Trading standards leaflets

Ref: 122659

Estate agents property descriptions

What you need to know about applying descriptions to a property

This guidance is for England and Wales

The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (known as the CPRs) are the Regulations that control descriptions used by estate agents and letting agents. They create criminal offences for traders that breach them. The Regulations prohibit 'misleading actions' and 'misleading omissions' that cause, or are likely to cause, the average consumer to take a transactional decision he would not have taken otherwise.

Care should be taken when using general descriptions relating to location, environment, photographs, measurements, parking and pricing. General disclaimers in small print, telling buyers not to rely on details, won't be effective in preventing offences. This also applies to information provided on your website.

In the guide

The law

The CPRs prohibit misleading actions that cause or are likely to cause the average consumer to take a transactional decision he would not have taken otherwise. A misleading action is defined as containing false information or having an overall presentation that deceives or is likely to deceive the average consumer.

The CPRs also prohibit the omission of material information provided to consumers if that omission could cause the consumer to take a transactional decision he would not have taken otherwise. Material information is defined as: 'information which the average consumer needs, according to the context, to take an informed transactional decision'. A 'transactional decision' is not just whether a consumer decides to purchase a property but could include such things as whether to view a property in the first place.

Things you say verbally about the property will be covered, as well as the printed word, photos, plans, models, websites, etc.

The CPRs do not prevent you from acting in vendors' interests by presenting property in the best light, provided what you say, or do, does not mislead the purchaser or the vendor.

The CPRs only cover descriptions used in the sale of property to consumers. However, similar provisions exist in the sale of commercial property by way of the Business Protection from Misleading Marketing Regulations 2008 (see 'Business-to-business marketing').

Recommended practices

Ask vendors to sign a document confirming particulars are correct before you market a property. Give them a chance to amend anything that is wrong. This won't protect you if you print a misdescription you could have reasonably checked out for yourself, but it will minimise the risk.

Think about all the descriptive phrases you use and ask yourself what they will mean to an average purchaser.

Make it somebody's task to proofread particulars and sign to say they have done so.

When you get enquiries about a property, ensure the person who prepared the details answers the questions, and keep a record of what is said on file.

Check everything you can. Ask to see receipts and guarantees for work carried out. Call to check council-tax bands. Ask for evidence of sales and turnover if you want to describe the success of a business property.

Set up a process to ensure that your staff are adequately trained and that their work is regularly checked. You should consider random double-checking of property details against the property itself during this auditing process. Any deficiencies can then be dealt with by issuing corrected particulars and retraining where necessary. You should keep records of training and checks made.

General descriptions

Terms such as 'immaculate condition' or 'recently decorated' are not banned by the Regulations, but these terms will be taken to refer to the entire property unless otherwise stated. If there are any particularly attractive features, your client will obviously expect you to use them as selling points but they should not be emphasised to the exclusion of bad features if the overall result is a misleading description.

Location

Don't stretch popular and desirable areas too far - use the correct postal address. If a house is in one county geographically, but its postal address is in a neighbouring county, you should include both with equal prominence.

Comments concerning the proximity of properties to local services should be used with care. Terms such as 'close' or 'easy access' are best avoided, as are estimates of journey times. A statement of the actual distance is more accurate - for example, three miles to junction 34 of the M4.

Environment

If a house has open fields on three sides and a builder's yard or nightclub on the fourth, the safest option is not to refer to the outlook. If you said that it was surrounded by views across open fields, you would mislead unless you made equal reference to the view on the fourth side. If the fourth side was of such importance to the average consumer that it could affect their decision to buy, it may be a misleading omission not to mention it. If you use a photograph of the back or the side of a property on its own, you should make that fact clear.

Photographs

A photograph can be misleading. Do not doctor photos or use extreme lenses. If you take a photo of the view from a bedroom window, but cannot include the rubbish dump, don't say 'panoramic views' or 'unspoilt countryside'.

