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The photo of Max Holland,

Cambridge: 'I nearly bought a stolen house on Zoopla'

Cases

April 12, 2024

A prospective first-time buyer said he nearly bought a house which was being listed for sale fraudulently on property website Zoopla.

Max Holland had an offer accepted on a home in Cambridge in June 2020, but then police rang to tell him the house was not for sale by the real owner.

Last month, tenant Andrew Smith was jailed for his part in the fraud connected to the home in Argyle Street.

A Zoopla spokesperson said it had "a robust system of vetting and checks".

A joint BBC Radio 4 You and Yours and BBC Look East investigation has discovered fake estate agents had been invented and posted their listings on Zoopla.

Mr Holland said he had been house-hunting and saving for a deposit when he spotted a property that "seemed like a pretty good deal".

Using a form on the site, he got in touch with the agent, called Smith and Jones Estate Agents, who replied saying it had been sold - but offered him the details of a similar terraced house nearby which was "even nicer", he said.

Argyle Street

Given what was being offered for a price inside his budget, Mr Holland said he was "delighted".

"When this one came along, I was dying to go and see it," he added.

According to its website, Smith and Jones Estate Agents was based in Bedfordshire and covered surrounding areas, Mr Holland said.

He said he was promised a virtual viewing because of the Covid-19 lockdown, but "even before then I put in an offer" .

"I think he mentioned there was one other party that was interested and was also making an offer," he said.

"They rejected my offer and explained this property had now been sold to this third party."

Det Con Dan Harper, from Cambridgeshire Police, explained that another individual had an offer accepted on the house.

"Everything was going through OK, but [his] lawyer mentioned a possible issue with drainage that might go through another property," the detective said.

"So [the prospective buyer] ordered a drain survey... and out of curiosity [he] went along for the visit as well.

"When they got there they realised it might have to go into a neighbour's garden, so they spoke to one of the neighbours who said, 'Oh, I'm sure there's a tenant living in that property,' to which obviously, [the prospective buyer] said, 'Really? That doesn't make sense.'"

Mr Harper said that prospective buyer then called the letting agents for the property, who then spoke to the home's real owner, Simon Lake.

Simon Lake

Mr Lake told the BBC: "On 2 June 2020 I received a call saying, 'Are you selling your house?'.

"I said, 'No.' They said, 'Well, it's strange this, because someone's contacted us who is acting for the purchasers or is the purchaser themselves.'

"The next thing I heard was a call from a detective who introduced himself and explained that this is now under inquiry."

The prospective buyer had contacted Cambridgeshire Police and Mr Harper said the man realised he had been defrauded, spending £3,000 in fees by that point.

Mr Holland said he then got an email out-of-the-blue from Andrew Smith, "saying the sale isn't really going that well - something to do with the buyer's mortgage offer falling through or something similar".

"He said they're going to remarket the property soon and I would get first dibs seeing as I'd previously put in an offer," said Mr Holland.

Andrew Smith police mugshot

The offer was accepted, but Mr Holland said it "all went a bit quiet", with surveyors struggling to arrange access to the property.

"They were just saying this is ridiculous... I was chasing, they were chasing, my solicitor was chasing. I just got everybody possible to try to work out what was happening but we didn't get anywhere," said Mr Holland.

"Eventually I got a phone call from a detective with Cambridgeshire Constabulary and he said, 'Stop trying to buy that house, it's not for sale.'.

"Then it all made sense why they weren't responding to requests for viewings and access to surveyors."

Mr Holland admitted by that point, "I sort of felt it wasn't really going to happen anyway", adding: "When I got the call I was relieved there was a reason for all of this and I could draw a line under it."

Since the sentencing of Smith, the real owner Mr Lake said he had a "sense of survivor's guilt" towards those who had tried to purchase the house.

"For them I think it would be much more distressing than it ever was for me, because I was never in that time of buying or selling a house - I was innocently completely oblivious to it except for a couple of calls," he said.

Zoopla said since last year it had added more stringent security checks, which included a vetting form for new estate agents.

A spokesperson added: "We always do our utmost to ensure only legitimate estate agents list on Zoopla and have a robust system of vetting and checks in place which is regularly reviewed and refined.

"These isolated incidents highlight the lengths bad actors will go to carry out fraud and is a reminder that if you're a buyer or seller it's always best practice to do your own independent research too and ensure you're using an estate agent that's affiliated with an accredited body such as Propertymark."