Bogus Agents Make a Killing During Lockdown
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Bogus Agents Make a Killing During Lockdown

While the current lockdown has been bad for informal business in general it has been a godsend boon to informal estate agents who sit on the rental side of the real estate business. All these people need, to get into the business, is a modicum of social media presence and they are good to go.

The most common way of finding a place to rent in a lot of suburbs is through friend referrals and physically going out to look for a place. Thanks to limited mobility a lot of people could not go knocking on gates asking if a room is available. Lockdown rules meant that those looking for rent could only look within the neighbourhoods where they live.

Other ways of finding a house or room to rent include church announcements during services as well as announcements during social gatherings. With church gatherings banned it meant that was also not possible. This leaves only one avenue, estate agents.

Formal estate agents are often shunned as they are perceived as expensive and posh even when they are not. Some estate agency companies that manage and look after properties sometimes charge a fee above monthly rentals which they collect on behalf of landlords. This is something that tenants hate as they feel that adding middle-men increases the rentals they pay.

This has created a gap that informal estate agents have been filling. Like with all informal businesses, the requirements are not all that difficult to fulfil. Usually, all one needs is a smartphone, social media accounts on Facebook and WhatsApp, bundles to access and post on these. With these, one can now pose as an estate agent and start helping and or scamming anyone looking for a house or a room to rent.

This, of course, is certainly illegal as Estate agents have stringent requirements that they must fulfil before opening shop. Things like having a trust account, knowing the required bookkeeping, a police clearance, registering with the local council as well as a licence to operate, are things the informal estate sector will not be bothered with.

Sharks in the water

As already mentioned this sector has received a gust of wind in its sails as a lot of people who normally shun their questionable business have been forced to deal with them. There are a lot of these “bogus agents” that actually help people find a house. In my experience, local estate agents who serve particular neighbourhoods are often helpful.

These tend to be made up of people who have their ears to the ground. For example, vendors who service certain areas are often in frequent contact with landlords who ask these vendors to help them look for tenants. Typically these are charging around US$10 per room. They also only want payment after you find board, unlike the sharks.

The sharks are informal estate agents that have been scamming people online. These tend to have a larger presence with most of them claiming to have houses in all neighbourhoods and sometimes other towns. Their listings are also almost always too good to be true with low rentals and the sort of amenities that tenants would kill for. Things like walled and gated, good security, onsite borehole, solar backup power, tiled and no power cuts. These things do not seem commensurate with the very low rentals the “landlords” of these properties would be asking for.

These agents often demand payment upfront so they can introduce you to these landlords. Based on social media comments, either these landlords don’t exist and clients are referred to syndicate members who are part of the scam who just later claim that the house is now already occupied or the informal estate agents simply repurpose local old listings.

These guys don’t come cheap either, despite the regular negative feedback. Most of the ones I got in touch with pretending to be a tenant were asking for around US$40 for registration whatever the heck that means. The cheapest one was asking for US$35. The high prices might actually be a marketing gimmick. If they charge low prices people will not come as they would associate the low prices with poor service.

All these things are happening in plain view too and the authorities just don’t seem too doing enough to protect the real estate industry. But then again, social media is poorly policed here in Zimbabwe and the attention of those in power is only drawn to it when it seems like it’s threatening their person or power.

According to the Chronicle, the Estate Agents Council of Zimbabwe (EACZ) last year launched a nationwide crackdown on bogus estate agents in an attempt to bring sanity in the sector. The blitz has so far netted 44 unregistered agents whose cases are at various stages with the police and the courts. Propertybook always advises that you engage with a registered Estate Agent as opposed to dealing privately.