Southern Housing Group
23 December 2020
The Housing Ombudsman’s approach to investigating and determining complaints is to decide what is fair in all the circumstances of the case. This is set out in the Housing Act 1996 and the Housing Ombudsman Scheme. The Ombudsman considers the evidence and looks to see if there has been any ‘maladministration’, for example whether the landlord has failed to keep to the law, followed proper procedure, followed good practice or behaved in a reasonable and competent manner.
Both the resident and the landlord have submitted information to the Ombudsman and this has been carefully considered. Their accounts of what has happened are summarised below. This report is not an exhaustive description of all the events that have occurred in relation to this case, but an outline of the key issues as a background to the investigation’s findings.
1. The complaint is about the property the resident purchased not meeting the specification provided during the sales process, specifically the type of cooker hood installed and the omission of a floor to ceiling window.
2. In her initial referral to the Ombudsman, the resident also complained about the type of flooring that had been installed in the property. However, the resident has confirmed that this aspect of her complaint has since been resolved by the landlord. Therefore, this matter does not form part of the investigation.
Background and summary of events
3. The resident has held a shared ownership lease of a new build, 4-bedroom detached house since September 2018. During May 2019 the resident and the landlord’s managing agent handling the defects agreed a schedule of work to remedy various issues in the property. During these discussions the resident raised concerns that a different cooker hood to that specified in the sales brochure had been installed and that a top floor window had been installed instead of a floor to ceiling window. The managing agent confirmed that it had raised the issues with the landlord and was awaiting a response.
4. The resident chased the managing agent for updates and on 1 July 2019 the managing agent confirmed that the landlord needed to deal with the matter. The managing agent gave the resident details of who they needed to contact at the landlord about the matter.
5. The resident wrote to the landlord about the matter on 8 July 2019 and asked for an urgent update. The resident followed this up later that month and at the beginning of September 2019 she wrote to the landlord expressing her disappointment that she had not received any response to her queries. Following this she chased the landlord again on 11 September 2019.
6. On 11 September the landlord responded and apologised for the delay. It confirmed that it had been speaking to the complaints team about the matter and would chase this up to find out what was happening. The resident chased the landlord for a response again on 25 October 2019. She said she was “absolutely shocked and disgusted” by the lack of response from the landlord. The landlord responded the same day confirming it would make further enquiries.
7. The landlord subsequently provided a response on 31 October 2019. It said that whilst marketing materials were an indication, they were subject to variation and the sales brochure confirmed that it was only intended as a preliminary guide. It confirmed that during construction the decision was made to upgrade the cooker hood to an integrated extractor hood. It apologised for not communicating this to the resident.
8. On 1 November 2019 the resident advised that she was dissatisfied with the landlord’s response and how long it had taken to reach this point. She said that when she decided to purchase the property the only information available was the marketing material and the floor plans available on the landlord’s website. The floor to ceiling window was not a minor detail and as far as she was aware, all other properties had been built in accordance with the published floor plans. She said she should have been informed about the change in cooker hood and given a choice in this regard.
9. The resident chased the landlord for a response on 18 November 2019. On 28 November 2019 the landlord noted that it had spoken to the resident who confirmed she wished to raise a formal complaint about the matter. On 12 December 2019 the resident contacted the landlord via social media expressing her dissatisfaction with how long it was taking to resolve her concerns.
10. The landlord provided a final complaint response on 18 December 2019. It said that it could only apologise if the responses the resident had received had left her feeling uncared for. It said it was sorry there was nothing further it could add to the previous responses. It understood why the issues in relation to the cooker hood and window would have caused disappointment but the information contained in the brochures was intended as a preliminary guide only. It confirmed the resident was able to refer her complaint to the Ombudsman should she remain dissatisfied.
11. The resident subsequently referred her complaint to the Ombudsman. She has confirmed that as an outcome she is seeking the replacement of the cooker hood and compensation for the time and stress resulting from the landlord’s handling of her concerns. She has confirmed that she does not want a floor to ceiling window installed given how disruptive these works would be at this late stage.
Assessment and findings
12. There were long delays in the landlord addressing the resident’s concerns about the cooker hood and window. The resident first raised her concerns about these matters via the managing agent in May 2019, but it was not until the end of October 2019 that the landlord provided a substantive response. During the intervening period the resident went to a great deal of time and trouble in pursuing the landlord for a response, and she had to chase the landlord for responses following this. The landlord failed to acknowledge and put right this service failure in its complaint response.
13. In relation to the information provided by the landlord during the sales process, the Ombudsman’s role is to establish whether this information was accurate and the steps taken by the landlord to inform the resident of any changes so that she could make an informed choice in regard to proceeding with the sale. Claims for breach of contract and/or misrepresentation in relation to property sales can arise under The Misrepresentation Act 1967. The Ombudsman is unable to make a ruling under this Act as only the courts are able to do so and the resident would need to seek legal advice should she wish to pursue such a claim further.
14. During the sales process there was information available on the landlord’s website which included a specification and floor plan for the property. These indicate that the property would have a brushed steel cooker hood and a floor to ceiling window. There is no evidence the landlord informed the resident prior to the property purchase completing that the property specification had changed. Given this, it is understandable that the resident expected the property to have the advertised features and was aggrieved when she discovered after moving in that it did not.
15. It is acknowledged that property specifications relating to new builds may be subject to changes. However, it is reasonable to expect the landlord to inform a prospective buyer that the property specification had changed as soon as it became aware of this to enable the prospective buyer to make an informed choice in relation to how they wish to proceed i.e. whether to continue with the purchase or not.
16. The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 prohibit businesses from engaging in unfair commercial practices in their dealings with consumers, which includes giving false or misleading information about the main characteristics of a product or service. Whilst the Ombudsman cannot make a ruling on whether these regulations have been breached in this case, it is appropriate to highlight that the landlord is required to ensure it complies with the regulations when marketing new build properties for sale.
17. In its response to the complaint the landlord has said that the marketing materials are a preliminary guide only. It has relied on a disclaimer in the sales brochure which states that: “In accordance with Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, these details and images have been prepared with due care, however the information contained therein is intended as a preliminary guide only”. In the Ombudsman’s opinion the landlord’s reliance on the disclaimer was not reasonable as it could have taken steps to inform the resident of the changes in the property specification but failed to do so. The landlord failed to acknowledge this oversight and the impact this had on the resident.
18. In accordance with paragraph 54 of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme there was maladministration by the landlord in relation to its handling of the changes to the property specification and the resident’s concerns about this matter.
19. Aspects of the property specification changed between the resident reserving the property and completing the purchase and there is no evidence the landlord informed the resident of this. As a result the resident was unable to make an informed choice about how to proceed and it is understandable that she was aggrieved to find out the property specification had changed upon moving into the property. There were also long delays in the landlord addressing the resident’s concerns about the matter once she brought this to its attention.
20. The landlord is ordered to do the following:
- Apologise to the resident in writing for the service failures identified by this investigation
- Pay the resident £500 compensation broken down as follows:
- £200 for the delays in responding to the resident’s enquiries about the change in property specification
- £300 for the distress and inconvenience caused by its failure to inform the resident that there had been changes to the property specification. It should be noted that the compensation order is not intended to compensate the resident for the change in the property specification itself, but rather is in recognition of the distress and inconvenience caused by the landlord’s inadequate communication about the matter
- Review its sales and marketing procedures and implement any necessary remedial action to ensure that prospective buyers are informed of any changes to property specifications. A copy of the review’s findings should be provided to both the resident and the Ombudsman