Persimmon announce 1.5% homebuyer retention policy
In a blaze of positive publicity, under headlines such as “Persimmon homebuyers can withhold money until faults fixed” (well not exactly); the housebuilder everyone loves to hate, has launched what is claimed will be a ground breaking initiative and a first for the industry, in response to overwhelming criticism about the quality of its homes, the obscene corporate greed-fest of executive bonuses and its part in the leasehold scandal, Persimmon homebuyer retention “allowing buyers to withhold an average of £3.600 per home until all faults are fixed”
Nils Pratley in The Guardian suggests the homebuyer retetention could have been called “the ‘Jeff Fairburn memorial clause’ – an eye-catching gesture designed to combat Persimmon’s reputation for corporate greed, as embodied by Fairburn’s infamous £75m bonus.”
A few weeks ago Nils said, in another well-written article: “It’s nice that the housebuilder wants to address its substandard scores for customer service, but shouldn’t this thought have occurred when the executives, Jenkinson included, were racking up their millions?”
Not forgetting, this is a company that has also now admitted it lobbied government in 2015 to abandon the zero carbon policy for new homes.
In the Financial Times, Persimmon’s recently-appointed CEO Dave Jenkinson said:
“Persimmon is listening hard to all of its stakeholders and we hear the message that we need to continue to raise our game in customer care.
“The initiatives we have already announced, including the action taken in the new year to deliver greater accuracy of anticipated moving in dates by adopting a more targeted approach to the phasing of sales on specific sites and the improvements and investments that we have made in our customer care team, operations and technology over the last few months are beginning to take effect.
“We are now accelerating the pace of change through the introduction of a contracted retention, which will give homebuyers far greater satisfaction at the completion of the purchase.
“Moving into a new home should be a positive experience enhanced by all the benefits of a new build that is designed for modern living. We are determined that the experience is not overshadowed by teething problems and providing a homebuyer’s retention is an important step towards achieving this.
Chairman Roger Devlin, said:
“This is a first among the UK’s large housebuilders and I hope will lead the way in change across the sector. This move, and the urgency with which we will introduce it, is a clear and unambiguous signal of cultural and operational change at Persimmon putting customer care at the very centre of the business.”
Other “improvements” include offering maintenance appointments at weekends and out-of-hours opening of customer care departments.
In the big announcement, Persimmon said it “would implement the homebuyer’s retention, by writing into its standard sale contract that 1.5% of the property value (£3,600 on average) could be withheld by the buyer’s solicitor until any faults identified at the point of key release are resolved”
The homebuyer retention policy, announced in haste, won’t be fully in place until the end of June 2019 – so much for its claim “we are now accelerating the pace of change”! But why wait until June? It’s hardly Brexit! Well, the end of June is Persimmon financial half-year, so homes could be rushed to get them included for the half-year. In addition, Persimmon will need to start building better, much better and all homes completed after the end of June, will not yet be started.
But quite frankly, this could easily be implemented at the beginning of April, fittingly perhaps on April Fool’s day as in my opinion, buyers and the government would be fools if they believe this small sticking plaster on a disgraceful housebuilder that gives greed a bad name, will make any noticeable positive difference for buyers.
Unlike the Barratt 5-year warranty, which despite its exclusions, was a corporate statement of quality: “our product is so good we are so confident we can afford to give our buyers a longer warranty” The Persimmon homebuyer retention announcement shouts: “our product is so bad, we have decided to allow our customers to withhold part of their payment until we have sorted out defects”
This scheme is also unlikely to cost Persimmon anything, with any costs being borne by the sub-contract companies it employs. Retentions are deducted on all sub-contractor payments. Half is usually returned 6 months after the buyer moves in, with the balance normally after two years. The percentage retention is negotiated at the time the contract is drawn up, often used by housebuilders as a bargaining tool to force their sub-contractors to discount their rates or accept payment terms “monthly valuation on account.” Most sub-contractors tend to view any returned retention as a bonus, as it is priced into their rates.
Persimmon homebuyer retention – so what is not to like?
This is not as it first appears. For a start, this only applies to “faults” (I prefer the term defects) that excited and distracted buyers note and report at the time they are first given the keys. Why not make it for ALL DEFECTS notified to Persimmon in the first 6 or 9 months? It should not be limited to just those small, quickly dealt with, cosmetic “faults” which may, or more likely, may not be spotted by buyers on the day they first get the keys to their new home. This will certainly not be of any help to buyers that later discover they have weak mortar, cracking render, issues with their floors or serious fire safety issues like this
If Persimmon really are “determined that the experience is not overshadowed by teething problems” why does the company routinely refuse to allow their buyers and/or their professional snagging inspectors access to their homes to check the property before legal completion?
