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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Payne

Believe half of what you read?

I am minded writing this piece as some old advice has been starkly reminded to me by recent events and the commentary surrounding them. When I was a young man, who I consider now to be one of my past mentors now, an ex’s father as it happens, advised me to only believe half of what I read and nothing that I heard. I understand now this was an adaptation from Edgar Allan Poe’s “believe half of what you see and nothing of what you hear”. At the time we were discussing an article in a weekend newspaper, and he went on to explain why. Talk is cheap, anyone can say anything, and at that time before smart phones, anyone could say anything and get away with it. Plausible deniability. So why believe half what you read then? Well he explained, if you are prepared to put your opinion or comment in writing then there must at least be some substance to it if you are prepared to go on the record and be held accountable for time immemorial, but it still cannot be relied upon. He disagreed with the substance of the article I was reading, but I took him at his word and chose not to believe him!

Now in today’s modern word, the written word is more than just about newspapers, there are millions of websites where we get our daily digest from, much of it on the same subject, much of it with a different twist, in a different format, offering a different interpretation of the same factual information behind it. It can become bewildering as to what to believe, so it is the responsibility of readers whether businesses or individuals to take the advice I was offered, and prod, poke, explore and question what you are reading and try and validate the source and reliability of what you are being asked to believe. However, many in the property industry failed to do this in recent days and weeks with the advent of Covid 19 and the governments imminent emergency legislation to tackle the pandemic.

So, the government (HMG) has had in its’ defence a million and one things to consider including in its’ emergency legislation that was passed last Monday. Who are the most vulnerable, which individuals, businesses and agencies needed the most support, in what quantity, in what order, in what timescale, and of course they were inundated by the lobby groups, the Labour party, Shelter, Acorn, Generation Rent, all with their own agendas. No mean feat to pull off in a few days and of course there were going to be mistakes and omissions, interpretations required.

I have naturally kept up to date and well read on all matters as you might expect, but always with that 20-year-old chat one Saturday morning in the back of my mind, as it had been every day since then. Over the past couple of weeks there have been thousands upon thousands of articles about what the government is going to do, but did any of these authors really have Boris’ private number to validate these claims in advance?

As Estate Agents, Lettings Agents, Landlords, Tenants, Sellers, Buyers and Developers, it is always paramount that we understand what our responsibilities are, where a duty of care exists to staff, suppliers and customers and to keep up to date with relevant changes and make sure any amendments we make to our processes and compliance are accurate, appropriate and legal. Make sure that we check the information we are being given is reliable, test it, reference it against what we already know.

It matters because not only is a matter of credibility to demonstrate we know what we are talking about to advise people honestly and competently, but in stressful enough times as it is in self isolation in a pandemic, perhaps worried about their health, about family and friends, any announcements that could affect someone’s livelihood, tenancy, financial well-being could have a profound impact on how they feel or decisions they make which could then impact on others. This unfortunately has not been the case and far too many property people have grabbed the first bone that has been tossed in their direction of run off down the bottom of the garden with it to tell all who will listen. Rumours then quickly escalate it and before you know it, hares are off running and it becomes front page news which people then read and are more likely to believe.

Likewise, the devil is always in the detail, and in this case the detail is language, the very words chosen very deliberately especially by Politicians, but scarily mis interpreted by people who digest what they are saying, and there have been some classic examples recently.

I engage with many landlords on forums and usually get involved in some quite often light-hearted but sometimes serious debate and offer my view when appropriate, especially in areas of compliance, where they often need the most assistance. So, let me expand on some examples of where Allan Poe’s advice was inverted to believe everything you read and hear.

I mentioned earlier that all the lobby groups have been out in force getting their 15 minutes of fame, and such rallying cries from Acorn and Shelter have been for a whole host of measures to support tenants who for some reason has suddenly become a more vulnerable section of society than those who paid a mortgage. At the same time, the government release soothing platitudes on their website on how they wanted to offer “support for tenants”, so that “landlords will not be able to start proceedings to evict tenants for at least a 3-month period”.

All of a sudden, I started seeing landlords discussing how they were being forced to accept a 3-month rent holiday, sometimes on the advice of their agent, and how it could financially cripple them. At first I admonished myself for not having seen this government press release and my instinctual reaction was to believe what I was reading as well, as dozens and dozens of landlords could not have got this wrong, but then I quickly thought, no I had definitely not missed anything, so I double checked all the released text and the words rent holiday had not been mentioned, not even implied.

