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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 March 2006, 09:47 GMT
The secret agent
By Anna Adams
BBC One's Whistleblower

Anna Adams

Lying to customers, faked signatures, false passports and dodgy deals with developers. An undercover investigation reveals the secret world of estate agents' dirty tricks.

My boss congratulates me on getting an offer on a flat that has been overvalued by 60,000. The newly-wed young couple viewing the property are stretched to their financial limit. But my manager is happy.

He takes me aside and explains how to convince a surveyor that the flat in London's fashionable Notting Hill is worth more than it is. He calls it "slightly simmering" - I call it cooking the books.

The scenario is not uncommon, in fact the manager himself boasts: "This kind of s*** happens all the time ... that's why we estate agents are here."

That night I head to the weekly sales meeting at Sloane Square. It's held at 7pm on a Friday night - when other people are relaxing in the pub.

Heckled

Under-performers are heckled and those who have done the most deals are applauded and given champagne and 50. Young agents in Foxtons exchange high-fives as they swap tales of gazumping and over-valuing.

I'm unaccustomed to a sales environment, but when I tell one of the directors that failure is not an option, he looks thrilled

The ambitious young graduates in sharp suits are full of bravado as they discuss their equally sharp practices while their sales figures are projected onto a giant screen.

But I can't stop thinking back to the hard-working young family who dream of getting on the property ladder and have wasted their money unnecessarily.

For BBC One's Whistleblower programme, I spent eight months investigating the murky world of the estate agent.

This involved spending time in five very different agencies and within days, I got a shocking glimpse inside this largely unregulated industry.

Going to war

During the investigation I saw the depths to which some agents will sink to get a deal - not only offering a house and a mortgage, but also a fake British passport.

Fake passport
An estate agent was also able to obtain a false passport

Together with a BBC colleague, Emma Clarke, I spent three months in Foxtons. Londoners will know the brand by its ubiquitous fleet of branded Minis and the trendy high-street offices that look more like wine bars than estate agencies.

But behind the stylish facade it is easy to see why the company has made its owner Jon Hunt one of the wealthiest estate agents in Britain.

I'm told he encourages his agents to adopt the mantra: "Our clients expect us to go to war for them!" - so it's hardly surprising the lengths his staff will go to keep the deals coming in.

According to the Sunday Times Rich List, Jon Hunt is worth 345m and also owns independent mortgage brokers Alexander Hall.

Unlawful

I soon discovered his mortgage brokers work closely with Foxtons' agents. They openly discuss potential buyers' budgets so they can squeeze as much money out of them as possible.

Jon Hunt
Jon Hunt, head of Foxtons, where the undercover reporter worked

Some buyers have no idea that the Foxtons agents showing them around properties already know exactly what they can afford.

After an excruciatingly intense two-hour job interview and presentation with 20 other young hopefuls - I got the job.

I have a cover story but I'm still nervous when I'm quizzed for 20 minutes about my work history and squirm as I reel off what I think they want to hear.

I'm unaccustomed to a sales environment, but when I tell one of the directors that "failure is not an option", he looks thrilled. Two days later I got the job.

Pressure

I was posted to the Notting Hill branch, a former pasta restaurant where Jon Hunt started his Foxtons empire 24 years ago.

I was convinced my cover could be blown at any time as I worked round the corner from where I live. My friends didn't know about my new day job, and I felt exposed as I zipped around my neighbourhood in my Foxtons Mini.

It's a punishing regime and the pressure is palpable

Working undercover is exhausting. I have to start at dawn, making sure my cameras are working and well-hidden. Estate agents are a well-turned-out bunch and it's a struggle to make sure my two cameras are concealed.

Life as an estate agent is arduous. We work six days a week, 12 hours a day. We work together and socialise together, but we are also pitted against one another as we battle for deals. It's a punishing regime and the pressure is palpable.

Some Foxtons agents earn a basic salary of 10,000 - nowhere near enough to live in this trendy hub of west London populated by City high-fliers and celebrities.

