Friday, September 15, 2017

Estate Agency's advertising morality - Is it kosher for properties to be pictured as being ON SHOW when they don't exist?

Dear Prospective Property owners,
Mike Greeff
          I asked Mike Greeff CEO and founder of the Greeff Properties estate agency how he could justify newspaper advertisements for his firm that contained pictures of ON SHOW homes that had yet to be built?
          They were in the Cape Times in Cape Town where he says he started his business from his dining room table in 2001.
          He really hit the big time when his firm was asked to join Christie’s International Real Estate as an affiliate. Christie’s has built its world wide empire in 46 countries through a rigorous selection of local brokerages. These affiliate appointments are so prestigious that they are by invitation only.
          So Greeff Properties has a very high standard to live up to. That’s why I wondered why it resorted to this kind of advertising. And I was even more baffled when I tried to find out from Christie’s if it approved of what Greeff was doing.
          In spite of his extensive experience in the property game Mike doesn’t seem to be aware of the meaning of ON SHOW or SHOW HOUSE as Google refers to it. Numerous explanations from the Collins English Dictionary to Longman and others are given, and all of them say much the same thing.
          “A house that has been built and fitted with furniture to show buyers what similar new houses look like.”
          There is absolutely nothing to suggest that a plan or a model of a yet to be built property on a site that is currently vacant qualifies for that ON SHOW label that appeared on the pictures of some of the new developments Greeff was promoting in that supplement.
          The contentious issue at stake was this:
What would the majority of people expect to see on a development site if they were first attracted to it by an advertisement with very realistic colour pictures of a townhouse or flat complex building? In some cases pictures of furnished rooms were included. They also had ON SHOW in red on the corner of the pictures with the copy next to it making it appear even more real by giving directions like this: “ON SHOW Sunday 2-5pm. Follow boards from Brommersvlei, Rust en Vrede into Wycombe.”
11 August - Wycombe Place
11 August - Wycombe Place with nothing yet built on the site
26 August - Revised ad with *Artist's impression in the
bottom right hand corner
          Christo Weilbach, a Board member of South Africa’s Estate Agency Affairs Board (EAAB) that is the statutory body that polices estate agents, agreed with me that this kind of adverting is “misleading.” He emphasised that he was speaking in his personal capacity and not as a board member.
Weilbach is with Belinda Oosthuizen Properties in Pretoria and is Vice-chairman of the Northern Region of the Institute of Estate Agents. This is a national organisation that represents agents and their principals and Mike Greeff is a member.
Its Code of Conduct states that “members shall in offering property, avoid misrepresentation or concealment of material facts which are known to such member.”
Here are extracts of my email conversation with Mike Greeff about this touchy subject?
15 August 2017
Dear Mike Greeff,
I am a freelance journalist, who also has a blog and I am proposing to write a story about what I and other people I have spoken to consider to be misleading advertising done by your firm. This is why I am contacting you to get your comments on what I discovered. On 11 August your firm had a 16 page advertising supplement in the Cape Times. In it there were at least five advertisements (There could have been more as I didn’t check them all) with very realistic pictures in them that were described as being ON SHOW when they haven’t even been built yet. There was another picture of what looked like a completely built up estate, which also doesn’t yet exist. And while this one wasn’t labelled ON SHOW there was no other implication that people could have got other than this was what they could go and see.
On your website you are quoted as saying: “Our ethos is we are a boutique agency servicing a niche market and as such we specialise, which means our standards must remain impeccably high.”
How can this kind of advertising possibly be described as setting an “impeccably high standard” when it is clearly misleading? Image how somebody would feel, if based on your advertising, they had arrived at one of the sites on Sunday and found nothing there.
I haven’t yet established what Christies International, to which your firm is affiliated, thinks about this kind of advertising. But I see on the web that the three pillars of its business are “Integrity, Expertise and Discreet Client Service.”
11 August - The developer's website described this as "set on the banks
           of the Hout Bay River"
whereas this advert said it was "on the banks of
            the Disa River Wetlands"
possibly because Greeff didn't want to high light
Hout Bay where there have been violent protests recently

