How to start preparing your staff for the regulation of property agents

12 February 2021

Darshan Sunger of Three Oaks is prioritising getting himself - and his staff - qualified now, so they're ready when the Regulation of Property Agents (RoPA) comes into force. He shares advice for other agents starting their journey towards qualification.

Regulation is on its way and letting agents need to be prepared. That’s why Darshan Sunger of Three Oaks is prioritising getting his staff qualified now - and why he believes other agencies should be prioritising this too. He talks about how agencies can get ahead of the Regulation of Property Agents with Goodlord’s Costas Frangeskou, with exclusive insights from his experience at Three Oaks.

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First of all, can you tell us about the Regulation of Property Agents (RoPA)?

In 2018, Lord Richard Best, who is the chairman of the working group the Regulation of Property Agents, set out four recommendations after a lot of consultation with other interested parties. The first was to create a code of practice for all property agents in England. Second, was to introduce mandatory qualifications for all those members of staff that are dealing with landlords and tenants. Level four qualifications should be introduced for directors like myself. And there was a recommendation to create an independent regulatory body to oversee all compliance.

What were your initial thoughts? Did you think, "Oh my god, more legislation," or how did you take that?

I've been in the industry 21 years and I probably share a very similar sort of approach to other agents as well. We've always wanted to deliver a good practice and we always wanted to be those people that landlords and tenants go to. So for me, it was raising standards and that was good. I welcome that. We've always wanted it to be a regulated industry. It is on our doorstep now and we have to embrace it. That was my initial thought. We've got to get on with the job in hand, let's embrace it. I've waited 21 years for this to happen and moving forward I think, bring it on. That was my initial take. That's why I went on and said, "Right, what am I going to do?" I set myself a plan to do the level three qualification. 

How are other agents approaching this? What are you seeing? Is there concern? Is there fear? Are people grabbing this with both hands? What are the differences you've seen from one agent to the next?

It does involve getting training, getting education, and going back to school. I mean, from my perspective as a business owner, I have to go on to do the level four, because without that, I may not be able to trade once regulation kicks in, but I can certainly see in terms of people I've been in the industry so 25, 30 years with vast amounts of experience, they've got a lot of wealth of experience, but they probably just don't want to go back to school and probably don't want to go back to studying. So those people probably, and it's my personal opinion, but what I'm hearing is that they will probably not wish to do that and probably sell on or move out of the industry. But on a good point, on a good note, you've got a lot of young people joining our industry, and it's a fresh breath of air because we need young people to get involved. And this time is different because they now see an industry they could choose the career path because it's got proper qualifications. So there's a lot of scope there for our youngsters, and I welcome that part, especially for the young people to get involved in industry.

Do you mind just briefly talking us through the criteria for level three, how does that work?

Reserved activity, any involvement or any contact whether it's on a phone, email, letter writing, whatever it is, even if it's an old phone call, it is a reserved activity if you're talking about landlord and tenant matters. If you've got somebody working on a Saturday, I think, again, it's been mentioned in the past, they will then be falling in that particular provision of getting the level three. Level three is the minimum, the  entry level in order for you to be able to work in the industry. Now you can get the qualifications in different ways, but where I chose to stand with Propertymark qualification route, and what Propertymark qualification do is they send out a folder like this and it's distance learning. There are four units  and you've got multiple choice questions on all of these units and you have to get a pass mark to get that. 

In terms of that's the level three, I also want to just touch base on what we mean when we say front and backend stuff. So a lot of people have been asking the question, well, I actually work in the accounts department of back, I have very little to do with landlords or tenants. Again, we need to get a little bit more clarification here, but if you've got no involvement whatsoever with landlords and tenants, then you've got nothing to worry about. But the moment that you start to talk to tenants or start to communicate with landlords and tenants, you will probably fall within those provisions.

I was a little bit surprised when you mentioned Saturday staff - so even somebody who's just employed on a Saturday for three or four hours to man the phones and take messages could be considered frontend staff, and therefore they would need to be a level three qualified to be able to have that interaction.

It's very clear, the recommendation is reserved activities. So if you've got any involvement at all, you have to do that. And just really touch upon level three, that is an equivalent to an A level  qualification. The good thing about this is, like I said, is a career path as well. This is an ofqual regulation so it's recognized by the governing body. It stays with you. It's your qualification. You keep it for your life. Obviously there'd be top-ups et cetera, but this is your qualification. This is your A level of standard for the industry.

And let's face it. If you make the effort to go out and get yourself trained and do the study, that's involved, it's about 18 months worth of study time there. So you have to be consistent, get that qualification because when the regulation kicks in, you will be in demand because all those people that don't do the level of three, unfortunately, you know they've got the wealth of experience will not be allowed to be involved in our industry. So the level of three is a, it's a gold, it's a feather in your cap, go out there and get it folks. That's exactly what I've done once that recommendation came out. And be proud to put it in your office as well, it's something that you're required to show that you are the best person to go to in town.

How have your staff felt about the new requirements and what it means for them?