The homebuyer retention monies are also to be held by the buyer’s solicitor. In most cases this is highly likely to be one that Persimmon has suggested, recommended, or in some cases, even bribed or required the buyer to use. A recent government inquiry found conveyancing solicitors are too close the house builder. There is a clear conflict of interest. The report says: “buyers’ interests ‘cannot be served where they are coerced into using developer-recommended conveyancing solicitors, who rely on repeat business from developers and may not be inclined to put their client’s interest first.”
This is also against the Law – The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, In addition, it also breaches requirement 2.5 of the “limited in its scope” Consumer Code for Homebuilders and SRA rules on conflicts of interest. Yet this has been going on for years! Furthermore, as Patrick Hosking notes in The Times, “there’s a danger the scheme will descend into countless legal disputes, with buyers’ solicitors quickly swallowing up that cash buffer in fees” indeed, as sure as night follows day.
Sebastian O’Kelly, 58, chief executive of the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, told The Times: “Persimmon has an open-ended liability on the snagging issues. If they build something appalling, and so many of our plc housebuilders build houses and flats with major defects, then they have a responsibility to fix them. I don’t think consumers would be able to take much comfort from this.”
So why are Persimmon doing this?
The homebuyer retention initiative comes following statements that the company is to improve customer satisfaction levels after being dogged by complaints about poor build quality. There had been murmurings lately about a buyer’s retention. Paula Higgins from the Home Owners Alliance told The Times last month that her idea of buyer’s being able to hold a 2.5% retention for 6 months “would be a powerful incentive for builders to put problems right” I told The Times it would be an “administrative nightmare” and that “6 months would be too short.” Unbelievably, I even found myself agreeing, for the first time, with Steve Turner of the Home Builders Federation , when he said that “introducing retentions as the rest of the construction sector is scrapping them is a crude and naïve suggestion that could reduce consumer protection and risks creating a long drawn out legal process – the new homes ombudsman is a better way to help buyers.” Trade bodies call to scrap retention Retention in construction under review
Pressure from Government – withdrawal of Help to Buy
In February, The Guardian reported that Persimmon’s right to use Help to Buy was under the scrutiny of Housing Secretary James Brokenshire, who was considering stripping Persimmon of its right to sell properties using Help To Buy because of poor satisfaction levels and concerns on the housebuilder’s behaviour. Persimmon has benefitted immensely from the Help to Buy scheme. Nearly half its 16,449 home sales last year were made through the taxpayer-funded scheme.
A source close to the minister said:
“Leasehold, build quality, their leadership seemingly not getting they’re accountable to their customers, are all points that have been raised by the Secretary of State privately,”
Help to Buy, should never have been extended and should now be cancelled on economic grounds but, if the government wants to keep the housebuilders’ gravy train running, originally due to end in 2016 yet twice extended, first until March 2021 and more recently to March 2023, Government should at least attach a few requirements and conditions that specifically benefit new homebuyers.
Persimmon needs evidence to shoe that they are changing their behaviour under the threat of parliamentary time being found to debate this, perhaps even a select committee inquiry. The homebuyer retention scheme, weekend appointments and the changes to customer care availability hours are little more than tokenism to keep government at bay. It looks like a cheap PR job which has given the company some much needed, positive, coverage in the quality national press.
Persimmon’s premium rating by the NHBC and LABC/PREMIER GUARANTEE may have increased dramatically. The homebuyer retention scheme may be being used to reduce their warranty premiums like an insurance voluntary excess.
An attempt to improve Persimmon’s dire HBF 8-week survey 3 star rating
Persimmon Homes have been rated just 3 stars for the fifth year in a row. Jenkinson even mentions the “contracted retention, which will, give homebuyers far greater satisfaction at the completion of the purchase” – in other words early on, just as the 8-week, HBF survey arrives in their post or inbox. Is it really an “unambiguous signal of cultural and operational change at Persimmon, putting customer care at the very centre of the business.” or a calculated measure to improve their HBF 8-week survey scores and 3-star rating? Given Persimmon claims 79% “satisfaction” which is just 1% below the 4 star rating, you would think giving a few £250 John Lewis vouchers to buyers would have been a cheaper option!