So, I went into bat and started asking some of these landlords where they had seen this information that they are now using to give their tenants a 3-month rent holiday. A lot said they had been told, some referred me to the gov.uk site, one even copy and pasted the entire text for me on one forum, pointing out triumphantly that I was “wrong” when I said the government had not even suggested a rent holiday let alone made it a legal requirement. I then asked where in the text that I had been referred to did it confirm this holiday had to be provided? Silence.

Now that for me is a pretty scary example. If you want to read the brief government statement you can here, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/complete-ban-on-evictions-and-additional-protection-for-renters, but for anyone to arrive a full automatic 3 month rent holiday was wearing some powerful glasses indeed. There is at best the suggestion in the text that landlords whose tenants may have difficulty in paying the rent might need some help, encouraging dialogue, but that is not the same thing at all. I suspect they also grabbed the 3-month reference to get to their conclusion.

Likewise, the reference to “evict tenants for a 3-month period…court proceedings” suddenly meant Section 21 was suspended, apparently? Why? How did we get there? Section 21 evictions are not a Court matter I reminded people, yet landlords up and down the land were climbing the wall at this fake news, making plans around it. Unfortunately, many agents would also have started telling people Section 21 had been suspended and their tenants were allowed a 3-month rent holiday. Section 21 had not been suspended, just section 8 notices through court were now suspended and section 21 notices were now 3 months. How many landlords made decisions off the back of this information that they would not have done otherwise? How many section 21s were served off the back of this 2 or 3 weeks ago concerned they were about to be suspended? The devil is in the detail.

Since then, more interpretation, which is or course is an individual thing, has led to different statements of fact which people rely on to be accurate, this time sellers. The government has officially and clearly “put the housing market on hold”, forbidden agents from doing viewings, told them to close their businesses, yet some agents are telling sellers it’s “business as usual”, let’s get your property on the market by offering a virtual viewing service. This is inappropriate for many reasons, but it is again fake news that sellers should be sense checking. Do I really want to be putting my property on the market now, it doesn’t seem like a good time in the middle of a global pandemic, surely there can’t be many buyers? You would be right Mr Seller, it is an awful time to sell in this lockdown. For those agents, it is flouting the law and is doing a disservice to those sellers who will inevitably get a lower price and whose sale won’t go anywhere with key stakeholders like banks, surveyors and councils all shut for house selling business as HMG has instructed. Culturally it also sends a very poor message through the business that not only does the law not apply to them, but in conducting these virtual viewings they are risking spreading the virus, and in persuading a seller down this path, putting their own commercial interests before those of their client whose marketing history is now date stamped on Rightmove for all to see.

A final example, those who are moving to a new house in the last week or so who had already exchanged contracts. Firstly, this group of people had been forgotten and it took a few days to get some ambiguous guidance from HMG which didn’t really help. Avoid moving if possible but if you need to move as there is no other choice, then follow the social distancing rules. Now I won’t get into the detail of what that means for the sake of brevity, it was far more detailed, but the point is I saw probably 3 maybe 4 dozen published variations of what this meant for home movers and what they had to do. You can move, you can’t move and everywhere in between and many would have believed what they read and acted upon it, many illegally.

50% reliability might have been the mark in the days of Edgar Allan Poe, as putting something in print in the early 1800s would have been expensive but very meaningful at the same time, so you could imagine authors made sure what they wrote was reasonably accurate. Today the internet has made the written word no more reliable than what Edgar intended when he said you couldn’t trust what you heard. It has become so cheap and easy to have your say, that it has lost its former meaning, its position as something you can rely on, well half of it anyway.

I am not encouraging people not to trust what they read, some sources will always be credible but it is in times of crisis like these that you can see some potentially profound impacts of where this “interpretation of facts” has people making some pretty big decisions off the back of incorrect information.

My frame of reference has evolved to “Remember 90% of what you read is someone else’s interpretation or opinion or heavily influenced by it, which may or may not be accurate or reliable, so satisfy yourself what to believe before you act on it”.

Not as catchy, but I am no famous poet.


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