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Signs of an exodus of property agents have emerged amid rising industry pessimism as the property market cooled in recent months.

A total of 259 property agents quit the trade within

the first 15 days of February, or about 17 a day, according to figures released yesterday by industry watchdog Estate Agents Authority.

In January, 99 agents left the trade. It was also the first time in 14 months that the number of agents had dropped.

At the end of last year, the number of agents reached an all-time high of 37,568, up from 35,502 in 2014. As of February 15 this year, however, the number fell to 37,210.

READ MORE: Ad spending on Hong Kong residential properties fell 22 per cent in 2015 as buying sentiment soured

The number of property agencies also shrank, to 3,232 as of Monday, compared to 3,256 at the end of last year.

Authority chairman William Leung Wing-cheung said it would be premature to forecast “doom and gloom for the trade”.

“The figures seem to suggest many practitioners in the trade do not have high short-term hopes” for the market, he said.

But Leung added if the market continued to cool, developers would “have to adjust their strategies to boost sales”, at which point more agents would be “attracted back to the trade”.

The Centa-City Leading Index, a popular privately-developed tool that tracks local secondary home prices, dropped to 131.01 in the first week of February. It was the index’s lowest score since mid-November 2014 when it hit 129.61. The index was set at 100, using July 1997 as its base year.

Centaline Property Agency co-founder Shih Wing-ching urged the government to scrap its market-cooling measures, saying the market was clearly “going downward” and that “anti-speculation measures should be lifted”.

But Shih said his firm had no plan to close branches or lay off staff.

READ MORE: Hong Kong developers likely to meet 2016 sales targets despite further 10-15 per cent fall in home prices, says S&P

Authority CEO Ruby Hon Yuen-ping said the authority would step up its checks against malpractice amid sharper competition in the coming year.

“A slow property market does not mean that we shall have less work to do,” said Hon. “We shall continue checking against non-compliance and sale malpractice.”

The authority received 315 complaints against property agents last year, a decline from 399 in 2014 and 494 in 2013. But the authority expressed concerns over non-compliance in online property advertisements, for which the number of cases rose from 14 in 2014 to 27 last year.