Despite the impression sometimes given in the media, the vast majority of sales and lettings negotiators in England are highly competent professionals providing a vital service to the public.
But bad practice in a small number of cases has led to growing calls for tougher controls in the industry and regulation is coming. But should agencies wait until RoPA becomes a legal requirement before putting staff through formal training, or would employees benefit from training schemes already in place?
“I do think there’s a need for people’s knowledge to be checked,” says Charlotte Jeffrey-Campbell of training provider The Able Agent.
The knowledge in the industry is so varied, and I don’t think that’s right. People need to understand their obligations in terms of consumer protection law. Charlotte Jeffrey-Campbell, The Able Agent.
“There is a real extreme of levels of knowledge in our industry and we are dealing with an awful lot of money. An agent who doesn’t understand their obligations to get the best price, or match the right service to the customer, means I think there are times the customer is out of pocket because we’ve not offered the best independent advice.
Should agencies wait for RoPA before putting staff through formal training, or would employees benefit from training schemes already in place?
“The knowledge in the industry is so varied, and I don’t think that’s right. People need to understand their obligations in terms of consumer protection law – there’s a real gap in knowledge in not really understanding what they can and can’t say. I think that’s hugely important and I know very much a part of the core law for the code of practice. That ability to sell has to be combined with a good basic level of knowledge and a really good knowledge of your customer.”
However, she says she wouldn’t advise choosing a qualification just because you want to get ready for RoPA.
“I would be looking for qualifications as a huge benefit, anyway, that enables you to stand out, and makes sure your staff are knowledgeable experts and able to win more business.”
“People change job roles – you go from an auction specialist to a lettings role, from lettings to a sales progressor; people shift and move the whole time and unless you give them the appropriate skills and support them in that job change, at the start of the job they will not really know what they are doing.”
Courses from The Able Agent are available for individuals at £575 or on a branch basis for £95 per month, covering up to seven people.
Isobel Thomson, Chief Executive of lettings training body Safeagent, welcomes the advent of RoPA. “If there were a formal requirement that would be a good thing,” she says. “A lot of agents don’t have anything to fear – what would be contained within the qualification would be what they do within their jobs anyway.”
She says no-one is quite sure yet what will be in RoPA, but points out that Scotland and Wales already have mandatory schemes in which courses from a number of different training providers are recognised.
A lot of agents don’t have anything to fear – what would be contained within the qualification would be what they do within their jobs anyway. Isobel Thomson, Safeagent.
“I think there should be a plethora of recognised qualifications. The regulator would set the bar for what those qualifications should be, as they have in Scotland.”
She adds, “The majority of agents are professionals and operate in a proper way, especially if they are part of regulatory organisations such as Safeagent or Propertymark or RICS. If you are a professional agent there is nothing to fear from actually taking a qualification which gives you the attestation that you are a professional.”
RICS associate membership
Jen Lemen of Property Elite believes that in terms of public confidence, a RICS qualification is by far the best route for negotiators. She puts students through AssocRICS (associate membership), which is the equivalent of Ofqual level 4.
There seems to be such a division between residential surveyors, valuers and estate agents, whereas realistically they do a lot of the same thing. Jen Lemen, Property Elite.
“Personally I can’t think of anything else that would provide that level of qualification,” she says. “I definitely think the recognition, in terms of public confidence, make it one of the best qualifications, with the support and the real focus on ethics that the RICS has.
“The structures are already there, whereas with a new qualification there might not be the same framework and support. I think in terms of giving agents the support and confidence and the framework to work within, AssocRICS really does offer that.”
In addition to learning basic mandatory skills, AssocRICS students choose to study one of 13 ‘sector pathways’, depending on the area of business they are in.
Candidates also need to make several written submissions:
- A summary of experience – a total of 3,000 words showing their experience related to aspects of their chosen sector pathway.
- A case study – 2,500 words on a recent project that shows their technical abilities. The project must not be older than 24 months.
- A CPD record showing 48 hours of training undertaken during the previous 12 months.