Measurements

You should try to make measurements as accurate as you can. Laser measures are the most common tool used by agents and these should be regularly checked for accuracy against a known distance.

Be careful with gardens, where large length or area measurements can be involved.

New instructions

You may advertise a property as a 'new instruction' to your agency for only a short period (we would suggest a month) after you have been asked to become the vendor's agent. This applies even if the property has been advertised previously with another agency.

Pricing

The CPRs cover the pricing of all properties and you must be careful not to mislead consumers with regard to the previous price of a property if you are claiming a reduction in price. The Pricing Practices Guide published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) gives guidance as to how price reductions can be advertised.

You should also be aware that the Regulations ban a trader from passing on materially inaccurate information about market conditions with the intention of getting the consumer to make a purchase at less than normal conditions (for example, an agent telling a consumer that he has sold several properties in the same area, just like the one the consumer is viewing, at a certain price, in order to get the consumer to buy at an inflated price, if this information is not true).

Of course, you can change the price at any time and not claim a 'reduction' (but make sure all copies and methods of advertising a property are changed at the same time).

Tenures

You should be able to provide information on the length of any lease or freehold of the property. A simple search on the land registry can provide all this information.

Extensions, loft conversions and outhouses

Extensions, loft conversions and outhouses have created problems where an estate agent has described a room as a bedroom, but it has not been subject to planning or building regulation approval and, thus, is not suitable to be used as such. If a vendor is unable to supply details, then the planning office should be approached for confirmation. If you are unable to establish that the room was correctly approved, then great care needs to be exercised - either describing the room as a boarded loft area (or other appropriate description), or stating clearly that planning permission for the room has not been obtained.

Communal areas and parking places

Problems have arisen when a vendor has assumed that they own, or have rights over, a particular parking space when actually they only park there by habit or private arrangement. If a parking space, used by a vendor, is not clearly within the boundary of a property, further checks should be made or great care should be used when describing this feature.

Re-checking

If you have a property that has been under your instruction for a long period of time, it is advisable to check whether the details are still correct. If particulars are issued that contain information that is no longer accurate, an offence could be committed.

If a new road is planned, or if the local train operator withdraws a train service to which you had referred, you should modify your details and advertisements. You should consider a system of re-verifying particulars with vendors and including a clause in their contract requiring notification of any material alterations they make to property post-marketing.

It is suggested that particulars should carry the date on which they were compiled or revised to avoid confusion.

Disclaimers

The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 do not state that disclaimers may be used, nor do they prohibit their use.

General disclaimers in small print, telling buyers not to rely on details, won't be effective in preventing offences. In particular, they are unlikely to be effective in relation to any misleading omission under the CPRs.

Case law under the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 (now mostly repealed) stated that any disclaimer that is applied must be as bold, precise and compelling as the statement to which it relates, be as effectively brought to the notice of anyone to whom the property may be sold, and equal the description in the extent to which it is likely to be understood by prospective purchasers, but this may well not be sufficient under the Regulations, so you are advised to be accurate with all the information you supply.

However, there are some cases where a specific qualifying description may be acceptable. For example, if the vendor claims, without documentary evidence, that the property was treated for dry rot, you may only mention this if you say as part of that description that you have not seen any documents to verify this. A similar qualification might be applied to the working order of household appliances, central heating, or claims about the history of a property. The crucial fact in assessing whether a qualified description is valid is the ease with which you could have reasonably checked it.

Penalties

If a case is heard in the Magistrates' Court, the maximum fine is £5,000 per offence. One set of property particulars might contain several offences. If the case is heard in the Crown Court, there is no limit to the fine and up to two years' imprisonment.

In addition, the National Trading Standards Estate Agency Team can use its powers under the Estate Agents Act 1979 to issue a warning or prohibition notice. Such notices can prohibit an offender from carrying out some, or all, types of estate agency work. Trading standards services can also take action under the Enterprise Act 2002 if an estate agent misleads consumers or generally acts in an unfair manner.

