Date Published 05 December 2012

The Property Ombudsman has denied running a divisive two-tier membership system.

It strongly refutes that it treats as second-class citizens those agents who sign up only for registration rather than membership – despite charging exactly the same for both categories.

Registered agents say that it is almost impossible for members of the public to search on the Ombudsman site for them, to check out their credentials.

Registered agents cannot be searched on the main site, but are listed separately, by name only – which means that searchers have to know the name of the agent first. They cannot be searched by location. By contrast, agents who are members can be easily searched on the TPO website.

Basic registration, which costs £170 per branch plus VAT, is the minimum legal requirement under the Consumer Estate Agents Redress Act (CEARA).

Membership costs exactly the same as registration, but member agents – who can display the logos of both the TPO and Office of Fair Trading – must agree to stick to the TPO code. Registered agents do not have to commit to the code, but must work to ‘best practice'.

A spokesman for TPO said: `Agents who submit only the minimum registration with TPO are not members – they have opted not to sign up to the TPO Sales Code of Practice that members agree to.

`They are registered agents meeting the minimum required by CEARA so therefore are outside the member search area and are listed separately in alphabetical order.

`There is no second-class citizenship. If agents want to be listed as members, first they have to commit to the Sales Code of Practice and the standards it implies.

`The remedy is for registered agents to move up to full member status and feature in that list. There is a huge difference in the consumer protection member agents offer and they rightfully enjoy their own search engine facility.

`The vast majority – 97% – of firms listed on the TPO search engine are committed to those higher standards and the other 3% can easily join them by committing to the Code of Practice. It would be misleading to consumers to pretend that they have done so by adding them to the main list.`

Asked why the subscription rate for both basic registration and for membership was the same, the spokesman said: `CEARA registered agents and full members pay the same amount because they involve the same level of administration.`

Estate agent Trevor Kent, who has opted for registration status, said: `Surely the CEARA Act requires agents to be ‘members of an approved redress scheme', so how can the TPO say such agents are not ‘members' when that is the service they are providing for the OFT?

`And surely the OFT should have something to say about a system that does not allow the public to search for compliantly registered firms by town?

`I would suggest it is unacceptable to have the name of the agent first, before the public can search for compliant firms, especially when agents are charged exactly the same sub whether registered or member by the TPO.

`I would also like to point out to readers that there is a competitor redress scheme (supported by RICS and ARMA) fully open to all agents and who only charge £150.

`I also have difficulty in understanding how they can claim their cost of administering both types of adherence to be the same. It patently cannot be.`