Agents targeting bereaved

By Alice Neville

Janet McDougall's mother received a card from a real estate agent less than three weeks after her father's passing. Photo / Janna Dixon
Janet McDougall's mother received a card from a real estate agent less than three weeks after her father's passing. Photo / Janna Dixon

Real estate agents are under fire for preying on families grieving a loved one's death.

At least one victim has complained to a new industry watchdog after her elderly mother mourning her husband received a condolence card from an agent she had never met.

Janet McDougall said the card contained ownership and valuation details of her parents' North Shore home and the agent's business card.

"There was this message that said, 'Sorry for your loss, if at anytime in the future you would like to discuss your options, or just ask for advice regarding your property in the market, please don't hesitate to call me'."

The card was sent by Tip Spooner, of Prestige Real Estate within three weeks of McDougall's 73-year-old father's death. She said her mother was "absolutely distraught" at the approach.

"It's appalling. I hope they recognise it's blatant soliciting for business.

It's just poor taste."

McDougall wrote to Prestige requesting an apology and complained to the Real Estate Agents Authority, a new statutory watchdog.

Prestige director Murray Blair replied on Friday and offered to apologise to McDougall and her mother in person. He included an apology from Spooner.

Blair said the company was "obviously disappointed that we caused such distress". Measures were being put in place to ensure the situation did not recur.

Spooner said she wanted to sort things out with McDougall and her mother. "I was really upset that they were upset. That was the last thing I wanted."

Others have similar stories to McDougall.

Linda Talbot's mother received a call from an agent three weeks after her father died in late October.

"There were no condolences or anything like that, it was very business-like and matter of fact. It was really quite harassing," said Talbot.

"Mum had been married for 50-odd years and she was still very much grieving."

A week later the agent called back and Talbot answered the telephone.

"I told them in no uncertain terms where to get off. I wasn't very impressed with it."

Jenny Blacklock's mother was also approached soon after her husband's death.

The agent left flowers and her business card, in case she "wanted to do something about the house".

"Mum was pretty horrified at being approached like that," said Blacklock.

The same agent approached her when her mother died a few years later.

"It was the last thing any of us had thought of at that stage. It's pretty disgusting."

McDougall and Talbot believed the agents who approached them had trawled through newspaper death notices.

James Young, director of Auckland University's real estate research unit, had heard of the practice but didn't believe it was widespread in New Zealand.

"It's the sort of thing agents joke about after a few beers - when business gets bad, go through the death notices."

He didn't know any agents who admitted to doing it but said death was "one of the major family events that trigger property sales".

"Estate agents try to meet a need in the marketplace. That is their job." He wouldn't comment on the ethics of the practice, but said he could see why families would be offended.

"Estate agents are running a big risk by doing that in terms of alienating a potential client."

Real Estate Institute of New Zealand president Peter McDonald said the organisation had received no complaints about the practice.

While it did not encourage agents to undertake "unwelcome and unsolicited canvassing of any kind" it could not tell them to stop.

But he expected members to treat bereaved sellers and buyers with sensitivity.

McDougall's complaint to the Real Estate Agents Authority will be assessed in the new year.

The statutory body was established last month to raise industry standards.

It can investigate complaints about anyone in the industry who doesn't comply with the law or the Code of Professional Conduct and Client Care.

If the subject is found guilty of unsatisfactory conduct or misconduct, the authority can force them to apologise, undergo training and pay costs or a fine of up to $10,000.

More serious complaints can be referred to the Real Estate Agents Disciplinary Tribunal, which has the power to cancel an agent's licence and impose bigger fines.

An authority spokesman said 15 written complaints had been received since the body's inception but wouldn't discuss individual cases.

alice.neville@hos.co.nzm

- Herald on Sunday

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