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Simon Jackson: Transparency of Information and Communication Is Key

23.09.2020

In an era where many are prone to shouting “fake news” at anything they disagree with – I’m looking at you President Trump – I’m cautious of not doing the same when I see comments or opinion which don’t chime with my own.

That can be a difficult path to tread though, especially in the housing and mortgage market, when there has been a noticeable improvement in demand and activity, unfortunately at a time when COVID-19 has definitely impacted on the ability of many market participants to deliver the service they might wish to.

This might sound a little cryptic, but essentially what it means is that sometimes communication gets lost or misinterpreted by certain parties. What is presented as fact can actually be misdirection – purposefully or otherwise – and this can result in an entire sector being presumed to be guilty of crimes it could not possibly commit.

At more ‘normal’ times it’s not unusual for some in the industry to play the blame game when it comes to offering reasons why a transaction isn’t going to progress or is not progressing as some would wish. Often the surveyors or valuers will get pinged with the blame, and we can be an easy target because we are working on behalf of the lender and clients tend not to have much contact with us.

I saw a recent adviser post on the Cherry forum from a broker whose client’s case was not progressing as they would have liked. The broker said their lines of communication had broken down and therefore the client took control and managed to talk to the lender’s underwriter about why their case was not marching its way to completion.

The client happens to be self-employed and was apparently told that, at the moment, unless the case is ultra-vanilla, then it’s going to be some way down the list. It would seem that this lender is focused on picking the low-hanging fruit, which is somewhat understandable if it has large numbers of staff working remotely as seems likely.

The client also asked about their property valuation because apparently it had been ‘down-valued’ – a phrase which will never cease to jar with me – by £40k, compared to a neighbour’s ‘identical’ property which had sold recently. At which point, the client was apparently told that this was because the lender was instructing its valuer to base their values on what property prices would be in a year’s time, not what they are today.

Now, given my position, you might expect me to roll my eyes, to say I’ve heard it all before and to unpick what reads like a series of untruths provided to the client in order to justify the slow progress of the case.

And, of course, there is much within this anecdote that doesn’t ring true, however I also think it’s important to give some context here because surveyors do sometimes value on special assumptions if instructed to do so by the client; they also give a ‘projected market value’ for repossessions, although these are more about realistic marketing periods and ‘forced’ sales.

However, this type of specific client instruction to the surveyor, to essentially ask them to look into a crystal ball regarding potential future values, is more likely to be on a commercial valuation. We know of no residential lender asking for this at the moment on standard terms.

Again, I don’t want to shout “fake news” immediately at the situation but it does tend to work against how we would work with clients and the mantra we give to all our surveying staff – that is, the valuation should be provided at the date of inspection and not based on what might happen tomorrow.

Because, unless our surveyor is in possession of the UK’s housing market equivalent of the Sports Almanac from Back to the Future 2, then any future prediction is going to be just that – a guess – and let’s be honest, who knows what might happen to values and pricing, and the market in general, in the next 12 weeks, let alone the next 12 months. We cannot be expected to be soothsayers here, and I don’t think anyone involved in the process would want us to be.

In these times, transparency of information and communication is so vital. Demand has grown, activity is on the up, and we want that to be maintained. My view is that it is better to be straight with clients than suggest it’s someone else’s fault – these are difficult times, not least for lenders who are trying to cope with the market being buoyant, with operations which are not likely to resemble what they were pre-COVID-19.

Even in such a situation, service levels can be maintained, and we can get people towards their housing end goals – but to do that, I think honesty has to be the best policy. Eventually, the truth will out.

Simon Jackson, Managing Director at SDL Surveying

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