“In terms of the level of assessment it is a high standard,” adds Lemen. “In terms of professionalism, being legally and being technically accurate, it covers all bases to make a competent agent.” She adds, “There seems to be such a division between residential surveyors, valuers and estate agents, whereas realistically they do a lot of the same thing, and I think narrowing that divide and getting everybody to work together really only has positive benefits.”
ROPA – SLOW TRAIN COMING
No timescale has yet been set to introduce licensing – and one long-established industry professional believes it will be five years before Regulation of Property Agents (RoPA) is up and running.
The Regulation of Property Agents report set out key criteria, including:
- All residential estate agencies must be licensed;
- All staff delivering ‘reserved activities’ should be qualified to Ofqual Level 3 (A-level equivalent), and adhere to a code of practice;
- All company directors and managing agents should be qualified to a minimum of Ofqual Level 4;
- A new regulator to be appointed to oversee compliance.
NAEA Propertymark is the industry’s biggest training provider and was a member of the working party that drew up the RoPA report, along with ARLA and other industry bodies. Ex-CEO Mark Hayward says RoPA will professionalise the industry, and that there had been a record number of people signing up to take qualifications during 2020.
“That’s been encouraged by employers who know that when Ropa comes it will be illegal to operate if they haven’t got licensed staff and they themselves are not licensed,” he says. “People are now starting to take it seriously.”
There is likely to be a core qualification, with sectoral qualifications in areas such as sales, lettings, and auctions.
“For consumers it’s professionalising it, making sure they know there are checks and balances, and that the person they are dealing with has the requisite knowledge of property and regulation and will deal with it properly.”
He adds that the RoPA code-of-practice working group has made great advances, and that the code is now almost complete. “It will be presented to government in March and that will provide impetus in moving it forward.”
There is likely to be a core qualification, with sectoral qualifications in areas such as sales, lettings, and auctions, and a variety of providers. The regulator, yet to be appointed, will set the scope of the qualification and the amount of annual CPD required. There will be a two-year period within which you will have to complete your training, and trainees will have to be supervised during that period.
APPRENTICESHIPS – THE GOVERNMENT WILL SUPPORT YOUR PAYROLL
Chris Stoker- Jones, director of vocational training at Catch 22, is a passionate exponent of apprenticeships. Perhaps it’s hardly surprising – he was an apprentice himself, originally training as a waiter at the prestigious Copthorne Hotel where he rose to become head waiter before running his own restaurants, pubs and bars.
He says bringing young people into your business as an apprentice can bring fresh ideas, energy and momentum.
“Young people today look at life through a completely different lens,” he explains. “Bringing an apprentice into a workforce, yes brings its challenges, because young people bring up issues and needs just like anyone else, but they can bring so many different viewpoints and ideas to the table that might not have been considered.”
One recruitment apprentice I brought in increased website traffic by 200% and made the business £100,000 just by reducing time to hire time by 10 days.
He says he has placed apprentices with several small business recently where they have transformed traditional ways of working.
“They’ve created apps because they’ve got coding skills, they’ve used MS Office packages to completely transform the way they track and analyse data, and instead of the old filing systems and spreadsheets they are now working off totally new applications.
“One recruitment apprentice I brought in increased website traffic by 200% and made the business £100,000 just by reducing time to hire time by 10 days.”
Mentoring and guidance
“The impact is phenomenal, but on the flip side they need a lot of mentoring and guidance – they need someone to trust in them, so you’ve got to have a brave employer to take on an apprentice, and sometimes you go through a couple that just don’t fit. But when you do find a good apprentice it’s like finding a nugget of gold in all that sand.”
Stoker-Jones says one big change from write their own apprenticeship training requirements.
“They focus on three things – what knowledge does that apprentice need, what skills do they need to demonstrate and what behaviours to we want them to embed and demonstrate on a day-today basis to do this job properly,” he explains.
“As a training provider it’s our responsibility to work with that employer to say, ‘What type of person do you want us to recruit for you, what do you want us to know, alongside the standard mandatory criteria that we have to train them on, what do you want us to include, what methodology do you use, so that person is fit for purpose at the end.’”
Apprenticeships range from a 12-month minimum up to a four or five-year degree-level course. Employers with a pay bill of less than £3m only have to contribute five per cent of the total training bill, so for a typical £4,000 apprenticeship, that’s just £200. What’s more, If you recruit a 16-18-year old you get a £2,000 grant – which has been raised to £3,000 until the end of March, because of Covid.
