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Letting agents must prepare for referral fees changes, says PayProp

Em Morley - November 4, 2020

Letting agents should prepare to disclose the third-party referral fees they receive to landlords and tenants, according to PayProp. 

The rental payment automation platform says that guidance for the lettings sector is likely to follow, as Trading Standards has made property sales-focused referral fees recommendations to the Government.

Trading Standards calls for greater transparency

In October the National Trading Standards Estate and Letting Agency Team (NTSELAT) published proposals on estate agents’ referral fees. PayProp highlights that the aim of the report is to aid the Government in creating a transparent marketplace in which consumers feel more confident in the services they receive.

The proposals suggest that estate agents should be required to disclose any fees they receive when referring clients to other service providers such as conveyancers.

The NTSELAT has called for a public awareness programme to alert consumers to hidden referral fees. It has also called for additional guidance for agents and increased encouragement of compliance by redress schemes and professional bodies.

Neil Cobbold, Chief Sales Officer at PayProp, says: The recent report from the NTSELAT covers the sales market, but it would not be surprising if any future guidance from the Government also includes the rental sector.

“Recent legislation covering the sales market, such as the new anti-money laundering rules introduced this year, has often been extended to lettings as well.”

“Agents should not assume they will be exempt from this change either and should instead start preparing for changes to the referral fees system. They can do this by disclosing the fees they receive to consumers if they are not doing so already.”

Best practices now could prevent outright ban later

PayProp points out there has been speculation that Trading Standards would urge the Government to ban agents from receiving referral fees entirely. However, the proposals currently only call for mandatory disclosure.

Cobbold suggests that if agents are quick to disclose referral fees to consumers voluntarily, Trading Standards and the Government could be persuaded away from a future outright ban.

He says: “Full disclosure and transparency from agents can allow them to keep earning important additional income from referral fees, while at the same time offering more protection to consumers.

“The NTSELAT has acknowledged that referral fees have ‘a place in business’ if they are used ‘ethically and transparently’, so it’s up to agents to make sure they follow any disclosure guidelines set by the Government to avoid a stricter clampdown further down the line.”

Time for agents to prepare for full disclosure 

Housing Minister Christopher Pincher positively received the report, saying he will now ‘carefully consider’ Trading Standards’ recommendations.

Further guidance is also being worked on for the industry by NTSELAT. The team has called on consumers to report cases of agents not disclosing referral fees.

Cobbold says: “It’s unclear how long it will take for the Government to review Trading Standards’ recommendations, particularly as the Covid-19 pandemic remains its top priority.

“However, there is a clear trend towards greater regulation of the industry, as evidenced by the Tenant Fees Act and the upcoming Regulation of Property Agents legislation. It would be prudent for letting agencies to take the necessary steps to start disclosing referral fees now so they are ready if and when the Government takes action.

“Providing a transparent service is in the best interests of consumers and should already be a key objective for professional agencies. Firms taking this approach can demonstrate their commitment to customer service.”