licensing is widely regarded as a panacea for most of the problems and perceived abuses routinely laid at the door of estate agents.

At the same time, many inside the industry also support the idea – although among all those responsible, professional agents concerned with raising standards, there are probably others who are motivated, rather less altruistically, by the simple desire to make life as difficult as possible for any potential new competitors. Nevertheless, the fact remains that licensing has long been actively promoted by the industry’s principal professional body, the National Association of Estate Agents.

The trouble is…licensing in and of itself is actually no guarantor of quality performance. You only have to witness some of the driving on our roads to realise that! In any case, one of the main arguments in favour of a licensing system for estate agents – that the threat of disqualification would discourage bad practices – is rendered more or less redundant by the fact that sanctions of this kind already exist. The fact is, an agent found guilty of serious professional misconduct can already be banned from practising by the Office of Fair Trading - or drummed out of The Property Ombudsman Scheme, which amounts to the same thing.

All in all then, licensing is not the silver bullet that so many would like it to be. Nor is it actually needed – except perhaps as a symbolic concession to the consumerist lobby. What is needed, I would suggest, is more effective and consistent policing of all the legislation that already exists governing estate agency practice.

Meanwhile – particularly in today’s exceptionally challenging market – homeowners still need to be reassured that their choice of agent is the right one. In this, experience, professional reputation and above all personal recommendation will always be more reliable guides than any number of letters after names, or framed certificates on walls.