A spokesman for the Home Builders Federation told The Times: housebuilders had “delivered consistent improvements in customer satisfaction over the past two years” and he was again not keen on Persimmon’s housebuyer retention saying it “should not be seen as an option for housebuilders generally.”
No doubt with Persimmon now learning how to “play the star rating game” the heavy weighting of their current 3-star rating drag on the overall satisfaction scores over the last 5 years, the overall satisfaction score at least, is certain to improve, even if in reality, the actual new homebuyer satisfaction does not.
This industry’s reinterpretation of defect into snag has been one of the great distortions of the narrative surrounding new homes in recent years. The likes of Persimmon will be more than happy to agree a 1.5% retention – which they are likely never to have any intention of recovering, is cheap when compared to the loss of access to Help To Buy and other possible government sanctions such as a land-banking tax.
A clear indication that Persimmon has got this wrong is their statement:
“we hear the message that we need to continue to raise our game in customer care.” When actually it is the quality of construction and inspection regimes where improvements are required. It is not a case of putting out the fires quicker, but of fire prevention, getting it right first time, or at least before buyers get their keys!
As with Barratt in the eighties, it will take a generation to turn around Persimmon’s reputation, forever historically tarnished by corporate greed, poor quality homes and contempt and indifference to its own customers. Britain’s top site managers won’t want to go there and have their CVs forever tarnished. Those that do, will justifiably demand huge salaries for their sacrifice. In directing attention to the newly moved in and including quality and customer care in site managers’ bonus calculations is a step in the right direction that should improve their HBF survey star rating. It is a recipe that Barratt have adopted with success over nine, 5-star rated years. It is amazing it has taken Persimmon so long to either begin to care about it, or cotton on!
Persimmon Annual Report 2018 27 Feb 2019
“Range of new customer service initiatives implemented in late 2018 showing encouraging initial results. The Group is confident these measures will improve its customer satisfaction score once they have had time to take effect”
CEO Dave Jenkinson “A wide range of projects to improve customer satisfaction commenced in late 2018 and the initial results have been encouraging, giving us confidence in our ability to make progress in this important area”
Chairman Roger Devlin: “Alongside that we are changing our pay and incentives to include greater emphasis on both quality and customer care with plans that are more rigorous than we have had in the past.
“Delivering a good quality product for our customers and providing high levels of customer service throughout the home buying process is a top priority for the business. For the year to 30 September 2018, the percentage of our customers who would recommend Persimmon to a friend under the independent Home Builders Federation (HBF) survey was 79%, in line with the prior year and just short of the four star threshold of 80%. The Group has continued to invest in its customer care systems and resources during the year and this will continue to be the case in 2019 as we remain determined to improve customer satisfaction levels.”
But talk is cheap! Persimmon have said it all before!
Persimmon Annual Report 2016 27 Feb 2017
“During 2016 we have continued to invest additional resources in new customer focused initiatives to improve our customers’ buying experience and our NHBC/HBF 3 star rating. This is yielding further improvement in performance with the majority of the Group’s operating businesses showing progress. Prior to customers moving into their new home we have improved our communication processes with them to provide greater understanding of the progress we are making in constructing their new home. We have strengthened our build management processes to facilitate delivery to expected timeframes. Additional support is being provided through reinvigorated processes to demonstrate the features of the new home to customers, assistance with identifying any small remaining issues on moving in day and providing improved systems and processes for our customer care teams to support the prompt rectification of any outstanding matters. Customer care performance is reflected in relevant employees’ remuneration to support a closer alignment to the Group’s objectives. Whilst these initiatives are delivering tangible improvements in our customer satisfaction ratings we remain determined to deliver further advancement this year.“
Persimmon Annual report 2015 on 22 February 2016.
CEO Jeff Fairburn stated:
“The Group’s priority is to serve our customers well by providing good quality new homes and great service. All of our team are[sic] responsible for delivering high levels of customer satisfaction….Our sales teams across the business are trained to provide excellent levels of service to our customers.”
“During 2015 we invested substantial resources in new customer focused initiatives to improve our customers’ buying experience and our NHBC/HBF 3 star rating. We have introduced dedicated customer liaison managers on our larger sites, improved communication processes with our customers, introduced new processes to strengthen our build programmes and provided additional resources in our customer care teams. These initiatives are showing some early signs of improvement in our customer satisfaction ratings and we will continue to pursue this agenda to secure further progress this year.”