House hunters with British or French accents are given preferential treatment by estate agents, research suggests.

First-time buyers with those accents were treated with the highest levels of customer service compared with those with an accent from eastern Europe, the Middle East or Africa, a mystery shopping-style study in Sheffield found.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield’s School of Languages and Cultures said there “could be a level of unconscious bias in the way estate agents deal with their customers” after they analysed more than 300 phone calls between agents and first-time buyers in the South Yorkshire city.

Women with Romanian names and accents were given the worst level of customer service, according to the study.

When speaking to someone who they thought were British or French, the estate agents would typically engage in more informal social conversations

All of the prospective homeowners were women in their late twenties and had names and accents that appeared to be either from Britain or from countries in central and eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

The volunteers gave only their names to estate agents when inquiring about buying a house for the first time.

The researchers found that while a good level of customer service was given to most of the participants and there was little evidence of overt discrimination, estate agents were friendlier to women with names and accents that appear to be from Britain or France.

They said they engaged in more social conversations and displayed more signs of empathy and solidarity compared with the conversations they had with women with other accents.

Nicole Baumgarten, lecturer in translation and intercultural communication studies, said: “Our research has found that not everyone is getting the same treatment when they’re taking this significant step in their lives, particularly those from minority backgrounds.”

She said: “For example, when speaking to someone who they thought were British or French, the estate agents would typically engage in more informal social conversations such as asking them about their day, where they work, making jokes, or saying things which showed they empathised with the process of trying to buy a first home.

“When speaking to someone who they thought were from a different country, the estate agents tended to remain more reserved and avoided more social conversations.”

Dr Baumgarten said her team did find an example of estate agents becoming friendlier towards a woman from Romania once she told them she worked as a nurse in the NHS, “a job that I think most people associate with being honest, reliable, trustworthy and see as a valued member of society”.

The research, which was funded by the British Academy, is published in Journal of Language and Discrimination.

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