11 August - This was the closest they had got to a complex on
the site
26 August - Revised ad with *Artist's Impression in the bottom
right hand corner
17 August
I asked him if he wanted to say anything about this or whether I could assume he had no comment to make.
18 August 2017
He told me he would reply on Monday three days later.
21 August 2017 – Monday
His promised reply did not materialise so I sent him another email saying that I assumed that I could now go ahead with my post as he no longer wished to comment. I added: “Obviously I can’t force you to explain why your firm made the claims it did in that advertising supplement. In it buildings were pictured and referred to as being ON SHOW when they didn’t actually exist. And I think if you did a quick survey among passers by in the street, who own their own homes, all of them would say without hesitation that this kind of advertising is not at all kosher.”
22August 2017
He replied saying he wanted to get “all facts and opinions” and would get back to me on Wednesday 23 August. It was strange that he should take so long to answer my initial email if his advertising had been perfectly above board.
          Later the same day he finally replied to my email of 15 August saying:
“At Greeff Properties we are very involved in the sale of developments and your suggestion that we are in any way acting unlawfully or unethically in our advertising is incorrect and rejected. 
“We are busy with various developments which we have advertised as being on show, some of these developments are already built upon, some are in the course of construction and others where building has not as yet commenced. 
“The intention of having show days is for potential purchasers to be able to see the property upon which the development is to be constructed or is being constructed and to decide whether they want to buy into a new development.
“When people come to see the property they are shown details of the intended development and are given information concerning what is proposed to be built and the specifications relating thereto.
“We conduct our business in an ethical manner and according to the code of conduct of the Estate Agency Affairs Board.”
Clause 5.5.1 of its Code of Conduct stipulates that agents must not “wilfully or negligently mislead or misrepresent in regard to any matter pertaining to the immovable property in respect of which he has a mandate.”
Mike concluded his email by stating: “I’m not sure whether you are actually looking at buying in a development but, if you are, I am more than happy to meet with you and to discuss the development of your choice with you. If you require any further information please do not hesitate to contact me.”
This baffled me because I had at all times made it clear that I was a journalist about to write a story and no reporter worth his salt would consider buying property through an estate agency accused of misleading advertising that he was writing about.
In spite of having told me that there was nothing unethical about his advertisements lo and behold they changed. In the Weekend Argus of 26 August most of the developments that I had seen before were pictured once again with ON SHOW prominently displayed in the top right hand corner. Only this time in the tiniest of letters they had “*Artist’s impression” on one side of the last line of the copy below the pictures.
27 August
I told Mike that the changes were an admission that his previous advertisements had been misleading. Why are you so reluctant to tell people in your ads something like “Building is expected to start soon,” I asked, because they are going to find out soon enough that there is nothing on the site? What you are doing, I submit, could make some people wonder about the ethics of your firm in general.
30 August
Mike explained that the rejection of my allegation that their advertising was misleading was based on “our opinion that the images are clearly renderings/artist impressions. However, you drew our attention to your concerns, and your letter was taken to heart by our marketing department, and they, for the sake of future clarity, have implemented a few small changes. In this regard, thank you for your input.”

*    *    *    *
          He ignored my suggestion that his advertisements should make it absolutely clear that the stands were still vacant.
          Has his small addition solved the problem? You be the judge.
I have no idea how long Greeff Properties had been running the type of advertisements I had concerns about, before the changes were made.
          Jon, a Consumer Watchdog of long standing who would be a property investor if only……. he had the money.

P.S. Read about the incredible way Christie’s dodged my efforts to get comment about Greeff’s advertising from its CEO Dan Conn & the Estate Agent Affairs Board’s reluctance to say whether or not its original advertising was acceptable

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