Monday, 12 October 2009

Just A Rentergirl Who Can't Say No.

Scotland has sorted out those whimsical, onerous and imaginative letting agents admin fees good and proper. They’ve made them illegal. Agents caught charging fees are transported in chains to Rhyl, beaten about the face with cabbages and obliged to record a sincere, humble and profuse apology broadcast on youtube before repaying all the money and then some.

Yeah, right. There is a law, but letting agents brazenly ignore it, and have done for decades.

When I was sorting my current home (a great flat I might add – I seem to have been lucky for the second time) I raised the whole fees-being-illegal-thing, but you know how it works: no fees paid=no flat.

So: here are some other stories. The tenant who moved into a flat, and was told that she would be charged a £50 admin fee. It’s a three bed flat: that’s £150 in total. An online credit check costs about a fiver, and they didn’t contact her referees.

She asked me what she should do. I suggested that she should mention casually and chattily that the fees were illegal. She was told: ‘It’s a grey area.’ Only in so far as a minority opinion argues that ‘reasonable’ fees may be charged, to cover actual expenses.

Another prospective tenant queried the purpose of that £100 ‘key-money’ (this scam operates under a multitude of different names.) She was told it covered the onerous and time consuming duty of hauling in written references from her nominated referees (perhaps they live on the moon; rocket fuel is costly which might explain the rates.) Can you can guess what happened next? Just as with myself, none of the referees was actually contacted.

My agency justifies these mystery monies: “ we have to pay to run our office.” Moving left me out of pocket, what with storage, removal vans to hire, and deposits to find. Perhaps I should send them an invoice?

I was also ambushed by sudden news of six weeks in advance for the deposit. I queried this, as tenants/customers are entitled to prior warning of any extraordinary costs, but was told by a snide letting-agent: “…this is just what charge; it’s what we charge. You can always say no.”

What would happen if I had stood my ground, looked the agent in the eye, and in my firmest stentorian tones declaimed: “No! I will not pay your illegal charges! Vive la revolution!” But I was technically homeless, and when people say: be strong and refuse to pay it’s hard even for me and I know my rights. I am aware that a charity did some secret shopping, and discovered that the majority of agencies openly and contemptuously break the law.

There is an obvious course of action: the courts, for a possible case involving fraud, extortion and charging illegal fees, but if I choose that path, I might lose the flat. Oh, this mountainous dilemma. What would you do?

(NB: I’ve been away from blogging. Sorry, but that broken memory stick sideswiped me. I need to get it repaired – all advice welcome.)


Benjamin Judge said...

The terms 'law' and 'grey area' are pretty synonymous really but it does seem to display rather a lack of commitment to make a law and then not bother enforcing it.

Glad to see you back online.

Anonymous said...

Just discovered from my latest experiences how letting agents guarantee landlords they will get their rent paid. Simple - cherry-pick tenants with perfect references. For anyone else, demand a rent guarantor. My references should have been impeccable if the referencing agency hadn't been so stupid as to read an address ending in Cobham Surrey as Cobham Surgery, and then assume that as I'm a doctor, I must be a medical doctor (I'm not, I'm an academic doctor). So I was told, no rent guarantor, no flat. The referencing agency even managed to speak to the MD of the firm I work for - an engineering company - and still failed to realise that the guy doesn't run a s*dd*ng doctors' surgery. How stupid can you get.

So at the age of 45 I have to find a rent guarantor like I'm a small child who has to run to Daddy for a hand-out. I asked the letting agent who he thought I should get to do this, considering the fact that in the eyes of the law I'm a responsible, accountable adult. He did at least have the grace to look non-plussed. He has the entire weight of the law on his side, with a take-it-or-leave-it contract and a deposit, and still he needs a guarantee. Why? Because without a guarantee the insurance cover for the landlord's rent doesn't kick in. So that's how the scam works; either perfect references, in which case there's no risk to insure, or demand a guarantor, in which case the guarantor is effectively underwriting the insurance.

I paid 185 quid up front in fees. When I suggested I should pay less as the referencing agency had made such a mess of it, I was told no fee, no flat. What a fantastic world letting agencies live in. Charge the customer up-front to prove they will pay, and when you screw it up, still charge the full fee. Totally unaccountable. In my line of work if I screwed up like this, I'd refund automatically and apologise profusely. Not if you are a letting agent. These people are out of control and need to be regulated.


MattW said...

Its all very well for the letting agents to command fees from tenants 'for running their office' - but they take about 15% from the rental income anyway.

Its illegal for employment agencies to charge fees. It should be the same for letting agents too.

RenterGirl said...

Hello Matt W! Yep - that is an excellent and useful point. I wonder if charging money for a service that is not delivered is actually fraudulent. And the employment agency comparison is a pertinent one.

And Clare: that is quite ingenious and brilliant in its stupidity. The guarantor thing is also pernicious. An agency I visited once said they don't used guarantors: "...if you don't pay the rent - we throw you out." Which is fair enough really.

And Ben - your cynicism is well-placed: 'grey area' equates here with licence to bleed tenants dry.

Thanks for reading! And good to 'meet' you all again.

MrPeregrination said...

If the fees are illegal then take the to court (once you have moved into the property). Don't let the bastards get away with it. At least it sounds like you have the law on your side, unlike in England.

Shoe said...

I feel your pain. My current landlady (who runs her own small agency cum art gallery - yes I know it sounds strange, it is) looks routinely for 6 weeks in advance and deducts 40 euros for "cleaning."

RenterGirl said...

It's a big decision for me to make. And Shoe: isn't it just the bare-faced cheek that irks?