The company demand that you live close to your office and they tell you it should take no longer than 40 minutes to get to work. Clinching a deal is a necessity if you are to survive, and some agents will do whatever it takes.

Faking documents

In another Foxtons office, lettings staff jump up and down in delight after they successfully fake a signature on an absent landlord's paperwork.

Faking documents is something of a habit in the St John's Wood office, where Emma Clarke worked undercover in the lettings department.

I was shocked when she played me her secret footage which showed staff cutting, pasting and gluing signatures onto contracts. They call it "chop chop".

Relentless

Nothing prepared me for working at Foxtons. It's not just a job - it's a way of life. Rewards include booze-filled weekends away with management and a weekly breakfast club where you have the dubious pleasure of dining at 7.30am with your bosses.

The staff are young and keen and usually straight out of university - happy to get a job and drive a company car

The pressure is relentless and even on your one day off, your company mobile buzzes as head office texts you new property details.

Staff turnover is high and new recruits quickly burn out. The staff are young and keen and usually straight out of university - happy to get a job and drive a company car.

I spoke to a number of former employees who told me about the intense pressure and how it made agents behave. Only one former employee would help us with our investigation, and even he refused to waive his anonymity because he too feared reprisals.

When we revealed our findings to Jon Hunt, his lawyers threatened Emma and me with personal lawsuits and even hand-delivered letters to our homes. If they thought this would deter us from showing how his company works, they were wrong.

Lying

The undercover team also worked in a very different agency called Time2Move. The company's three small offices are a far cry from the upmarket locations favoured by Jon Hunt. But some of the practices are not dissimilar.

The maverick owner of T2M, Bruce Burkitt, was fined last year by the Office of Fair Trading after he failed to disclose that a member of his family had purchased a property.

So I went to see if the agency had cleaned up its act. I got a job and within an hour of joining T2M, I was shown exactly how they sold their properties. It was simple. Once they value a property and get the owner to use their services, they then lie about offers they haven't had.

Then after a while, when the owner is utterly desperate to sell, they make up false offers well below the original valuation so the owner reduces the price. The manager called it "price reduction hour" and "vendor care" - everyone else calls it lying.

There was no way I could join in with this "vendor care" and I wasn't sure how long I would be able to maintain my cover. T2M were on high alert. Something had made the manager jumpy and when I questioned the need to lie, he got suspicious and asked what newspaper I worked for.

His paranoia led to him reading one of my text messages - this time I was sacked.

Backhanders

I then joined ranks with a property developer who taught me some other tricks of the trade. It wasn't long before I found agents asking for cash backhanders in return for cheating owners out of tens of thousands of pounds.

He told me lots of agents would take a cash bung in return for getting properties at knock-down prices.

After just a few days trawling the high street agencies, we found one unscrupulous agent who asked for a 10,000 backhander to cheat a pensioner out of more than 50,000.

The manager of a Chard estate agency branch in Fulham, west London, showed us round a flat worth more than 190,000. Yet if our developer was happy to grease his palm to the tune of 10,000, he'd tell the owner to take the offer of 140,000.

Deception

Months later, we found an agent willing to go to even further. I was totally shocked when we were offered a fake identity in order to get a fraudulent mortgage.

We visited Primetime Mortgage and Property in north London and within minutes of our meeting we were offered a fake British passport, P60 forms and forged utility bills.

I still wasn't convinced that he'd be able to come through with the passport. But after one more meeting and 550, we had a fake British passport in my name.

Perhaps, like in the United States, estate agents should be required to have a qualification

When we embarked upon the investigation, I would never have suspected that an estate agent would go to such lengths to make a sale.

There are more than 12,000 registered estate agencies in the UK, and not all of them are as murky as the ones I came across.

But during my eight-month investigation, I discovered a litany of dishonesty, deception, deceit and outright criminality.

The industry desperately needs better regulation and perhaps, like in the United States, estate agents should be required to have a qualification other than a sharp suit.

