The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) has warned of “repeat problems” with estate agency promotions in a notice that warns of targeted enforcement action in the sector next year if things don’t improve.
The warnings come in an enforcement notice issued by the CAP, which lays down the advertising rules enforced by the Advertising Standards Authority.
A spokesman for the ASA and CAP said the aim of the notice is to put agents on alert that they could be set for an ASA ruling against them or Trading Standards action for the most serious cases where there is failure to comply.
The CAP said in the enforcement notice, issued to all agents via industry regulator NTSEAT (the National Trading Standards Estate Agency Team): “We have noticed repeat problems with property sector advertising and wish to draw your attention to these issues with the following guidance.
“Please take immediate action to ensure your ads comply.
“If we see continued problems in this area, we will take targeted enforcement action in the property sector in 2018 to ensure a compliant level playing field in this market. This may include – where advertisers are unwilling or unable to comply – referral to our legal backstop, Trading Standards.”
CAP guidance accompanying the notice highlights the main areas where there have been issues with agency adverts, including the explanation of fees, property descriptions, savings comparisons and claims of local expertise.
The notice said any qualifications or exclusions to advertised fees should be made clear. It cited a complaint that had been upheld against online agent HouseSimple for a TV advert stating “sell your home for just £495” as it was not clear that this service was only available to those who used its mortgage and or conveyancing service. HouseSimple was told the ad must not appear in the same form and must make the price distinction clear.
In another example used, Pink and Cow estate agents had a complaint upheld against it for text on its website that said “sell your home for 0.5%” on its home page alongside services that said “we’re in the perfect position to show buyers round your property”. However, it transpired that it would cost extra to have accompanied viewings so the agent was told to amend the website.
The CAP also says it continues to see adverts with VAT-exclusive fees which breaches its code.
The regulatory body said: “Your fees should be VAT-inclusive. This applies to both fees presented as numbers (e.g. ‘£1,200’ is ok; ‘£1000 + 20% VAT’ is not) and as a percentage commission (‘1.8%’ is ok; ‘1.5% + VAT’ is not).”
The notice also warns about portal descriptions, highlighting an upheld complaint against Ashbury Residential in June 2017 after a Rightmove listing had described a property as having “private and secure parking” and “remote control gated access with CCTV” that it later transpired didn’t work.
The CAP said: “It may seem obvious, but don’t make claims about features of properties unless you can prove their accuracy with documentary evidence.”
The note mentions comparative savings claims as an issue, warning that such adverts must provide sufficient information about the services being compared.
It highlights a complaint upheld against HouseSimple in August where the online agent was ordered to remove claims it saved customers an average of £5,000 in fees.
The CAP said: “Comparisons with identifiable competitors are allowed as long as they are based on objective criteria and are presented in a way that is unlikely to mislead.
“All comparisons must be verifiable.
“Remember, you must hold up-to-date substantiation to support all claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and are capable of objective substantiation. Savings claims must be supported with comprehensive documentary evidence; a simple customer survey will not be sufficient.”
Lastly, the note turns to the use of the phrase ‘local experts’ in promotions.
It cited a ruling against Spicerhaart in February 2015 for suggesting that it had physical branches in places where it did not, as well as a complaint about whether Purplebricks’ use of the term local property experts was misleading, which was in the end rejected by the ASA.
The CAP said: “It is acceptable to refer to ‘local’ property experts if you can prove that the expert has relevant knowledge and experience within the defined geographical area.
“But do not imply you have physical branches in locations if that is not the case.”