Monday, 24 September 2012

They're Doomed! Doomed!

Such charming people, letting agents. Lovely, warm-hearted, honest and caring.

My friend is still looking for a place, and she’s getting desperate. I saw a ‘To Let’ sign outside a likely property, and called the number to ask about the flat. Now keep in mind that my friend had already called: she thought I had imagined the sign, so strenuously did the agency deny its existence. I thought the agency had re-let the place, but was told ‘they had no property in that area.’ I said forcefully that they might take the sign down. They kept repeating their mantra, and did not apologise for wasting my time, and that of countless others.

It’s that sort of casual, callous disregard for people that made me sort of glad in a way about this related story.

A friend contacted me to ask about his deposit: the letting agent had gone bust. Briefly I mourned the innocent jobs lost, then I got out the bunting: the joy was briefly unconfined. This is going to happen a lot more in the coming months. There are too many agents scrabbling for business, and they are already ‘surplus to requirements.’ Many landlords are using ‘portals’ (which still sound so sci-fi) and traditional agents are going under.

This also explains why they have dreamed up more cruel and unusual fees - aka a premium (officially declared illegal in Scotland – despite another agent telling yet another friend that this would all be settled in November. He paid up and will reclaim the fee in court. What a waste of time.)

My friend had paid his deposit just before the law enforcing the protection scheme in Scotland came in. His landlord is awol. The agency had done that new trick of listing themselves as the landlord, rather than naming the owner on the lease – very dodgy indeed. Anyone out there know why they do this?

My friend located the owner (hooray!) who’s ignoring his emails and letters (boo!) He’s going to the small claims court to take action against the landlord: if he sues the bankrupt agency he’ll be put on a list of creditors, and will be a very low priority recouping a fraction of what he paid.

I am glad that all deposits must now be protected everywhere – and the law was post-dated; it applies to all rental agreements no matter when they started.

The sad part is for those under the yoke of agents who were struggling before this, who have escaped with deposits, which can run to thousands. My friend is desperate for his money. He’s also worried about going to court, but I reassured him that it isn’t expensive and is very straightforward.

I’m left wondering how many agencies are endangered. They can’t run away with deposits now, but will go into liquidation - landlords suffering as incoming rent payments are eaten up. Hey-ho: no pain, no gain. We might be rid of this unnecessary layer of parasitical laziness, con-tricks and bumph quite soon. Seriously – if you work for a letting agency, look for another job.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Nowhere Left To Go

Being lost, and about to be homeless is the sad and inevitable consequence of the housing catastrophe we live in. Many people are googling, and even asking me as a last resort about a simple problem: they have nowhere left to go.

These unfortunates are not roofless (the unofficial reality is that to be accepted as homeless, and therefore housed, applicants must be at the very least sofa-surfing to count, such is the demand.) No – these people are desperate and close to disaster.

The reasons are quite straightforward. Because of benefit cuts and the bedroom tax, tenants are being forced to leave their home and are looking for a new place.

But they are flat-hunting whilst in limited poorly paid employment or claiming, and face referencing, extreme vetting and the need for guarantors. Letting agents, certain landlords and even a few housing associations now require spotless reputations, despite the fact that life is messy and human beings make mistakes.

As Tenancy Relations Officer Ben Reeves-Lewis has said hereabouts, even Sir Alan Sugar went bankrupt a few times before becoming ‘Suralun of You’re Fired Towers.’ And as I’ve said here, people lose money when holding fees are swallowed after non-pristine credit checks, and then…well then where do they go? Find a guarantor, except guarantors are increasingly asked to earn disproportionately high levels of pay.

Next up: prices. Agents and owners conspire to ramp up prices where demand is high, leaving claimants and the low paid struggling to cover their rent, and punished by homelessness for their inability to afford the buttock-clenchingly large sums required in certain areas of the country.

The next reason for the precarious nature of housing is supply, and competition for a limited number of suitable houses. This is getting worse with housing benefit cuts, as many people are in desperate need of one bedroom flats under the cruel and ridiculous bedroom tax (don’t tax the bankers – punish the poor.)

The next spectre pushing tenants into the abyss is that of adverse personal circumstances. Being unemployed, or even on low pay makes for an undesirable tenant, and such people face being turned down everywhere they go: letting agents avoid them, and landlords spurn them – despite there being a depression. As I wrote about previously, having kids is also a no-no. As are pets. And just not looking right.

Something is very wrong in housing land. It’s strange how often these fatal flaws are surmountable by cash: pay six months rent in advance, and all flaws are ignored.

In Manchester, and other areas where there was an oversupply of urban Dovecots, prejudices were immediately and strangely overcome when agents and owners endured a lengthy void. They found their homophobia, loathing of the jobless and kids overcame by need and greed. Elsewhere, the perfect tenant (professional – often arriving as a couple even for a one bed) are welcomed in.

Meanwhile, the gathering storm is swirling in the distance: homeless figures are spiralling. I wrote while back I write that something very bad is going to happen. Well, now it’s begun. Brace yourselves: it’s going to get ugly.

