Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Government to tighten rules for housing agents

THE National Development Ministry is reviewing the framework that property agents work under given the recent spate of unethical practices that have surfaced.

Minister Mah Bow Tan told The Straits Times: 'The status quo, in my view, is not tenable. I think we need to do something.'

The MND is looking to see if it could get property agencies to keep a closer watch on their agents, among other things.

'Surely the agencies, who I believe share in the commissions of the agents, have a responsibility too. Whoever is offering a service for a fee must have a responsibility, a duty to maintain certain standards,' he said.

It may even take even tougher measures if agencies do not rein in their agents, said Mr Mah.

'We have to see how agents do not mislead, and if they do mislead, they engage in unlawful practices, what action we can take against them.'

This is the first time that the Government has hinted at the possibility of mandatory regulations for the real estate industry. For years, it has maintained that the industry should regulate itself despite the fact that various such attempts have been found lacking.

Although housing agencies are licensed by the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore, the over 20,000 housing agents here are not regulated. They do not need to meet minimum standards and can continue in the trade even if they are found to have done wrong.

In a highly publicised case last month, a couple took ERA Realty Network to court after they sold their downtown apartment for $688,000 in 2007 and learned subsequently that their home was bought and resold by the wife of their agent's boss for $945,000. The couple won the case and have since received the difference of $257,000 back from ERA.

ERA had argued during the case that the agency was not liable for the actions of its agents because they are considered independent contractors.

Years of infighting have left housing agencies unable to agree on common standards for self-regulation.

The Institute of Estate Agents has only a small fraction of agents as its members and there is confusion over what it takes to be an accredited agency under the four-year-old Singapore Accredited Estate Agencies (SAEA) scheme.

The board behind the programme initially required accredited agencies to have all their agents pass the Common Exam for House Agents (Ceha) by this year, but introduced a scaled-down test called the Common Examination for Salespersons (CES) just before that deadline.

Mr Mah said: 'I don't think it worked well, based on all accounts...It's not satisfactory. The whole current system is not satisfactory.'

His comments buoyed industry players like Mr Jeff Foo, the president of the Institute of Estate Agents, who said: 'It's about time for a change. We have to do things in the interests of the consumer.'

But the chairman of the SAEA, Mr Peter Koh, maintained that voluntary accreditation was making 'satisfactory progress'. About 300 agencies with more than 6,000 agents under them have been accredited so far.

'With government support, we can do better. We are doing our level best given that it's so fragmented.'

Source: Straits Times, 18 Mar 2009

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