The estate agency business has developed a new normal in recent years under the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Many estate agencies have adopted online promotions, or even online inspections of properties. It is not uncommon to find property agents – or even “KOLs” or key opinion leaders – posting photos and video clips of properties on different online portals or social media platforms to promote these properties.
There are also prospective clients who do not wish to visit properties in person, regardless of the pandemic. As a result, there is a growing number of videos out there embedded with virtual reality technology, trying to simulate the real-life experience of property inspection off-site for the convenience of prospective clients.
As a matter of fact, advances in technology change people’s lifestyles and will inevitably shape the new modes of business operations at estate agencies. Notwithstanding that the new modes might be more convenient and effective for business, property agents are reminded to remain prudent while consumers should be more cautious when browsing through the overwhelming amount of property advertisements on the internet.
When issuing property advertisements in whatever format, or through whatever platform, property agents are indeed obliged to comply with all the relevant regulations and guidelines of the Estate Agents Authority (EAA). For instance, property agents must obtain the vendor’s written consent before the issuance of advertisements for residential properties and ensure that the property information provided in the advertisements is accurate.
Also, the estate agency’s licence or its Statement of Particulars of Business as well as its business name must be stated clearly and conspicuously in all advertisements.
Estate agencies must assign a unique identification number, or a property number, to each property for which an advertisement is issued. The property number as well as the date of the advertisement must be stated clearly and legibly on the advertisement.
Moreover, advertisements in relation to residential properties that are no longer available for sale or leasing must be removed from web pages as soon as practicable. Additionally, sufficient information technology security measures should also be put in place to prevent the leak of clients’ personal data on the internet.
Here I would like to share a case of non-compliance. The EAA received a complaint from a property owner who accused an estate agency of issuing an advertisement for his property on an online property platform even though he had not appointed any property agent to sell the property.
During an investigation, EAA staff found that the relevant advertisement was no longer available on that online platform. Instead, there was an advertisement for another property issued by the same estate agency, which contained the name of a contact person of whom the EAA had no record.
The EAA’s disciplinary committee was of the view that the concerned estate agency issued an advertisement which contained false licence information. Hence, it failed to comply with paragraph 3.7.2 of the Code of Ethics, which states that “property agents and salespersons should avoid any practice which may bring discredit and/or disrepute to the estate agency trade”.
Having considered the nature and gravity of the case, and the disciplinary record of that company, the disciplinary committee decided to reprimand the estate agency and impose a fine of HK$30,000 (US$3,822).
I would like to remind property agents that although it is quicker and more convenient to issue online advertisements, they are prone to errors and inaccuracies. The management of estate agencies must also carefully manage and supervise their employees to insure online advertisements are issued in a proper and accurate manner.
In view of the increasing popularity of conducting estate agency business online, the EAA has been enhancing its efforts towards the inspection of online advertisements published on the websites of estate agencies, property portals and popular social media platforms. The EAA has also been adopting advanced technological measures to make its inspections more effective and efficient.
Last but not the least, I would like to advise consumers to be more careful and do their homework when looking for properties online, such as making comparisons with different websites, referring to transaction figures and statistics from government websites, reading media reports to understand more about properties they are interested in, and the latest property market trends.