Friday, 6 July 2012

Now - Take My Letting Agent

Scotland (where I find myself living for now) has much to offer: stunning scenery, whisky, thriving culture and haggis (seriously – it’s great.) Even better than that, letting-agent charges to tenants have been outlawed since 1984. It’s quite simple: anything other than a deposit or rent in advance (what the relevant act calls ‘a premium’) is verboten. Illegal. Banned.

Except, since the date of the legislation’s enactment, agents have carried on their own sweet way, levying bizarre, random fees with imaginative names. However, if you point out that the charges, no matter what they are called, are illegal, agents sneer, and basically, extort money by insisting that knowledgeable tenants who refuse, are not granted the tenancy.

What to do? Well, here are two stories. My last agent demanded the best name for a charge I’ve ever heard: ‘a continuous affordability assessment fee.’ Not a premium - no siree bob. And they also wanted £30 for a reference for my next home, which, since I had been given notice my former place as the owners were returning from abroad, I thought was slightly…cheeky. I visited the office, and reminded (or informed) them that such fees were illegal. The receptionist denied everything, went to ask for confirmation, and returned smirking: ‘I don’t know who told you that, but that’s what we charge.’ No fee no reference? ‘That’s what we charge.’

Okay - I paid and (vowing restitution) moved out. During the now inevitable deposit tussle, they tried to retain a chunk of my money for damage caused before I had moved in, so I wrote a very stern letter. Demanding a fee without which tenants can’t secure their next home is extortion (a criminal offence) and their representative was either lying or incompetent when insisting on fees. I quoted the legislation, provided links to various legal sites, and gave them seven days to refund my charges, or be taken to court.

They sent me a cheque even faster than I had asked. I thought: myohmy - somebody doesn’t want to get sued. In their craven submission, they changed tack: fees or ‘premiums’ are not as they had previously maintained legal, but ‘a grey area’ (they aren’t) however they would pay up to ‘stay on good terms.’

I would have taken them to the small claims court: it’s easier than most people imagine, something my newest letting agent will soon discover, having just refused to refund charges purported to cover: ‘guided viewing, reference checks, a welcome pack, and notifying utility companies of change of tenant.’ Brilliant. Seriously: very imaginatve.

Utilities? I did that. Welcome pack? A wad of photocopies, but they even messed that up with an inventory I successfully contested (with photo evidence). My favourite is the ‘guided viewing.’ Have you heard of a non-guided viewing? Also, they say this fee would not have restricted my being able to secure the property. So I paid voluntarily? I could have moved in without stumping up? If only they’d said at the time…

I am wondering if the agent is desperately out of her depth, ignorant or just fancies seeing the inside of a court (my next task is completing the forms.) Shelter have been running a campaign to publicise the illegality of these fees. I shall keep you posted.


space cadet said...

I'm always the one smirking when I read your posts.

Here's a link to help anyone in the same boat, do this themselves, step by step.

Thinking of moving up to Scotland myself before the year is out. I've decided i'll keep schtum until i've got the keys, and then .... a summons it is.

MattW said...

I wish that these fees were illegal for the rest of the UK.

I was lucky with my current rental. The Housing Association I rent with (it's not a social home, it is let on the same basis of other private rentals) could have charged me a fee of around £100 + VAT but I think that common sense prevailed and the Private Lettings Manager wanted the flat let as soon as possible.

Maybe if Letting Agents done away with these silly fees then maybe they could rent their landlord clients' homes with greater ease and avoid any complaints.

RenterGirl said...

Exactly. But as I said in the previous post, letting agents with high st offices are endangered. Stupid random fees will hasten their demise. And yes, the fees should be banned everywhere. But with my situation: the agents will lose, simple as...and court action, while the necessary next step is such a waste of all our time and their money (they will also have to stump up for costs. And yes space cadet: what al tenants do is move and then claim.

Sven said...

This isn't a victory. As long as most tenants don't take them to court out of apathy or ignorance they'll keep charging the fees. Even if they end up refunding some they're quids in.

This has been my experience with landlords and deposits. Many landlords will try to retain some or all of a deposit on spurious grounds, but will quickly back down when threatened with legal action. They'll keep on doing it however because plenty of tenants won't know they can fight them or won't get round to it.

The only solution is landlord and agent regulation. Ideally this should include an obligation to provide tenants with a document detailing their rights and how to kick up a fuss.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the anon post...

