Mention the word "factor" to anyone who has ever owned a Glasgow tenement flat and they will probably begin cursing, before launching into a litany of angry anecdotes. When it comes to public perception, factors, or property managers, are up there with second-hand car salesmen and estate agents in the popularity stakes.

For many living in flats, factors - unregulated and either private businesses or registered social landlords - represent bad service, poor communication and huge expense. Critics of the system say the industry is a lucrative free-for-all, a "licence to print money" that must be regulated and licensed if it is ever to serve homeowners well; one Glasgow MSP is trying to steer a bill through parliament to do just that.

So when it published a survey into the effectiveness of Scotland's property management system, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) entered a highly charged debate.

The horror stories are plentiful. Last year, one Glasgow-based factor was accused of taking legal action that could have forced an 83-year-old woman out of her home of 46 years. Another Glasgow resident saw his bill rise from £9 to £1600 after he got into a protracted dispute with his factor over a minor repair. Lawyers say entire days of proceedings at Glasgow Sheriff Court are often dominated by factors suing customers.

The high cost of repairs is a major bone of contention. An investigation by The Herald's sister paper, the Evening Times, last year, highlighted examples including £44 to change a lightbulb, £868 a year to mow a six-metre square of grass and £80 to replace a screw for a broken latch. As highlighted in the OFT survey, those who complain rarely receive an adequate response.

Glasgow-based housing lawyer Mike Dailly regularly defends homeowners sued by their property owner. He believes the OFT must act.

He said: "Factors have a licence to print money. We need a major change - formal regulation and licensing - so they are obliged to treat homeowners as proper customers, as opposed to debtors to be exploited, ripped off and ignored.

"This respect and common decency will only happen if this industry is properly regulated. At the moment it's a free-for-all. People need to be able to identify the good factors from the bad. This is not easy and the public needs protection."

But are factors really that bad? Indeed, do we need them at all? The industry would say it does a good job, often under difficult circumstances, acting on behalf of those who share responsibility for a building while attempting to represent the best interests of all. They would also say many homeowners do not understand their own responsibilities. And, like any service provider, there are good and bad examples.

But yesterday's survey, the first of its kind to cover the whole country, shows significant problems in the property management industry.

Fewer than half of owners rated the service provided by their property manager as being "good value for money", while around a third described it as "poor". Around two thirds said it was "easy" to have common repairs carried out, but a significant minority, 28%, described the process as "difficult". Of those who said it was hard to get repairs done, most blamed factors for the difficulties, with 42% saying their property manager was not effective at getting things done. Other issues related to poor standards of work, high costs and poor communication.

Meanwhile, it seems complaining to your factor can be pointless and stressful.

Two thirds of those who made a complaint said they were dissatisfied with the way it was handled, with the majority saying their issue was not addressed. Some said communication was a problem; 12% accused staff of being rude and unhelpful.

Owners also highlighted problems created by the lack of organisation among people in their block, with one fifth saying it was difficult to arrange repairs because of difficulties with agreeing joint action. Some said it was difficult to get money or consent to start work from their neighbours.

Most people said they were happy with services such as lift maintenance, stair cleaning, window cleaning and repairs to door entry systems, though a fifth said their factor did a "poor" job.

When it came to routine checks, most respondents said their factor's service was either poor or very poor.

So what can be done to improve the client-factor relationship? It seems the answer could lie in the OFT findings.

Almost half of Scots who live in shared buildings do not have a factor, attending to communal repairs themselves. The OFT found that self-managing "appears to be working reasonably well in practice", even though 93% in this bracket have no formal arrangements in place for maintenance.

It would appear that if your property does have a factor - and many homeowners are locked into one when they sign their title deeds - having a more formal arrangement, such as a residents' association, for dealing with them does bear fruit. Three in four respondents who had such an arrangement found it "easy" to get repairs done.

Changing a factor or moving to self-management can seem problematic, as the OFT evidence highlights. More than half of those surveyed said they did not know how to sack their existing factor and believed getting the right number of owners to agree would be difficult.

But legally most homeowners have the right to get rid of their factor. Checking title deeds and/or an existing contract to see how many owners must agree is a good place to start, followed by finding a new firm and meeting your neighbours to agree the way forward. A letter to the existing factor giving notice, signed by the correct number of owners, should end your obligation.

'Don't just moan about bad service do something' When Kimberley Hamilton and her fellow homeowners at a large development of flats in Glasgow became unhappy with the service provided by their property manager, they got together and took decisive action. They sacked the factor.

Kimberley, who owns a two-bedroom flat in the Co-op building in Morrison Street, says changing the factor was an "entirely positive" move for residents.

According to the 26-year-old the level of service provided by factors CPM got gradually worse over the years, despite residents paying up to £160 per month in management fees and charges. Complaints to the company got them nowhere.

"CPM let us down on all the most basic things. The cleaning and maintenance service was really very poor," said Kimberley.

"When repairs were needed it took weeks or months to get anything done. There was rubbish left all over the building and vital water penetration repairs weren't done.

"We all decided the only way to change things was to sack CPM - and that's what we did."

After researching a number of companies they settled on Glasgow-based property managers The Lane Partnership.

"We are paying pretty much the same amount per month, but the difference is clear," said Kimberley. "We have a concierge service in place, as well as new cleaners, and the rubbish problem has gone.

"But, most importantly, we feel like we are in charge of our building."

She added: "Ultimately, you employ the factor. There are so many companies out there looking for business and they should be competing to offer the best service.

"If you don't think your factor is up to the mark don't just sit there and moan about bad service - get together and do something about it."

At the time the factor was changed, a spokesman for CPM said: "It is disappointing when our service levels are perceived to have fallen short, but we always seek to learn lessons and raise our game. There is fierce competition in the property management business and residents are always free to try someone else. However, in 12 months, they may wish to come back to us."