Fiddling the figures…

This week, the press has featured a number of articles detailing a practice that has aggrieved Cheshire & Co (and has subsequently been mentioned in this forum), for several years. The key phrase, is ‘portal juggling’. No, not what you do with the pneumatic Tracey from HR after three Stingers, (incidentally, the favourite tipple of Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant) too many at the annual conference, but the age old habitude of fiddling the figures. In the world of estate agency, this principally refers to Rightmove, although other property portals are available and open to similar abuse. What does this mean in layman’s terms? It involves estate agents taking their existing properties and removing them from their chosen property portal, then immediately relisting them, thus creating the illusion that they are listing far more properties than they actually are, with the associated fallacious impression of the number of properties that have been sold. Hence the headlines, “We list more properties than anyone else”, or “Number one for sales in the area”. It can be done very easily; I spent two hours yesterday on a portal and by changing dates and post codes, I eventually came up with a chart that could be published to the masses, that showed that I was Number 1 in the area. The recent articles focused primarily on London (don’t they all), but agents in the NP postcode are not immune to such behaviour and the accompanying bragging rights. Without coming over as excessively holier than thou, it is something that can have serious ramifications.

In London, the National Trading Standards ‘Estate Agency Team’ (no, me neither), are now getting involved and the one thing that no business wants is Trading Standards crawling around their office, because if they cannot find evidence of portal juggling, they will make it their mission to find evidence of some other activity that carries a penalty. Data collection company Propcision centred their search activities around the development at Battersea Power Station and established that one property had been relisted 35 times in a 6 month period. This meant that it ‘appeared’ that 368 proprieties  had been sold on the development rather than the slightly less jaw-dropping 35. Michelle Ricci, the founder of Propcision had been in contact with both the agent concerned and the developer and has been left disappointed but not surprised that neither party has made any attempt to speak with her. It will come as no shock that although Rightmove and Zoopla have systems in place to “monitor” these situations, there does not appear to be any penalties, nor dare I say it, any great urgency to do anything about it.

What is the effect of such portal juggling, aside from agents in certain postcodes using their portal figures as a means of beating their chest and adopting various other Neolithic tendencies? When a surveyor carries out a mortgage valuation, one of the key, if not the key pieces of data that he/she uses to arrive at the valuation is the number of comparable properties sold and at what price. If they are struggling to agree that a property values up, then comparable evidence of-using the Battersea example-367 (as opposed to 34), other properties makes their decision a lot easier and gives them far more comfort. In turn, this creates a false impression of a rising market, which makes property purchase far more difficult. At some stage, the roundabout does have to stop, as indicated by reports this week that London property prices have finally stalled. If the initial asking price was already inflated due to unchecked, unqualified and misleading data, then at some point the whole thing will implode. Will the practice continue if unchecked and unchallenged by any authority? Will estate agents discover a moral marrow that prevents them from indulging in such activities? Highly unlikely, but stranger things can happen. Who would have bet a week ago on the Conservatives becoming the Official Opposition in Scotland; in the process deposing Nicola, ‘I’m not actually an MP, but I’m Scottish and we have North Sea Oil, so there’ Sturgeon?