I work for a lettings agency in Yorkshire. It's medium sized for the area about 150 managed properties, average value about £550PCM. I've read a lot of your posts and really sympathise with a lot of the issues you've had, although as we operate in a medium sized town I don't know how much I can comment on the awful sounding places you've found yourself, not because they don't exist where I work but because we wouldn't touch them with a stick.
What I can tell you is with our overheads (4 staff, rented office space, networking and office equipment, fuel for the company vehicles) there is no way we could carry on as a business without charging fees here and there. We charge £125 for an application and £50 for a contract renewal... I wanted to gauge opinion on whether you or the visitors of this forum find these to be extortionate, is any kind of fee acceptable? I'm of the opinion that they're a relatively small price to pay compared with the risk of signing with a private landlord, who may cause you serious issues.
I'm also aware that their are some AWFUL lettings agents even in my own relatively small area...
I've read your blog with interest so let me know... Also FYI I use wax not excessive amounts of gel, my shoes are moderately priced (and never pointy) and I like to think I treat people the way I'd like to be treated as I rent myself. Again, sorry for anon post.

RenterGirl said...

Sven - you are right. It isn't a victory, but once the letting agents have realisded how wrong they are, that they will lose, and that the charges are illegal, and pay a refund, I can't take them to court.

RenterGirl said...

And Anon - yes, I am aware that the changes to letting agents looming will mean actual human beings will lose their jobs. But even ten years ago, there were far fewer letting agents, and the sudden explosion has caused problems. Landlords are amateurs, and therefore scared. Agents promise them the moon. Agents then charge the tenants, which is Scotland is illegal, and in England has caused tenants to be charged huge amaounts when previsouly they never would have been. As has been previsouly pointed out elsewhere, it used to be: get shown around, pay a deposit, the flat was yours. Now tenanst face ongoing fees froma menu from companies who actually don't do anything, even if tenants are not paying, or trashing the place. Quite simply, the fees did not exist. They are therefore excessive. I am glad to hear you have your own individual stylings. I would look for work elsewhere, as even the good guys will go under when the inevitable agent licencing happens.

space cadet said...

I would be very keen to know if the lettings agency in Yorkshire are transparent about their fees? Do you tell people what they - specifically how much - on your website?

Cos this, to my mind, is the first and best thing you can do if you want to forge a good relationship with tenants.

And the huge advantage of going privately is that I am not forced to sign a hideous contract, that the letting agent will undoubtedly charge me some large (again, made up) fee to get out of. I also get to meet the landlord, and have a real conversation, try to negotiate. Letting agents just don't compete with that.

Even suggesting, to most letting agents, that you might need to break a contract early meets with disdain every time I've tried it.

There are so many other, better, jobs out there for someone with moral fibre.

Dazzla said...


It seems to me that what you're saying is that your business model isn't viable unless you charge tenants unreasonable fees to perform everyday tasks.

Speaking as someone who's changed careers three times in my life (And I'm still in my 30s) you have to adapt to circumstances and if tenants and landlords decide that they've had enough of your making the process of finding and maintaining a place to live more expensive, than that's what you'll have to do.

I'm sorry I can't be more sympathetic, but I'm tired of paying good money to people whose job could be done the the advantage of all using currently available technology.

Jon B said...

Im happy to hear you are in Scotland renter girl! I hope you will get in touch with Edinburgh Private Tenants Action Group, and maybe get involved? We are campaigning for many of the things you talk about in your blog!

We have had a great deal of interest from other cities such as Dundee, Glasgow and Aberdeen, and hope to help these cities start their own private tenants associations. We are looking into how a national organisation might work.

I love your blog! I have borrowed one of you ideas, the compulsory landlord training, for the EPTAG response to the scottish government consultation on strategy in the PRS. :)

Anonymous said...

Renter Girl

Well done for having the energy to take on these cowboys. I am leaving my flat on 24th August and am stressed about what spurious reasons the letting agents will give to try and keep my deposit.
What really gets me about letting agents is no matter if you pay your rent on time, live in the flat for years and years, keep it in good order, they always look down their nose at you. There is a real lack of respect for private tenants, and it makes me feel crap having to interact with folk that treat me like a scumbag! I intend to have a witness with me at my check-out date, and am ready to take them to small claims court to get back my deposit if they mess me about! Little do they know, I will be looking for the admin fees and credit reference check fees too...
Thanks for the post, its cheered me up a bit!
LB in Glasgow

RenterGirl said...