Monday, 10 September 2012

They Can't Away With That, Can They?

I am breaking a resolution, to write again about letting agents. The Scottish government recently confirmed it: all ‘premiums’ charged to tenants are illegal. The courts are currently gridlocked with claims because agents refuse to return the money without a fight. So how, exactly will these parasites skim money from the perfectly workable deal between landlord and tenant, across the UK?

Well, in Scotland, they are (seriously…) still charging admin fees, in the full knowledge they’re illegal. A friend contacted me to say that the agent handling his rental would not letting him read the tenancy agreement until the day he moved in - after charging him a holding fee (that he would presumably lose if, after reading the lengthy legal agreement, he objects to its hidden terms.)

There’s also a massive ‘non-returnable cleaning fee.’ This is mentioned repeatedly, and the redoubtable EPTA (see links) and their amazing protest dressed US Marshalls, won a case declaring that this too is unlawful.

Charging a months rent in advance, six weeks rent upfront as a deposit – all legit and customary then. But also slapping on a charge amounting to a third of the last months rent in advance? The law in Scotland limits the amount charged in advance, and this is a way of circumventing the spirit of the law, while giving the landlord an interest free loan. What if the tenants stays for years?

Also – asking for six months rent upfront.

Demanding a holding fee before a viewing, retained if the tenant turns the property down (so very illegal, that one.) Letting agents are relying in London on scarcity of supply, and elsewhere on fear of contesting claims and lack of knowledge by new, young tenants.

Now, landlords should pay all the costs of renting their own home – actually, they already do. So agents are in effect charging both parties for the same transaction. Make that over charging both parties: £150 for a credit check? Credit checking every year? The tenants credit rating is no concern of the agent, frankly. They pay the rent. So stop unnecessary and intrusive annual checks. Anyway, the reason tenants might be able to afford the rent is simple: rents are usually too high.

Another ploy: during a six month tenancy, agents end the existing agreement, booting out the established tenant. The agent collects a ‘finder’ fees for overcharging another poor soul (and also charges the landlord). Oh, and the rent always increases.

Also – as I wrote about elsewhere, agents seem to have been deducting ‘cleaning fees’ from protected deposits, using estimates passed of as receipts, thereby halving the money returned. Meanwhile, wages, are low, working hours long, and people struggle to feed their children. On top of that, tenants are charged extortionate, random (and in Scotland – illegal) fees.

The good news? Everybody: politicians (well not the condems, but what do you expect) even landlords are in agreement: across the UK, including England, letting agents need regulation. The end is nigh for letting agents – you can’t get away with this anymore. They’re on to you. So run!

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Not Suitable For Children

This story is hitting me from all angles: in search terms, emails, friends, and the experiences of fellow bloggers. Quite simply, private landlords will not let to people with kids, be they couples or single parents.

They don’t say so in the property ads of course, but shockingly, they could stress: ‘No kids’ without sanction. Nobody cares: it is discrimination, but not illegal.

One correspondent relocated to the UK and started flat-hunting. They were staying for about a year as mature post-grad students. They had money in the form of state funding, excellent references and (when problems in securing a house became clear) would pay six months rent upfront. Only trouble was, they would become proud parents about four months after moving in.

He’s Canadian, and didn’t say whether this would be tolerated in the USA, but he did seem astounded. They were after a two bed flat, and sound like dream tenants. Why not let them move in? I never heard whether they found anywhere.

Elsewhere, my blogging friend My Shitty Twenties is trying to find a new home, closer to her friends, family, hopefully with a garden for her cherubic son ‘Tom’. Suddenly the landlord suddenly decided she didn’t want a school age child in the house (Tom is 6). Their decision came after she had paid a holding fee and the actual deposit, so the letting agent didn’t have a legal leg to stand on. Coincidentally, just after she had viewed her perfect house, a childless couple pulled up outside.

Another potential tenant is a single parent, but her landlord rejected her after some intrusive question, assuming she would be on benefits (she isn’t.)

Really young children can be mischievous, but their misdemeanours usually involve tiny trikes bumping into skirting, or some drawing on the walls (mostly washable now, or covered with a coat of emulsion.)

Social housing is a fleeting, disappearing dream. All tenants will rely on the private sector, including, or rather especially, families with children. Rented houses are often inadequate, and anyway, it’s much more lucrative to let a house as an HMO, as landlords can ‘maximise profit’ cramming in more renters, using the lounge as another bedroom (kind landlords don’t) or rent to a couple.

Blinkered, prejudiced rentiers believe all single parents are scroungers, claiming benefits when really they are in full time, possibly well-paid, work. They assume that couples will not be signing on, as one of them will always be in full employment, when in this climate, that is not the case.

Private landlords must now fulfil a social role, when they are accustomed to exercising whimsical prejudices and capricious choices with impunity. Their word is law. Families can be given notice every six months, with children settled in good local schools (there might be no places if they are compelled to move) or just secure and happy.

It’s the opposite of the odious child-catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang-Bang. Landlords do not gather children, the push them away.
The private sector is not family friendly. It just isn’t.