Agents' Mutual has hit back at suggestions its 'one other portal' rule is anti competitive, reiterating to Property Portal Watch over the weekend that the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has not contacted OnTheMarket on the matter.
The CMA sent an open letter to UK estate agents last week stating that it had become "aware that some estate agents may be making joint decisions to join the OnTheMarket portal and to remove their business from competing portals, rather than reaching these decisions independently of each other."
In the letter, the CMA also said it had contacted some agents that it suspects may have been directly involved in such activity and that it is "working closely with the National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA), The Property Ombudsman (TPO), Ombudsman Services: Property, and the Property Redress Scheme (PRS) to raise awareness of this issue."
Estate agents found to have breached competition law can be fined up to 10 per cent of their annual worldwide turnover, and directors of infringing companies can be disqualified from UK company directorships for up to 15 years.
In addition, individuals involved in certain cartel activity, such as agreements between estate agents to fix prices or allocate markets, may be prosecuted under the criminal cartel offence and could go to prison for up to 5 years and/or have to pay an unlimited fine.
The letter also stated: "The CMA has no reason to write to OnTheMarket in this connection at this time".
However Estate Agent Today reports the Independent Network of Estate Agents (INEA) has written to the CMA raising a potential conflict of interest in that NAEA managing director Mark Hayward also serves as a director of Agents’ Mutual, the parent company of OnTheMarket.
In the report INEA chief executive Trevor Mealham argues Hayward cannot in good faith represent the NAEA, which is supposed to act on behalf of all agents, while also sitting on the board of Agents‘ Mutual which excludes some agents from listing on its portal.
Estate Agent Today says Mealham has emailed CMA senior antitrust director Ann Pope, one of the authors of last week’s open letter, in connection with the matter.
According to the report Mealham has met with the CMA in the past to discuss his belief that Agents’ Mutual and OnTheMarket are structured as separate companies which "may act in concert against certain commercial interests".
OnTheMarket detractor Russell Quirk who heads its competitor eMoov, told PropertyIndustryEye the open letter is the result of a complaint he made to the CMA claiming the exclusion of online estate agents was "unlawful and anti-competitive" and alleging Agents’ Mutual “are acting as a cartel”.
EYE reports Quirk as saying “Their published ethos is they insist that their customers ‘de-list’ with one of their two larges competitor portal websites. This is anti-competitive and affords the house selling public less representation by those member agents.
“Moreover, in collaborating as the senior members of various UK estate agencies in applying the above two policies, they are acting in a restrictive manner in order to manipulate and limit competition in their own favour.”
OnTheMarket, also speaking to PropertyIndustryEye, staunchly rejects these claims saying, “The reality is that we welcome the CMA’s stance of cautioning agents against colluding. As a business we have consistently given agents precisely the same advice to make any decisions independently.
“The virulence of some of the attacks only serves to underline yet again the sensitivity of some of our detractors to the progress we are making and to the impact we are having on the market...
“There has been no suggestion from the CMA that OnTheMarket has acted improperly in any way. Indeed, the CMA explicitly writes that it sees no reason to be in touch with us."
EYE adds: "Quirk’s complaint was not acknowledged for some months and only then after he chased up. In a letter, also seen by EYE, the CMA did acknowledge in January 2015 that Quirk had made contact with it in October 2014.
"Its letter explained that the CMA does not respond in detail to individual complaints, but goes on to say: 'However, we have noted your complaint and brought it to the attention of our pipeline/intelligence teams.'”
In a separate report, EYE reveals Zoopla shares shot up following the the publication of the open letter to estate agents by the Competition and Markets Authority.
"Zoopla’s shares, which had moved comfortably up during the earlier part of the morning from 270p to about 280p, then started going up sharply, hitting a high of 292.60p before finishing the day at almost 290p,' the report states.
Rightmove shares also moved up at about 11am, having started the day, 3,870p. They finished yesterday up 9p at 3,879p.
Property Portal Watch is seeking further comment from Agents' Mutual and the CMA.