Anon: take photos. Good ones. And check to see if you are expected to do a 'professional clean.' Good luck. Keep me posted how it goes.

Ben Reeve Lewis said...

I sympathise with Anon. (Apart from the wax) I dont think those fees are unreasonable and nice to hear that you dont sign up any old shite just for the income but I would say you are a very rare beast indeed.

Penny is right when she talks about the explosion of agents in the past 10 years. With the buy to let boom many rascals and rapscallions saw an opportunity to muscle in and make a killing. Ironically the worst agent in my area, in terms of dodgy practices across the board, disrepair, harassment, theft of money has the most boards up and does really well. Only us lot who have to investigate and enforce action against agents knows what they are really up to.

They have a glassy high street office with friendly be-suited operatives but in fact they dont even exist as a business entity, which is entirely legal. We cant serve notices on them because there isnt a company director to serve. Under the Companies Names Act they have to have a certificate up saying who to serve notices on but this changes every few weeks. They are literally just a shop front and thats it.

I once went in to lean on the office manager about their alleged involvement in an illegal eviction and he was totally unfazed by it. He just looked me in the eye and said "In my view all tenants are scum". Nice one mate.

The dodgy agent situation has become so bad it is time for action. Unfortunately a few decent ones will get caught up. There's nothing that can be done about that.

Alternatively, look at the growing trend in cheap, no frills online letting agent services. That is a greater danger to traditional high street agents than regulation at the moment

RenterGirl said...

With the Condems having such a distaste for so-say 'red tape' and their aim being to stop regulation of anything, I doubt that letting agents wil ever be constrained by rules or byelaws. Logic and technology will hasten their doom. And yes: some are fair (rarely, rarely) but it's the bad letting agents who behave as Ben so rightly details, who manage to unite landlords and tenants: who both hate letting agents.

Ben Reeve Lewis said...

Now therein lies the bog problem agents have Penny. I know some brilliant human and humane agents, people who are a credit to the business but they are swamped by the crooks.

Because of these ne'er do wells the good ones get tarnished and there is little they can do when the vast experience of most is of the bad kind.

This means there is nobody to stand up for agents because both tenants and landlords dont like them.

Just this very morning I got a phone call from my wife saying she had received a call from our agents, Haarts, saying they had a problem fixing our boiler (It was fixed 2 days ago so dont know what was going on with the communication front) saying they had a problem with their keys getting in to fix the boiler. My Missus said "Why do you think its ok to let yourself into our home when we arent there?". The perpelexed but admittedly polite agent was a bit flumoxxed.

Why would this agent make the assumption that our home had so little business relevance that they could just come and go as they please?

Until a home owner makes the final payment on the mortgage the property belongs to the bank but how would they feel if representatives from Barcalys let themselves in with a key while the borrower was in the bath?

It is for reasons like this that people hate letting agents. This bloody arrogance that ownership is all and that anyone else's rights are an inconvenient obstruction between them and their income

Ben Reeve Lewis said...

There’s the rub Penny. Who will stand up for agents?
I know some great ones and I think decent, independent agents, that live-in and know their community could be a great resource but who trusts them?
Not landlords, who think they are out to rip them off and tenants who hate feeling like cattle when dealing with them. The bad ones, who far outnumber the good ones hold sway. Introducing regulation to squash out the cowboys should be in every decent agent’s interests. There’s the problem, neither landlords nor tenants will stand up for them because both parties are made to feel that their needs aren’t being served by the agents.
I am a tenant and my agents are Haarts. A few days ago we reported a broken boiler. Fair play to them and our landlord, it was fixed a few hours later but this didn’t filter down to our local office who phoned my wife this morning saying “We have a problem getting into your flat to fix the boiler”, to which Frazzy said “Why do you think it’s OK to let yourself into OUR HOME when we aren’t there?”.
Why, oh why did this admittedly polite and well-meaning agent think that it is acceptable to simply enter another person’s home without seeking their permission first? Are tenants so insignificant in an agent’s thinking? While this kind of behaviour persists, even amongst fairly reputable agents how can they expect people to stand up for them?

Sven said...

Rentergirl: didn't mean to besmirch your good work.

