We're very grateful to Which?, the consumer rights organisation, for their latest investigation into letting agents. A mystery-shopping exercise, targeting 20 agents around the country, revealed practices that potentially breach the law: from denying would-be tenants the opportunity to review terms and conditions before putting down money, to opaque fees.
This piece of work is particularly useful because it gives tenants an idea of what bad practice to watch out for (and challenge) the next time you're trying to find a new home. Here's what they found...
- 5 agents would not give tenants a copy of the proposed tenancy agreement before the tenant had handed over some money - e.g. a holding deposit
- 1 agent insisted on the tenant coming into the office if they wanted to read the tenancy agreement
- 7 agreements required tenants to get permission from the landlord before they could switch energy supplier
- 12 agreements said landlords or authorised workmen could access the property without prior consent from the tenant - the law only permits this in urgent emergency situations
- 10 agreements included fees and charges that were vaguely worded
- 13 agreements referred to legislation without adequate explanation of what it meant
This is not an exhaustive list of the potentially unfair terms. Unscrupulous letting agents are a crafty bunch and are likely to keep finding ways of bamboozling tenants. For example, unregulated "deposit alternative" schemes are proliferating, with some tenants being charged money for damages even after paying non-refundable fees into the scheme.
The forthcoming ban on letting fees should address some of the problems that Which? identified. Permitted fees are restricted to a narrowly defined handful. And, thanks to our lobbying of Parliament, tenants who are asked to sign up to unfair terms will be able to walk away from the tenancy without forfeiting their holding deposit (see p13 of the new guidance).
But tenants will still be under pressure to sign what is put in front of them - to hesitate means someone else will get the home. So for these new rules to work properly, agents must fear getting caught. That means enforcement authorities - including redress schemes and councils' Trading Standards teams - have to do their jobs effectively. But they'll only know about misbehaviour by agents if tenants report it.
That's why we've created this page where you can let us know about any dodgy practice by letting agents near you. Already we've had dozens of people sending us information. We'll be publishing an update soon. In the meantime, please spread the word using the share links below.