As well as carrying out spot-checks, trading standards services also deal with complaints. You should be ready to cooperate with officers and show them any documentation they need to see. All officers carry credentials, which they will gladly show.

Other matters that may affect you

The CPRs apply in relation to all elements of the work of the estate agent, so will not only cover descriptions you apply to properties, but also any description you make concerning the service you provide, as well as the service itself. For example, if you display a 'For Sale' board outside a property you are not authorised to market, or display a 'Sold' board outside a property you have not sold, you are likely to be breaching the Regulations and could face civil and/or criminal action.

The Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 (CCRs) apply to a contract between a consumer and a trader that is for the supply of goods or services to the consumer by a trader and is made in any of the following circumstances:

  • a contract concluded in the simultaneous physical presence of the trader and the consumer, in a place that is not the business premises of the trader
  • a contract for which an offer was made by the consumer in the simultaneous physical presence of the trader and the consumer, in a place that is not the business premises of the trader
  • a contract concluded on the business premises of the trader or through any means of distance communication immediately after the consumer was personally and individually addressed in a place that is not the business premises of the trader in the simultaneous physical presence of the trader and the consumer
  • a contract concluded during an excursion organised by the trader with the aim or effect of promoting and selling goods or services to the consumer

Where the CCRs apply, the consumer has a right to cancel the contract within a set period, and the Regulations set out strict requirements as to how this right to cancel must be communicated to the consumer. If this right to cancel is exercised then in most cases the contract is treated as if it had never been entered into and monies paid become recoverable. The Regulations also create requirements for the provision of certain information that a trader must give a consumer before the consumer is bound by a contract. See 'Off-premises sales - from 13 June 2014' for more information.

The Energy Performance of Buildings (England and Wales) Regulations 2012 create the responsibility of the seller to provide an energy performance certificate (EPC) to the potential buyer. If it is being rented, then it is the responsibility of the landlord to provide the EPC to the potential tenant. An agent for the landlord or seller must ensure an EPC has been commissioned for the property before marketing and make all reasonable efforts to ensure the EPC has been obtained within seven days of first marketing the property. See also 'Energy Performance Certificates'.

The Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Act 2007 places a requirement on estate agents to belong to an approved redress scheme.

Under the Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) Regulations 1992, the display of temporary 'For Sale', 'To Let' or 'Sold' boards is allowed by way of a 'deemed planning consent', providing certain criteria regarding maximum size etc are met. Once a sale has gone through, or a premises has been let, a sign such as 'Sold' or 'Let' may only be displayed for a maximum of 14 days. See also Outdoor advertisements and signs: a guide for advertisers published by the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Most of the Estate Agents Act 1979 is enforced by the National Trading Standards Estate Agency Team by a system of negative licensing. This means you do not need a licence to act as an estate agent, but if you breach the legislation, you may be banned. It covers various undesirable practices, such as failure to declare a personal interest, failing to pass on offers, discriminating against buyers that do not take other services, conviction for other offences involving fraud, dishonesty, etc. The part enforced by trading standards services relates to the maintenance and auditing of clients' accounts.

If you offer credit, or introduce people to sources of credit, you are a credit broker and need a licence. See 'Credit brokerage' for more information on this.

Anyone who lets furnished accommodation as a business activity, including letting agents, estate agents and private landlords needs to be aware of the safety requirements - see 'Goods in rented accommodation'.

Although you are unlikely to finalise a sale without any face-to-face contact with the purchaser, if you use a website to advertise properties the Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002 will apply. You can find out more about the requirements of these Regulations in 'Distance sales - from 13 June 2014'.

Key legislation

Please note

This information is intended for guidance; only the courts can give an authoritative interpretation of the law. Any legislation referred to, while still current, may have been amended from the form in which it was originally enacted. Please contact us for further information.

Last reviewed/updated: August 2014

© 2014 itsa Ltd on behalf of the Trading Standards Institute.

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Updated: 20 October 2009