Legal versus ethical

Why is it that just because something is legal, it is okay to do it? Surely one should consider the ethics of the actions involved as well. For example, we have frequently discovered that Members of Cabinet spend exorbitant amounts on vehicles and homes and when this is questioned, the instant response is that it is allowed in the Ministerial Handbook. That may be so, but is it ethical to spend these thousands, sometimes millions, of tax payers’ money when we have such an enormous divide between rich and poor in South Africa. Of course, leaders of a country who are regularly in the company of other world leaders should not be seen as poverty stricken but surely they can be much more controlled in their spending.

But it is not about politicians that I write today.  Another area of activity in which the ethical/legal debate is prevalent, to me anyway, is property selling. A week ago my husband and I were asked to accompany another couple to look at some property on a golf estate to the north of us. They had found an advertisement in a newspaper which advertised condos priced from R650 000 and they wanted to have a look at these. They had an appointment for 10am and we were on time, only to be told that the sales person with whom the appointment was made was busy with another client. To entertain us while we waited, a marketing staff member showed us around the section of the large estate which had already been developed. What was advertised was phase 2 which was just being started. There are currently 2 hotels on the property and a 3rd will be built with phase 2. Everything about the Estate was beautiful and indigenous plants only are used making everything appear lush and green, especially as there has been a lot of rain this summer. After almost an hour  we visited the area where phase 2 will be developed. Building has not as yet begun.

On our return to the Sales House we had to wait another 15 mins for the Sales person to finish with the previous client! We were invited to look at the floor plans of the condos and suites which we discovered were 29m2 and 35m2 respectively. The condos were no more than bedsits with a small lounge which included a microwave for basic cooking. Meals are to be taken at the hotel and paid for separately. No self-catering is allowed. The suites included a proper walled off bedroom and slightly larger lounge. If one goes to the site linked to the word ‘suites’ it is noted that it refers to a suite as having as the key feature, multiple rooms. This was not the case here.We learnt that there had been condos available at the price of R650 000 but those had all been purchased by a single buyer 3 weeks ago. Then there were half a dozen others at R850 000 but they too were all sold as were all the suites in this price range. The prices of those which were still available ranged from R1.1m to R1.7m; for these pokey little rooms without a real view! One of the reasons for the higher prices was that they were higher up on the hill and so there is more of a view over a river estuary about 5 kms away. To me this is daylight robbery.

Where I consider the selling tactic to be legal but not really ethical is in the advertising leaflet for this particular development. Yes, adverts must be presented in such a way as to lure potential buyers but to continue to advertise a particular product at the lowest price when it is known that there are none left at this price is really wrong and unethical. When we queried this with the marketing fellow as we were shown around the estate his reply was that they had produced 5000 leaflets – 4 pages of thick paper and a lot of photos in colour – which was expensive and so could not be wasted. But, knowing that there were a very limited number of condos  and suites available at the 2 lowest prices surely the ethical thing to do would be to prepare a far smaller number for the initial launch of the project and later more pamphlets with a more realistic price. There may have been a minimal cost involved but it would only require a deletion of R650 000 to R1.1m. As it is in a very upmarket area those who could afford to pay this amount would probably make a purchase but others, like our friends, would not have wasted not only their own time but also that of the agents themselves.

Under the Consumer Protection Act of 2010, retailers are required to supply a product at the advertised price for the full duration of the promotion. Should the stock be depleted before the end of the promotion the retailer is required to take the name and contact details of the customer and, when new stock arrives, allow them to have the item at the advertised special price. Now, this is not possible when selling real estate so all the more reason for estate agents to ‘think outside the box’ and create advertising which is not only legal but also ethical. What do you think? Have you any comments on similar situations in other spheres?

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