Do agents warrant such front page public censure?

Waking up to the headline of the Herald on Sunday this morning, I was confronted with the story that must be the worst nightmare for a real estate agent Agent put pressure on widow to sell!

Real estate agents rely on their reputation, as there is very little else to differentiate the services of one agent to another or one real estate company to another, and in this world where the right to be forgotten is wholly unworkable the real estate agent involved in this matter is likely to suffer significantly greater loss than the $2,000 he was fined by the Real Estate Agents Authority.

It was in fact the scale of the fine that peaked my interest and stirred me to look a little bit deeper into this matter as the authority has the jurisdiction to fine an individual licensee up to $10,000 and up to $20,000 in the case of a company - Bayleys, the company in question was fined just $1,500 in this case. Objectively then it is clear this case is by no means at the most extreme end of the criteria of unsatisfactory conduct. It should be noted that the finding in this case was unsatisfactory conduct not the more serious finding of misconduct for which the fines are up to $15,000 for an individual or up  to $30,000 for a company

I have faith and belief in the role and effectiveness of the Real Estate Agents Authority as clearly, through their complaints procedure they have found the licensee agent and the company guilty and certainly the complainant did have due cause to complain. My concern though is with the reporting of this case in the media which I think does not in anyway match the scale of the complaint.

The readership of the Herald on Sunday as the newspaper publisher so glowingly highlighted the other day is 371,000, add to that an even larger audience online and the fact that this article is already the most read article of the day; and I would judge that this is effectively a public flogging and humiliation of an agent far more severe than is fairly justified.

 

Lets examine the facts which I have done so that transparency can aide an objective evaluation. (The full details of the decision by the Complaints Assessment Committee can be read here).

Firstly this headline and front page article is not actually news. The auction to which the complaint relates was held in March 2012, the complaint was heard and adjudicated upon on the 29th November 2013 and the fine was imposed on the 6th March. The article is published here on the 1st June 2014. So the newspaper has been sitting on this article in reserve for 3 months waiting for a quiet-news-day when they could roll this out in an attempt to fill a void as there is nothing remotely newsworthy (in the context of current) about this - it was news on the 6th March.

 


The complainant made 6 complaints against the company and 7 complaints against the agent 

 

The complaints against the Licensee can be summarised as follows: 

 1. The Licensee had a conflict of interest when assisting the Complainant to obtain finance in September 2011: 

The complainant approached the licensee in November 2011seeking to borrow $10,000 to undertake renovations on her home. The licensee advised  the Complainant that this was not possible, but provided the Complainant with contact details of a mortgage broker who could possibly assist her in obtaining finance - appropriate and professional advice

Complaint dismissed

2. The Licensee failed to allow the Complainant to run an onsite auction with her preferred auctioneer Mr. S:

The Complainant signed a listing authority which featured an onsite auction with the preferred auctioneer in December 2011, however that authority was cancelled by the Complainant some hours after signing it.

Complaint dismissed

3. The Licensee applied pressure to the Complainant to list the Property for sale with the Agency:

There was no evidence of pressure. The agency listing agreement was signed by the Complainant after a 24 hour period had elapsed during which the Complainant had reviewed and consider the agreement and the auction as part of Bayleys “Big Call” auction campaign.

Complaint dismissed

4. The Licensee presented offers to the Complainant from potential purchasers which were in the region of $370,000.00 (being the Government Valuation) when instructed by the Complainant not to do so:

The licensee presented offers of between $367,000.00 and $405,000.00 and in the words of the Complaints Assessment Committee report were “therefore below the Complainant's price expectations (but) was beyond the control of the Licensee and no fault of the Licensee.

Complaint dismissed

5. The Licensee arranged to sell the Property to a personal acquaintance:

The Complainant alleges that the eventual buyer of the Complainants house was a personal acquaintance. The Complaints Assessment Committee received statements that disproved this as the eventual buyer had only met the Licensee at open homes

Complaint Dismissed

The final two complaints were upheld as unsatisfactory conduct and reading the evidence it is clear that the agent failed to act at all times in the best interest of his client, especially considering the age and emotional state of the client.

6. The Licensee applied undue pressure on the Complainant to sale the Property to the purchaser following the auction; 

7. The Licensee’s conduct, during the course of selling the Complainant’s Property and as a result of the outcome, caused the Complainant pain and stress and reduced her financial security for her retirement years;

 


The 6 complaints against the Agency: 

1. The Agency had a conflict of interest in assisting the Complainant to obtain finance in September 2011 to carry out renovations on the Complainant’s property (the Property):

Complaint dismissed based on the same evidence for the Licensee complaint

2. The Agency did not allow the Complainant to run an onsite auction with her preferred auctioneer Mr. S:

Complaint dismissed based on the same evidence for the Licensee complaint

3. The Agency did not provide the Complainant with adequate time to sell her property:

Complaint dismissed based on the due process was followed in the signing of the agency agreement and the professional manner shown by members of the Bayleys team and the auctioneer particularly at the auction.

4. The Agency’s auctioneer failed, prior to the auction, to read a statement prepared by the Complainant pointing out the Property’s selling points:

Complaint dismissed as the auctioneer presented the property in a professional manner to the ultimate benefit of the client

5. The Agency charged the Complainant an excessive commission:

Complaint dismissed based on the very clear detail provided in the listing agreement as to the commission and the ultimate sale

6. The Agency sold the Property for $451,000.00 when it had a true value between $480,000.00 - $520,000.00, thereby causing the Complainant substantial financial loss:

The Licensee appraised the property for sale in November 2011 fro between $440,000 and $470,000, it sold for $451,000. The figure if $520,000 was presented by the Complainant as a value estimate based on the view of another real estate agent who valued the property at $550,000

Complaint dismissed

 

The Agency was though found guilty  of unsatisfactory conduct  as “on balance, the Committee (took) the view that the Agency had ample evidence of the distress of the Complainant and the actions of the Licensee. In these circumstances the Committee view(ed) that that the Agency should have intervened and properly supervised the Licensee." 

 

This brief summary of this case seeks to present a fuller picture surrounding this case rather than the truncated version presented in the headline story.

The fact is that the transaction of a property is an emotionally charged undertaking, even more so in the case of an auction. The process needs to be given the care, time and consideration by all concerned - both the agent and client. It is also logical that if the client is elderly and / or emotionally upset that the process should be handled with appropriate care. This was done by Bayleys and their team, however the agent in question did not apply the necessary care, and through the requirement of the oversight, Bayleys are found to be guilty on this matter.

This case is being appealed as per the article in the paper - as to the decision of the penalty, as opposed to the determination of the Complaints Assessment Committee.

The agent in this complaint Mark Birdling has only this one disciplinary complaint against him. He has been in real estate for over 9 years and has over that time sold many properties for which I am sure there have been many satisfied customers. He has been in my view wrongly singled out for headline-grabbing attention when the other 34 such offences of misconduct or unsatisfactory conduct in 2013 have been largely ignored. Sure the media have a responsibility to report what they see as stories and news of importance to their readers. However you have to seriously ask, is the headline story in today’s paper appropriate to the conduct or is it as so often happens and as I contend, a cheap media grabbing story where the short term profit motives of the media company rides rough-shod over the career and reputation of the real estate agent concerned.