Rapid urbanisation has pushed up demand for accommodation and land in Malawi. In the wake of such urbanisation, some unscrupulous individuals, masquerading as estate agents, have taken advantage of the desperation for accommodation to dupe unsuspecting Malawians looking for houses and pieces of land in cities and towns. Our reporter MANDY PONDANI uncovers how these criminals dupe people and somehow get away with it in broad-day light.
For about four months, David Banda, a Malawian-based in South Africa, was in desperate need of a dwelling house to rent for his cousin who had returned from the Rainbow Nation to work in Malawi.
Due to his tight schedule and urgency of the matter, Banda said he banked his hopes on real estate agents who always flight adverts and notices in newspapers and social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook for property to let and sale.
In such social media groups, Banda said he came across a number of houses advertised that suited the kind of house he was looking for and his budget.
And that was the genesis of his various episodes with unscrupulous property agents and land brokers.
Banda narrated that during the time of his house search, he met real estate agents who demanded money transport, commissions and viewing fees allegedly for non-available houses.
In some cases, he said he was taken to far locations only to be welcomed by houses in dilapidated state.
“This other guy told me that there was one in Chilomoni Township, [Blantyre] near MDC ground, we agreed to meet at a certain stage they call it pa Police. I told him to jump into my car for him to take me to the house which he showed me on WhatsApp. To my surprise, he told me that the house was situated at a place inaccessible by vehicle, yet on the description he said a car could easily get there.
“I parked my car and we started walking and it was a boring journey, if you know Blantyre very well you can agree with me that there is a long distance from Chilomoni to M’bwelera or Chemusa. We walked from Chilomoni Police Station to M’bwelera and found that the house was not the one he showed me in the picture. The funny thing is that he wanted me to pay him K5, 000 as viewing fee, I almost slapped him,” explained a visibly angry Banda.
Another agent Smart Nyasulu, according to Banda, led him to a house that was already occupied in Chirimba but still demanded K4, 000 in viewing fees, which was given to him through mobile money transfer.
“In the course of my search, I discovered that the property fraudsters are actually part of a systematic network. There were cases where the so-called four agents would offer a single house and you wonder why a landlord would engage all those agents,” Banda said.
When asked about the incident, Nyasulu called Banda a liar saying he [Banda] was looking for property beyond his financial muscle.
“He is one of those town boys who want expensive things which they cannot afford them. If my memory serves me right, he was looking for a fully tiled, three-bedroom house in Blantyre for a budget of about K60, 000, which is unrealistic. People who have money don’t cry foul anyhow but broke ones go to town for anything,” he ranted.
Nyasulu also claimed that he did not know Banda personally.
Another agent on Banda’s list, Emmanuel Kuntaja did not commit to grant an interview saying: “Let me think about it then I will come back to you.”
A double-check by this investigation confirmed Banda’s assertions in Facebook Groups called ‘Blantyre Houses for Rent and Business and Mzuzu Houses for Rent’ with a house in Naperi being posted by four different agents in various Facebook and WhatsApp groups meant to help tenants easily find houses to rent.
It was further discovered that in such scenarios at times each agent would name different prices for the houses without the knowledge of the proprietors.
M e a n w h i l e , B a n d a i s commencing legal proceedings against a number of agents who allegedly conned him throughout the time of his house hunting, calling them swindlers.
Another victim of the street estate agents who opted for anonymity, corroborated Banda’s sentiments describing the brokers as conmen operating under false pretense with an aim of fleecing unsuspecting Malawians in dire need of accommodation and property.
“If you asked for my honest opinion, most of the so- called small-scale real estate agents are bogus and are on the leash robbing innocent Malawians under the guise of helping them,” she said.
She attested that she was allegedly asked to pay one agent, Emmanuel Kapalamula, viewing fee and rentals totaling K14, 000 for a boys-quarter in Kanjedza which she never got to occupy because the landlord was not aware of the deal.
According to a bank account transaction made available to us, on December 28 2019, our source wired the said amount through mobile money transfer to account number 1005658965 held at National Bank of Malawi.
“After inspecting the quarters, I liked it and the agent assured me that I could occupy it anytime. I decided to come two days later to meet the landlord, only to be told that he did not know anything about the agent and that someone else had paid for the house directly to the owner earlier that day,” she said.
Upon following up with Kapalamula, our source said, she was referred to another agent Samuel Mbewa whom he claimed they had shared the money, and promised his victim that the latter would help her get another house in no time.
“With time, Kapalamula stopped picking my calls and I learnt later that his colleague moved to South Africa, as such I had to engage a friend working in the police to help in recovering my money. With her help, we got hold of Kapalamula and he refunded me just half of the amount,” she said.
“These agents should be registered to avoid such cases of fraud. Because most of these guys masquerading in town as property brokers, don’t look like someone you can trust with money. And it is unfair for them to be demanding commissions from tenants because I feel it is the landlord who should be responsible for that. Most of the times, when I meet landlords, they disowned the agents that took me to see their houses.”
When called, Kapalamula acknowledged being contacted by our source but denied any wrongdoing.
“It is my colleague who is now in Mozambique who got the money, even though it is me who made the refund. There was communication breakdown between him and the landlord who had already received payment from another client,” he said.
