Tuesday, February 10, 2009

They Thought They Had Good Deal

Source : The Sunday Times, Feb 8, 2009



Her name was Natassha Sadiq.

They thought that sounded like she was from the Middle East, which meant she had to be rich and could afford to pay top dollar for their property.

And so the Yuens told their property agent: Okay, done deal.

But six months after Mr Yuen Chow Hin, 50, and his wife Wong Wai Fan, 48, sold their Riverside Piazza apartment to Madam Sadiq for $688,000, they discovered their error.

Madam Sadiq was actually the wife of the boss of their property agent.

And even before she had inked the deal to buy their unit, she had already resold it for $945,000.

That turn of events eventually led to a High Court case that ended last Thursday with the judge ordering property agency ERA Realty Network to pay the Yuens the $257,000 difference.

The saga began in June 2007.

Less than a fortnight after the Yuens engaged ERA property agent Jeremy Ang to sell their Riverside Piazza apartment near Clarke Quay, they were told that a buyer had been found.

Mr Ang said a regular client of his was offering $650,000 for the two-bedroom unit, which is just below 1,000 sq ft.

He added that OCBC Bank had valued the flat at between $650,000 and $700,000.

When the couple asked why they were not offered $700,000, Mr Ang said it was because they had recently renewed a two-year lease with their tenant Yuji Kubo, a 57-year-old Japanese trader. The couple charged him $2,000 in monthly rent.

Madam Wong told The Sunday Times yesterday that she took Mr Ang's word about the price, and did not check with other property agents if this was an industry norm.

'We had no reason to be suspicious. Our main thought was that agents will try to get the best price for us because it means they get a higher commission too,' she said.

Of the potential buyer, she noted: 'Jeremy said Madam Sadiq had bought many properties from him before and, judging by her last name, we got the impression that she was a rich Middle Eastern woman who regularly invests in property. We assumed we were getting a fair price.'

The housewife and her husband, a vice-president in an information technology firm, live with their two teenage sons in a terrace house in Serangoon Gardens.

The couple had bought the Riverside Piazza property in 1995 as an investment - the first time they had done so - paying about $609,000.

They decided to sell it to help pay for a new condominium unit in Serangoon, jointly owned by Mr Yuen and his sister, for Mr Yuen's aged parents to live in, said Madam Wong.

'I had told Jeremy to liaise directly with Mr Kubo about scheduling visits from potential buyers. Once, Mr Kubo complained to me that Jeremy had turned up at the flat without notifying him first, so I assumed Jeremy was doing his job,' she added.

She said they did not set any price and had asked Mr Ang to obtain a bank valuation.

The Yuens offered to sell the flat to Madam Sadiq for $688,000 on July 12. The latter said 'yes' on July 26. The couple did not meet Madam Sadiq in person.

'For most lay people, once the price is agreed upon, you hand it over to the lawyers, banks and the CPF Board. It's a process that you don't think about because it's too complex,' said Madam Wong.

In October 2007, the Yuens received a call from the Central Provident Fund Board about the discrepancy between the value of the flat - based on a valuation done by the new owner's bank - and the amount they had sold it for. That was when they sensed that something was amiss.

After getting their lawyers to check on the caveat lodged on the property, they tracked down the new owner, engineer Teo Su Kee, 48, at his Toa Payoh home.

They discovered that the transaction was handled by ERA agent Mike Parikh, who had put up newspaper advertisements - dated July 7, 9 and 14 - for their unit.

They also found that Mr Teo exercised his option to buy the flat from Madam Sadiq on July 25 - a day before she agreed to buy it from the Yuens.

Suspecting an internal arrangement among the parties, the Yuens checked with the Registry of Marriages and found out that Madam Sadiq was married to Mr Parikh.

It was a 'surprise', said Madam Wong. Mr Parikh had handled the sale of her brother-in-law's HDB flat in Pasir Ris in 2006.

Mr Parikh had also recommended Mr Ang, his subordinate, to handle the sale of her mother-in-law's HDB flat in Hougang in early 2007.

The smooth transactions led the Yuens to entrust Mr Ang to sell their property as well.

They wrote to ERA about their findings and refused to pay Mr Ang's commission of $7,361.

'We tried to arrange a discussion with their directors. We only wanted some accountability and answers,' said Madam Wong.

ERA wrote back to say that the two agents had done nothing wrong. In January last year, it made a claim against the couple at the Small Claims Tribunal for failing to pay the commission.

It was this that prompted the Yuens to file the lawsuit against the company.

Now that the judgment has been passed, Madam Wong said she feels some relief as the saga had caused her sleepless nights.

But with ERA saying last Thursday that it intends to appeal against the court's decision, she acknowledged that 'it's not over yet'.

'We don't know what the next step will be, but we will try to put it aside for now and get on with our Chinese New Year celebrations,' she said, adding that she has not made any plans for the money yet.

'I will be more careful the next time and definitely not be so trusting,' she added.

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