I live in Wales where landlord accreditation is being planned in the next couple of years. Will be interesting if it is successful as a labour gov't might adopt it in England.

I am fortunate enough to live in a coop these days. It is a shame they are not more widespread as an alternative to private lets

RenterGirl said...

Ben all are excellent points. The amateurism of agents mean that everybody hates them, and their ignorance and pig-headed ignoring of rules cries out for regulation.

And Sven I agree with you. It isn't a victory. Housing Coops are very interresting, as si reclaiming empty homes.

Ben Reeve Lewis said...

Sorry on the weird double post. My original didnt appear last night so I re-wrote and now they are both there.

I spent 5 years living in Sanford Housing coop in Deptford, South East London where I was membership officer and another post I’ve forgotten (Tip for would be coop members, never volunteer to be keys officer, you get hassled day and night by people who’ve lost their keys) and I had a fantastic time. Collective living suits my temperament and I’d like to think I might do it again when I’m old.

Whatever angle you take on UK housing, from the debacle of mortgage deals, first timer deposits, unregulated agents, legally clueless landlords, the instability of having a buy to let landlord and an assured shorthold tenancy, affordable rents, end of social tenancies for life you cant escape the view that it is a completely broken system.

The whole thing needs shaking up and I can see more varied ways of occupying homes being a way forward but one crucial component is the need to change our feudal mind-set towards property ownership. What’s mine is mine.

I remember having a phone conversation with a landlord once in which I was advising him on the eviction procedure. He was astonished and actually said to me “You’re not seriously trying to tell me that there are laws that tell a man what he can and cant do with his own property?, They’d laugh you out of court man”. This kind of rubbish has to change.

Mr Guitar 123 said...

My lettings agent took my deposit and refuses to give it back.

What can I do?

RenterGirl said...

You can go to the deposit protection service that registered your deposit, in England.

space cadet said...

I had a conversation with a landlord once, who refused to fix the permanently broken heating. I said to him "You do realise that we have a contract, and you have an obligation?". He said "There is no contract, what are you talking about? Show me". This is what we're dealing with folks.

Rach said...

Hi RenterGirl, great post. I now wish I was moving to Scotland.

We paid a £600 holding deposit to our letting agent then suddenly saw the £400 fee we hadn't been told about in advance. They're trying to charge us two separate admin fees on top of the two (way over the market price) reference check fees. I thought there would be some charge but this is staggering and they're refusing to negotiate the price.

If it's not halved we'll ditch them and my boyfriend is already plotting a small claims court action if they don't pay him interest on the money they held (he's fairly militant about these things). To be honest, I'm glad he is - without militant tenants nothing will change.

We're renting in N1 in London, it's got the highest concentration of estate agents I've ever seen anywhere in my life. Market competition has blatantly failed to forcing these fees down when every second shop-front is an estate agent and they're still outrageous.

This needs to be legislated for.

One question: aside from pointing out that the fee is way over what other agents charge, threatening to not take it and generally moaning. Is there anything we can do? I like the flat and don't really want to loose it.

RenterGirl said...

Rach: Move in and challenge them after is the best way. that's what happens with intransigent illegal fees chargers in Scotland. As I said in the post above, only landlords should pay (they reap the profit on their business) and tenants should not be charged anything. Imagine charging an entrance fee to a supermarket.

argh said...

This is so informative. I've been doing batttle with my letting agents in Glasgow for almost a month and they still can't tell me when and how much of my deposit I'm getting back. Final checkout inspection went like a dream: replace a new toilet seat and a standard 2 hours cleaning charge to hose down the balcony. I signed and left feeling surprised but happy! Two weeks later, I've handed in all my final bill paperwork and now they are saying the landlord is saying the wall need painted ( I painted one wall in the hall white instead of cream - it was covered in finger marks and I wanted to freshen up the hallway for new tenents. I alos painted te balcony walls white again. I am now y=unable to get a figure out of the letting agents and they never return my calls, though invariably email me at 4.57pm saying they will contact me tomorrow. I am SO fed up of this. What is the longest time they can legally hold my deposit for? I can't even dispute the fugure because they won't give me one! So frustrated and cross.

Also - if the final check out inspection is agreed and signed (I was happy with their comments) can the landlord waltz in two weeks later and start raising questions? What surely is the point of a letting agent/ final check out if it can all be overturned on the whim of the landlord? Please help, your advice has been very uesful so far