March 5, 2009 Thursday

ERA pays flipping profit to couple; agent and his boss quit

By Selina Lum

A COUPLE who successfully sued estate agency ERA Realty Network for flipping their apartment has got back the money that the agents made on it, with interest.

ERA yesterday said that it would not be appealing against the decision last month ordering it to pay $257,000 to Mr Yuen Chow Hin and his wife, Madam Wong Wai Fan.

The couple had sold their two-bedroom downtown apartment for $688,000 through ERA agent Jeremy Ang in 2007, thinking it was the best price he could get them.

They did not know that the buyer of the unit, Madam Natassha Sadiq, was his boss's wife, who immediately resold the apartment for $945,000. Her husband, Mr Mike Parikh, was a senior group division director at ERA.

In a statement responding to queries from The Straits Times, ERA president Jack Chua said yesterday that Mr Parikh and Mr Ang have resigned.

The two men have also agreed to make full restitution for the claims against ERA, he said.

Mr Chua said: 'After reviewing the judgment and the results of its internal findings, ERA concurs with the judgment that both Mike Parikh and Jeremy Ang did not act in good faith in the transaction.'

Mr Parikh is believed to still be in the property business. A Straits Times check found a website, with a photograph of him on it, advertising itself as a 'real estate portal'. It featured several properties he had claimed to have sold, and was updated just yesterday.

He did not return calls to him, however. Mr Ang could not be contacted.

ERA has since implemented new initiatives to improve customer accountability, transparency and governance, Mr Chua added.

Last month, it announced that it now requires agents to sign an undertaking assuring clients that all possible conflicts of interest would be disclosed.

In his judgment, Justice Choo Han Teck had stern words for the unethical behaviour of the two agents. Though Madam Sadiq had made the transactions, her husband was behind them. It was clear, he said, that such practices were not unknown in the industry as the ERA top brass had condoned it.

So that none could claim ignorance, he reminded the industry that an agent had a responsibility to act in the interests of his client, 'not his own, or his friends', or relatives' or his boss''.

Yesterday, Madam Wong said she was very happy with the outcome, as she recalled the journey which had consumed their lives for 11/2 years.

'It was a risk we took, as with any litigation, the outcome is never guaranteed,' said the 48-year-old housewife.

'We believe we were wronged and we were able to get a judgment in our favour.'

The trouble started around October 2007 when she and her 50-year-old husband, a vice-president in an IT company, realised something was amiss when they learnt that their flat had been resold for a much higher price.

As the matter unravelled, she and her husband could not stop turning it over and over in their conversations.

'My children are sick of hearing about the subject,' the mother of two teenage boys said with a laugh.

The day after the judgment came out, her husband was on a plane flying home, and found himself looking at their photo on the front page of The Straits Times. It was 'surreal', he said.

They are recognised at their regular haunts. Some of her friends call her 'the 257 person' and their story is repeated at dinner parties. But testifying in court was 'unnerving' and 'not one of life's greatest feelings', she said soberly.

In the days following the judgment, they received a few phone calls as well as an anonymous package in the mail containing documents from someone who appears to have been in a similar situation.

Madam Wong is aware of the interest in their case. But she declined to comment on the broader issue, except to say that she would be 'less trusting' and 'ask for more information' the next time she sells a property.

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Additional reporting by Kimberly Spykerman