In response to the reports of the Whistleblower programme, Foxtons said: "Foxtons Limited and Alexander Hall Limited pride themselves on the professionalism and transparency of their respective businesses and has the utmost respect for the needs of its client and will always act in the client's best interest.

"Foxtons has in place a rigorous training process, during which its employees are told repeatedly of their statutory and contractual duties, and the high standards expected of them."

The programme also contacted Time2Move about their manager. He said: "I have no knowledge of your accusations and I have not acted inappropriately". He also stated that T2M does not, and has never held a "price reduction hour".

The Chard estate agency said: "We are shocked at these allegations and are grateful to the BBC for bringing them to our attention. On learning of them, we've taken immediate action to question the individual involved and then to suspend him. We are now conducting a full investigation of the circumstances."

A spokesman for Primetime Mortgage and Property said that a member of staff had been suspended while the matter was being fully investigated, and that they were not aware of any illegal practices. He said the company prided itself on providing an efficient, honest and high standard of service to its clients.

Whistleblower is broadcast on BBC One, Tuesday 21 March, 2100 GMT.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I have worked as a mortgage broker and I was appalled at the practices estate agents use to secure sales and their own income. As a mortgage broker I could literally have been imprisoned for not looking after the interests of my clients, so how come estate agents can get away with it? In this day and age, unregulated estate agency is a complete anomaly and it's time the government took action!
The Mortgage Man, Chatham

Having been in estate agency in London for over eight years, I can confirm that this sort of thing goes on a hell of a lot in the industry. During my time I have come across numerous negotiators who will happily sit on the phone and blatantly lie about what interest their property has been getting, putting forward ridiculously low offers that don't exist in order to bring the price down and eventually achieve a quick and undervalued deal. Managers too have happily condoned this approach, and in some cases have often over-valued a property to give false hope to the owner and to beat the opposition to the property, only for them to then focus on offers in some cases 40% less than the asking price.
Mr Smith, London

I too have been at the sharp end of estate agent malpractice. Had my father not personally known the owner of the property I now own, we would never have known the estate agent was withholding our offer. This same estate agent had also conspired to defraud a friend years ago, withholding offers. She only found out when she got a friend to put in a fake offer and it wasn't passed on. I also have a builder friend who told me it is common practice for estate agents to take 'bungs' to lower the price on a property. I will never trust an estate agent again.
Chris, Hartlepool

An agent tried to get more money out of me after finding out what mortgage I was getting from "independent" financial advisor who worked at the same office.
Steve, Exeter

When I sold my London flat I got four estate agents to value it. There was a 22% difference between the lowest and highest quotes which made me quite suspicious of some of the methods which might be employed by the company at the expensive end of the scale. I still have sleepless nights thinking about the poor person who eventually bought it as I know they paid far too much. But as long as the industry continues to largely unregulated what is the individual to do, other than attempt to protect their own interests?
Ian, Kingston

Seems to me that a complete overhaul of the way in which we buy and sell property is needed with a view to eliminating the involvement of the estate agent from the financial elements of the transaction.
Martin Stanton, Lutterworth

It's incredible that in Britain consumers have more rights when they buy a toaster than they do when they buy a house - probably the biggest purchase they will ever make. The industry needs reforming and regulating and fraudulent practices must be punished with prison sentences just like any other sort of fraud. Hopefully the investigation done by Anna and Emma will bring this about very soon.
Michael Jamieson

I worked for a large, nationwide chain of estate agents for a number of years. There was always rigourous training and, to my knowledege, none of the above scams were carried out. The industry needs regulating with stiff fines for non-compliers.
Sam, Hull

The behaviour in this "self regulated" industry can only be changed through punitive fines because it is all about money for the agents. Recently had my accepted offer gazumped through the activity of unscrupulous estate agent.
Gazumped, Reading

As a first time buyer I was unfortunate to have experienced the way estate agents operate. They acted more like con-men rather than estate agents.
Tony, London

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