Learning the business
Richard Rawlings, founder of Estate Agency Insight, trains agents how to be great business people, how to attract instructions, and how to prospect ethically and successfully.
He believes most difficulties arise not from knowledge, or lack of it, but rather from poor behaviour on the part of a small minority.
In the last month I have had three start-up agents approach me for the golden ticket to success in agency. They didn’t have the first clue about what was involved. Richard Rawlings, Estate Agency Insight.
“You can’t legislate for integrity,” he says. “I suspect those who are going to abuse the situation are going to do so irrespective of legislation.
“On the one hand I would say we don’t need any more legislation. On the other hand, I would say that we do on the basis that regulation may act as a deterrent by dissuading anyone with the perhaps casual business intentions from becoming an agent in the first place.
“In the last month I have had three start-up agents approach me for the golden ticket to success in agency. They didn’t have the first clue about what was involved – they just thought they would give it a go. I don’t think they were setting out with any bad intentions but they would instantly have fallen foul of the laws that are already in place.”
Rawlings does believe, however, that there is a place for basic agency training to protect the consumer. He would like to see a system similar to that in South Africa, where every office has to have a licensed agent.
“They have their name on the door, a bit like a pub, and other agents acting under that agent are called interns. They can do all the mundane stuff, but anything important, signing a contract, taking on a contract and negotiating a deal has to be signed off by the licensed agent, who is personally liable that it is done properly and they have an absolute vested interest.
“That works very well because if you are, let’s say, one of those naturally great sales people and you think there is an opportunity in estate agency, you can come and join an agent and you can work under the apprenticeship type of approach that a licensed agent will give you.”
He is less sure about training everyone up to RICS standards, however. “I think everyone has to recognise we are sales people in a sales role – we call ourselves professionals, but it is a sales function, though there are some areas that clearly have to be adhered to for the protection of the public.”
However, he warns that requiring experienced agents to have to undergo further training would be unreasonable. “If they have been in the business for a certain amount of time, maybe ten years or so, it would be a little unfair for them to have to undergo further training,” he says.
It’s a theme picked up by Michael Day, Managing Director of Integra Property Services, which provides business mentoring, sales, marketing, management and compliance training to the industry.
You’ve got people who are jolly good who have been running businesses for the past 30 years – who are now going to have to go and get a qualification. Michael Day, Integra Property Services.
“There’s a need for training but you’ve got people who are jolly good who have been running businesses for the past 30 years who are now going to have to go and get a qualification under this scheme,” he says.
He welcomes RoPA but warns there could be an exodus of experienced professionals when it is introduced, as there are currently no plans to offer ‘grandfather’ rights to those already in the industry – though he thinks it will be five years before RoPA is up and running.
“There is a difference between training and qualifications,” he points out. “There are some very good people without qualifications and some very poor people with qualifications, so qualifications in themselves aren’t the answer, but you have to set a benchmark and I accept that – you have to set a level and say ‘this is what people have to do’. But the key to making it work is the enforcement regime you have alongside it, because without that it is not going to be much different to what you have now.”
Service comes first
Day shares the view that qualifications are not the whole answer. “People could have qualifications now and could deliver a bad service in the same way people who haven’t got qualifications could deliver a fantastic service,” he says.
“My compliance training isn’t just about learning the rules but how to apply them in the real world: how you should deal with somebody, how do you work with somebody to get them the best price for their house, how do you make sure you win business from people – all of those things that a pure knowledge-based training programme doesn’t do. We need both.”
He also believes there is a real benefit to apprenticeships. “To my mind it’s not where you start but where you get to that’s important. For some people going to university and getting a degree is fine, for other people that’s not the best way forward; they would be better off in the workplace going through some kind of apprenticeship-style vocational programme.
Day himself started out as an apprentice, though he now has an MBA and FRICS qualifications, along with many others. “At 21 when I became a qualified surveyor I already had five years in the business. I would argue that I was in a better place than people who had come out of university at that age because I had already had five years in the of practical experience,” he adds.