Kapalamula, who claimed to have been an agent for two years, when quizzed admitted that he was not a registered estate agent.
“We are a group of nine people renting a room in Chigumula. We help people to find property to buy, including houses for rent,” he said.
Asked why he and other roving agents demand viewing fees from would-be tenants and yet they collect commission from landlords, Kapalamula said: “If someone has not liked the house, it is not the problem of the agent. There are so many things involved in identifying houses for tenants as such the viewing fee has to be paid.”
He, however, could not come out clearly on the prevailing tendency whereby most of the brokers ask for an equivalent of a one-month payment, when a tenant occupies a house they helped identify.
They make such demands on top of the commission that they get from landlords as stipulated in the contracts.
The Daily Times failed to reach Mbewa through his Mozambican contacts.
But one agent Samuel Jere operating under Best Properties in Machinjiri Township justified the two arrangements, saying charging viewing fee is at the discretion of individual brokers and that it violates no law.
He, however, conceded that the market has been flooded by dodgy individuals who have no professional qualifications to ply the trade who have put the business in disrepute.
“The law provides that a broker can claim a commission of up to 10 percent from a proprietor for selling property and one month’s rentals for let, while viewing fees varies from firm to firm, it is neither mandatory nor a crime. It’s subjective. Bigger companies use that to motivate their field agents. However, it is recommended to send pictures first to a client before arranging for a physical visit to the site,” Jere said.
Jere then corroborated our findings on multiple brokerages, conceding that a majority of informal real estate players jump on every property without following procedures and owners’ consent with aim of making quick bucks from the clients through viewing fees and commissions.
“That’s why once the client likes the property different issues arise like lack of fixed and proper rent amount. They will tell you a house is being let out for K100, 000 a month when it’s actually K200, 000 with aim that you like it real quick and they rip you off of viewing fees and commission. Lack of owners contact details, they fail to link you up to the rightful owner,” he hinted.
But Jere’s sentiments were shot down by a seasoned real estate agent who asked to be identified as Hamilton who said in professional real estate agency there is nothing like viewing fees.
He called it a new phenomenon introduced by what he called briefcase estate agents.
Hamilton complained that the influx of the roving estate players has destabilized the industry, blocking its immense potential and driven professional players out of business because the commission that they charge is on the lower side.
“Ideally, a landlord picks an agent of their liking and enters into an agreement with. Then the agent advertises the property. When clients call for viewing, the agent is required to show the property using his own transport at no cost and whether the client takes the property or not they, are not supposed to charge anything. A commission is only paid to the agent by the owner of the house and not the tenant,” he explained.
Our research into The Land Economy, Surveyors, Valuers, Estate Agents and Auctioneers Act, No 5 of 1989 found the law stipulating that: no person shall practice under any name, title or style containing the words land economy surveyor, valuer, estate agent or auctioneer, for the purpose of gain, make any other use of such name, title or style, unless he is registered under the Act as a land economy surveyor, valuer, estate agent or auctioneer,
The provision adds that any person who contravenes the section commits an offence and is liable upon conviction, to a fine of K2000 and to imprisonment for 1 year.”
It is therefore apparent the continued vices in the field are a direct result of an industry which lacks proper regulation and law enforcement.
Land and rental crimes go unreported as attested by Limbe Police spokesperson Patrick Mussa.
He warned that, the vice is likely to continue because the offenders are sure they will get away with them.
Asked on what the government is doing to bust the racket, spokesperson in the Ministry of Lands and Urban Development, the mother ministry for real estate agents Charles Vintulla, did not respond to our questionnaire despite several reminders.
B u t t h e F i n a n c i a l Inte l ligence Authority (FIU), a government agency responsible for preventing and combating financial crimes among others, in a statement last week warned real estate agents to comply with relevant legislation.
“It should be noted that carrying on a business as a real estate agent without complying with the Anti- Money Laundering and Combating the Financing of Terrorism requirements is a violation of the Financial Crimes Act and attracts criminal and civil penalties,” the statement reads in part.
Meanwhile, chairperson for the Association of Real Estates Agents (Area) in Malawi Ken Msonda, challenged in an interview that they have gone flat out on the ground to bring back sanity in the field.
Their role among others according to Msonda is to report crooked individuals g u i sed as middlemen involved in daylight robbery to relevant authorities and also discipline some of their own members implicated in incidents of trickery.
He said: “We warn the general public through various mediums to be on the lookout, avoid dealing with non-members of the association to avoid being dubbed, robed or cheated. Unfortunately the general public is sometimes to blame because of using short-cuts when desperately in need of a property to rent or buy.”
Asked on how one qualifies to be a real estate agent Msonda said one has to go through training at institutions like the Polytechnic in Blantyre at the faculty of Built Environment.
Section 8 of the Land Economy Act outlines that no person is eligible for registration as an estate agent unless he either has attained the age of 22 years, has passed a qualifying examination approved by the Board of Registration and has not less than two years post qualification practical e x p e r i e n c e o r a r t i c l e d pupillage in the work of an estate agent.
Perhaps it is time Malawi learnt from countries like Kenya where tough laws have been effected seeking to bring to an end days of unscrupulous property agents and land brokers, amid rising cases of cheats defrauding Malawians.