Landlords can get a bad rap but writer and landlord Felicity Hannah says that letting agents need greater scrutiny too…
Recently I wrote a column arguing that there should be a crackdown on landlords to stop the bad apples from ruining their tenants’ lives with unsafe homes and inadequate protections.
Several of the comments below the article commented that letting agents can be equally challenging for tenants, and I wholeheartedly agree.
I am a landlord with a portfolio of just one property, and I manage it myself because I have lost faith in letting agents.
Issues on both sides
Although I now live in my own home, I rented for many years before that and my experiences of letting agents then were… not good.
As a landlord now my experiences have also been pretty worrying. I think the worst issue is the expectation that everything should be paid for twice.
I use letting agents to set up the paperwork for my tenants because I want everything to be done correctly – yet every time I renew my tenants’ lease I struggle to find an agent who won’t try to charge my sitting tenants too.
Just think about that. They don’t need to find the tenants, credit check the tenants, show the tenants around, deal with the tenants ever again – and yet they try to charge them several hundred pounds because I have asked them to draw up paperwork.
Tenant fees may be justifiable when the agent has had a great deal of work to do, but when I have paid them to simply draw up new contracts for the couple already living in the house it is insane that they should attempt to bill them £300 on top of the fee they charge me.
A valuable service
A good letting agent is a wonderful thing.
They manage the property so you can go away on holiday without worrying, they remind landlords of their legal obligations to get the gas certificates etc doing.
They have an address book full of reliable trades-people and they organise any work that needs carrying out.
I have nothing against letting agents and I would not object to paying them a decent percentage for a decent job.
But to date I have not found an agent I can stick with or trust.
Here are just a few examples of why I am running out of national chain letting agents I can use.
Just this month my, property’s gas certificate needed renewing. I rang the local branch of a national chain of agents and they agreed to liaise with my tenants and sort it out.
Later on I discovered that the workman they had sent out had ripped apart part of the kitchen in order to check the pipes.
He had not bothered to inform me of this extra destruction so I could put it right – and it’s not something that has ever been required in the past.
In some confusion, I asked why he had damaged the property without even asking me.
He essentially said ‘elf and safety, mate’ and offered to go back and switch off the gas if that was really what I would prefer.
First of all, he had carried out the check and so the offer of going back and switching off the gas was just an unprofessional threat.
Secondly, the Health and Safety Executive rule he referred me to was not relevant – it was for boilers inside a building running a flue to the outside, whereas ours is fitted to an external wall.
I may not have a gas safety qualification but I can read English and, as I mentioned, no previous engineer has felt a need to demolish a section of kitchen.
The letting agent did not care that their workman had damaged my tenants’ home, left a mess, not bothered to inform me about the damage and then made a mistake, even when I consulted a degree-level safety engineer who concluded that the workman had misunderstood the legislation.
The letting agent simply wanted to be paid.
And this is simply the latest in a long line of frustrating encounters.
As a student I moved into a flat only to discover that night that it was infested with bedbugs.
Absolutely infested – they were in every bedroom. After the first night we were covered in so many bites that we couldn’t wear skirts or short-sleeved tops.
I had rented the property via a large, reputable chain so I confidently rang them to ask for help.
They arranged for someone to spray the property the following week but simply did not care about the conditions we were living in meanwhile.
Eventually, when one of the staff told us that ‘bedbugs are no big deal’, I took a (well-sealed!) jar of the horrid creatures to their office to show them what we were living with, which made her scream and demand I take them away.
She didn’t want them in her office but did not care that I had them crawling on me while I slept.
The constant lies
Our first experience of letting agents as landlords was pretty dreadful.
Despite again choosing a large and reputable chain, we ended up struggling to cope with a letting agent that lied to us about work being carried out, lied to our tenants, and sent our tenants threatening and distressing letters even when they had paid on time.
On one memorable occasion they paid our rent to a different landlord on their books and then sadly told us they couldn’t get our money back.
We had to ask our tenants to deal directly with us because we couldn’t trust the agent.
After 12 months we tried to leave them because their service was so inadequate but because they had found our tenants originally they demanded a full year’s equivalent fees as a get-out payment.
We haggled them down to £100 and paid the fee.
They then took their 12% and paid our fee right back to us – their chaotic bookkeeping finally worked in our favour!
Believe it or not I attempted to explain this to them on the phone so I could give them back their money but they said it was ‘impossible’ for something like that to happen.
These are just three examples but every landlord and tenant I know has a similar list of experiences.
Something must be done
If we’re going to crackdown on landlords then I think we need to also crackdown on letting agents.
They need to up their game and here are some ideas for how:
1. Fees must be clearly displayed
Many letting agents adequately display fees in advance, but all agents should do so.
They should clearly outline the fees they will charge before a potential tenant looks round a property, so they fully understand what costs they will be dealing with.
Importantly, that should include their ongoing fees i.e. if the tenant will be expected to pay a fee again after the first 12 months. For many households that would be a painful and unaffordable hit.
2. Tenants should be given their rights
Letting agents should provide tenants with a list of their rights and a clear route to complain when they are not cared for properly.
It should include their in-house complaints process and information on raising a complaint with the Association of Residential Letting Agents and the Ombudsman.
3. Greater penalties for upheld complaints
Part of the problem that I have found is that letting agents are great at selling – selling services to landlords, showing properties to tenants – but seem to consider managing the actual property to be a pain in the backside.
Perhaps if penalties for upheld complaints were more severe, they would be sharper at providing ongoing care for their customers, both landlords and tenants.
What are your experiences? Am I being unfair to letting agents or should there be a crackdown? What changes, if any, would you make?
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