I've actually taken the lead on this one as a director of the company. I went out there and said, "I've got the level three, if I can do it, I'd like you to do it as well."  All my staff front facing will be getting the level of three in a couple months. In fact, some of them have already started doing it right now.  I'm sure there's a lot of people like myself who probably tuned in now thinking, "What do I do?" Get yourself qualified first and then lead by example.

Keep your agency compliant:  Read our guide to lettings legislation  in the private rented sector 

What does the level four qualification involve?

The level four is a little bit more intense.  there are six modules. It takes about 6 months, lots of study time but the one thing I've discovered, and one thing I've taken away from these qualifications is that it's not just about passing your exams, it's about the knowledge, it's what you learn from there. There's a lot of wealth and knowledge in these folders and I would urge anybody to take that on, that challenge on. It takes six months and when regulation kicks in, you will have another extra two years I think, to get yourself qualified, but it's not easy, but it's a challenge.

Anybody that's a company director has to have level four. Any interaction with landlords and tenants as a director, I would have to get qualified for level four.  we do need to get further advice, but yeah, in order for you to run a business, you'd have somebody with a level four qualification, if you're involved in a director level, obviously. 

Could you hire someone either as a partner in the business or consultant or even a non-exec director for some businesses that had that qualification that would sign that off for the business? Are you aware or is that something that still needs to be clarified?

I think further clarification is required, but again, it is about you as a company director. If you are involved with any reserved activity, you need to make sure you get a level four. I just saw someone just raise a question there, "Can you go straight to level four?" There's nothing stopping you from going straight to level four but there was a lot of study there, a lot of study there. I would recommend that you do your level three, because once you do that, then you go on to level four, just take in stages. There's plenty of time at the moment but if you plan that, you'll be alright. But yeah, you can level four for straight away.

In terms of technical awards and CPD, obviously this opens a different career path for a lot of people. It may be a path where some people decide to exit the market, as you mentioned before, but from a career point of view, what are the opportunities out there for maybe some of the people that are tuned in that aren't directors, aren't owning their own businesses, but are looking at how can they benefit in this industry?

I welcome the news that it's become a career path for people that were probably before thinking, "Well, I'm going to go and join the letting industry, but really there's nothing to show in terms of what I've achieved in terms of qualifications." This is an opportunity now, a way you can actually say, "Look, I've got a level three and be proud to have a level three," or the entry level which is level two, and then level three and level four. It's a lifetime qualification. It stays with you like we've already said, and  it means you will be in demand. You'll be like gold dust when regulation kicks in.

Going off a little tangent there then, because you're obviously you're a councillor. We've met with a lot of legislators and one of these frustrations in the industry is a lot of these aren't enforced. And therefore the value and the good practices potentially can be lost by that enforcement. Do you think this is going to be any different?

Absolutely. One of the things that local authorities are doing is they want to ensure that tenants have a safe place to live, and that there's a decent home they can live in, they call their home. And I think it's only fair that we rent out properties to people that can actually live in a property and not worry about the implications of a bad sort of damp or the stuff that contravenes the Human Habitation Act, 2018 Act. In terms of enforcement, local authorities are taking this very seriously.  if a tenant complains about a leaking tap and you don't do anything about it,  you can guarantee that the enforcement officer will be on your doorstep, going through the 29 trip hazards under the housing health, safety and rating system to check for other stuff as well. And then they will start taking action.

What are the main things that you think people should be hopefully walking away from this when it comes to thinking about and understanding RoPA?

There are three key things I think you want to be thinking about seriously. Now you know what RoPA's expecting of us, when I say us because I'm also like yourselves, a practicing, letting agent. You need to have a plan to move ahead and what you're going to do in terms of the amount of time that is required to study for level three and level four, you really need to set yourself some goals here and say, "Right, this is what I need to do in terms of the study. Who's going to be prepared to do the study."Number two is the plan to invest  in your staff because you need to train your staff. They've been loyal with you, getting them up to their level threes, level fours, if they want to be on the director level as well. And then the third thing is really, I think something that we all need to be very careful of as employers is look at employment contracts, because there are going to be people that have been with you for many, many years, 30 years, 35 years, and they probably don't want to go ahead and do the training. if they can't do the level three, they can't be involved in the business anymore. Where do you stand in terms of HR? So look at your provisions and your contracts. 

What's your idea of the actual date that this will be enforced? When will the enforcement come in do you think?

We don't know. Like I said, we don't know when the regulation will kick in, but it's on the books and it is being scheduled. It's just a matter of time now, the government when they want to slot in. I've been a local politician and  I can tell you that it is on the cards. It will get cross cross-party support. It will be here.  Let's embrace it because prevention is better than cure, but you don't want to be at the last minute, once regulation kicks in and says, "Now you've got to be level three otherwise we're going to close..." When regulation does kick in, you probably have a transitional time of about two years or 18 months, two years. Again, you don't want to leave it to the last minute. You want to prevent rather than to cure. I will certainly be looking as a working practitioner to get on that path now.

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