By Frances Harrison, Chair of Code’s Disciplinary and Sanctions Panel

Our Code requires home builders to treat all home buyers fairly and keep them well informed throughout their purchase. However, it is particularly important that you are aware of your responsibilities towards vulnerable buyers.

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 avoid making assumptions about the degree of knowledge a buyer has. 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.

Home buyers will not necessarily identify as being vulnerable which means the onus is on you to recognise those buyers who may need extra support. If a customerdeclares a vulnerability, or it is obvious that one exists, you should consider the potential effects on the proposed transaction and make suitable adjustments. If it becomes apparent that there may be a vulnerability, 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.

Remember that consumers can move in and out of periods of vulnerability due to changes in personal circumstances so it’s important to keep this in mind throughout the sales process.

Practical steps

The first step is understanding the nature of vulnerability and providing your 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, take the time to go through documents such as the Reservation Agreement and sales contract with your buyer and satisfy yourself that they fully understand the Code, the purchase and their responsibilities. Consider reasonable adjustments, such as staggering discussions over several meetings and allowing more time to think before making a decision. In some cases, asking your 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:

  • Use plain English in your 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 home buyers 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, recommend your buyer brings along a representative to translate information on their behalf.
  • Aim to provide one or two points of contact in your 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 including sales agents and conveyancing solicitors where the appropriate consent is in place.

It’s good practice in all situations to regularly check in with your buyers to ask if there is anything else you can do to help support them, which is particularly important for those in more vulnerable situations. Ensuring all your customers have a fair and positive experience is key to providing great customer service overall.

Useful links:

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.

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