Recognising and supporting consumer vulnerability when selling homes
As part of this month's Consumer Codes cost of living campaign, Frances Harrison, Chair of the Consumer Code for Home Builders’ Disciplinary and Sanctions Panel, looks at ways to support vulnerable home buyers
The Consumer Code for Home Builders requires home builders to treat all home buyers fairly and keep them well informed throughout their purchase. This is especially important when working with consumers who may potentially be in a vulnerable situation – and many of the tips we share apply to some degree in other industries too.
A vulnerable buyer is someone whose personal circumstances makes them especially susceptible to detriment. Vulnerability can include circumstances which affect a person’s ability to absorb and comprehend information, understand their rights and make decisions in their own best interest due to cognitive impairment or other temporary factors such as bereavement or divorce.
Vulnerability can also be caused by market conditions, so it’s important to avoid making assumptions about the degree of knowledge a buyer has. When it comes to buying homes, many people will have limited experience of the home buying process and first time buyers may be particularly vulnerable to detriment having not been through the process before. Other examples might be the mobile phone and broadband industries where the sheer number of offers can be complex to navigate.
Consumers will not necessarily identify as being vulnerable which means the onus is on companies and their staff to recognise those buyers who may need extra support. If a customer declares a vulnerability, or it is obvious that one exists, the selling organisation – a home builder in this case – should consider the potential effects on the proposed transaction and make suitable adjustments. If it becomes apparent that there may be a vulnerability, the home builder should seek clarification from that person and/or their representative. Enquiries must be considerate, unlikely to offend and avoid any risk of being interpreted as discriminatory.
Consumers can move in and out of periods of vulnerability due to changes in personal circumstances so it’s important for all organisations to keep this in mind throughout any sales process, and perhaps even more so during a cost of living crisis. This is particularly relevant in the new homes market where the sales process can take some time.
When it comes to supporting customers buying new build homes, the first step is understanding the nature of vulnerability and home builders should provide their staff with processes and training that enable them to support those buyers appropriately. The Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) and government-backed Business Companion website produces a handy checklist to help identify vulnerability and consider ways to help these buyers have a fair and positive experience.
Given the complexity and importance of the information provided, home builders should take the time to go through documents such as the Reservation Agreement and sales contract with their buyer and satisfy themselves that the buyer fully understands the purchase and their responsibilities, their legal rights and any additional protection such as that offered by the Consumer Code for Home Builders. Home builders should consider reasonable adjustments, such as staggering discussions over several meetings and allowing more time for the buyer to think before making a decision. In some cases, asking the buyer to repeat their understanding of what they have been told is a good way of avoiding misunderstandings or highlighting areas that need further clarification.
Working with vulnerable buyers may require a more flexible approach to communication, and the following pointers we give to home builders could also apply to any organisation:
- Use plain English in sales materials, avoiding jargon, acronyms and industry terminology where possible, and provide clear definitions where needed.
- Provide different methods appropriate to a buyer’s specific needs. Some consumers may prefer an electronic means of communication, as this can create less anxiety than telephone or face-to-face interaction, whereas others customers may prefer hard copy documents and face-to-face meetings. Where there is a language barrier, organisations should recommend their buyer brings along a representative to translate information on their behalf.
- Aim to provide one or two points of contact in their team for continuity and keep detailed written records of all the conversations and decisions agreed. These should be available to other staff who may be dealing with the buyer, which in the case of new homes would include sales agents and conveyancing solicitors where the appropriate consent is in place.
It’s good practice in all situations for home builders to regularly check in with their buyers to ask if there is anything else they can do to help support them, which is particularly important for those in more vulnerable situations. Ensuring all customers have a fair and positive experience is key to providing great customer service overall.
BSI ISO Standard 22458: Consumer vulnerability. Find out more about the requirements and guidelines for the design and delivery of inclusive service
The Business Companion website also contains useful resources and background to help all businesses consider the needs of vulnerable customers.
The Consumer Code for Home Builders resource centre offers information and tips to help home builders comply with the Code and help consumers understand the protection available.
Find out more about the Consumer Codes cost of living campaign, which is running throughout May.