1 in 7 renters who used a letting agency paid £500 or more in letting fees. For £500 I’d expect a lot, a gold welcoming mat perhaps, but in general what they actually do is run a credit check and ask your previous letting agent for a reference. Which might just about be acceptable if they first checked whether or not your old letting agent was OK or if they were an incompetent charlatan of the sort who charges hundreds of pounds for something that takes about 15 minutes to do if you type slowly.
I have recently moved out of a flat I rented in Exeter through the letting agents Bower & Bower. In fairness to Bower & Bower they only charged me £125 in fees and then only the once. They never charged a renewal fee, which is fortunate because they didn’t update my contract after the first 6 months. Indeed in the four years I was renting through them, the letting agents and landlord did very little.
In my first year of residence the landlord replaced the condemned boiler. Then in the autumn of 2012 I spent 6 weeks with no heating after the old gas fire was condemned. When the gas fire was eventually replaced the landlord put the rent up by £25 pcm and did not offer a rebate for the time that I was without heating. And here’s the thing with my landlord and Bower & Bower. They weren’t nasty or particularly dangerous or outright thuggish. They were just common or garden half-arsed. They exhibited the sort of borderline incompetence and laissez-faire attitude to making money off someone else’s labour that isn’t actually illegal and thus flies under the radar. Channel Four aren’t exactly going to devote air time to them but nonetheless, I was being charged a lot of money to live in a damp and rather poorly maintained flat whilst they did whatever it was they did with the cash I paid them.
Then things worsened. There’s damp and then there’s water pouring through your ceiling. On 30 December 2013 I phoned the letting agent to tell them that water was dripping into my hallway from the ceiling. I had worked out that the external brickwork was so saturated that water was basically seeping through. It was a 200 year old basement flat in one of the wettest recorded winters so it wasn’t that surprising. Since I wasn’t about to be inundated I agreed with the letting agent that they would contact me in the new year and I would let them know if it got worse, so we could avoid an emergency call out fee over the winter holiday.
On 3 January I phoned Bower & Bower and explained that the ceiling in the hallway was still leaking and that I was increasingly concerned about it. They agreed to contact the landlord. The week commencing 6 January Bower & Bower contacted me to arrange for a builder to visit my flat in my absence and inspect the ceiling.
I heard nothing further from Bower & Bower until they contacted me by letter on 21 January to inform me that the landlord wanted to put my rent up by another £10 pcm starting from March 13th. I found this, to be honest, somewhat enraging. In no other circumstances could you rent accommodation and be charged extra to fix problems. Can you imagine checking out of a hotel, reporting a leak and being told ‘ah yes, madam, there will be a £10 surcharge whilst we fix that.’ The rent you pay should include maintenance. That’s the whole damn point.
I contacted them by letter and explained that in the light of this increase, and the lack of maintenance work carried out on behalf of the landlord, I would look for alternative accommodation. On 27th January I was contacted by a builder on behalf of Bower & Bower. The following day he called round to the flat whilst I was there. He expressed concern about the damp in the flat. Observing the leaking plaster board he pushed against it and this simple action caused some of the plaster to fall down. Now whilst I wasn’t in danger of major ceiling collapse, having plaster fall on your head when you open your front door isn’t that much fun and certainly isn’t something one should be charged hundreds of pounds for, particularly if you don’t know what might lurk underneath the plaster.
I gave the letting agents a month’s notice from the 12 February, by which point they had still not fixed the leak which continued to let in water if the weather was bad. This meant that if I was expecting any important post, I had to rush home to fetch it out of a puddle (because of the position of the leak in the hallway by the front door I could not leave a bucket under it if I left the house). At this point, the fun really began.
When I gave notice, by email, I received a letter in return with an enclosure detailing the things that were expected of me before I left. These included cleaning up any mould. Yes, that’s right, mould is found in rented accommodation so commonly that cleaning it up forms a standard part of the cleaning procedure when you leave. You would hope that maintaining properties so that mould doesn’t grow in the first place would be a priority but no, it doesn’t seem to be.
And then that was it, no communication from the letting agents. Nothing from them about how or when to hand the keys over, nothing about inspecting the property and absolutely nothing about procedures for the deposit. On Monday 10 March I moved my belongings into the new property I was renting. On the 11th I returned to the old property to clean it. Still no word from Bower & Bower so I phoned them. They told me to just drop the keys off at their office. Still nothing about any hand over so I took photos of the flat after I’d cleaned it.
I took the keys back to the office and someone working there took my bank details for the deposit to be returned and told me that provided there were no problems with the property it would be paid to me within 7-10 days. I was not impressed that he wrote my bank details on a scrap of paper whilst I read them out to him. Ask anyone who has spent more than 10 minutes working in an accounts department and they’ll tell you it’s a good way to get someone’s account details wrong. And interestingly, when I told him my title was “Dr” he got confused and assumed that I was a landlord not a tenant. Yes, let’s all watch multiple social prejudices in action.
The week commencing 24 March I phoned Bower & Bower. There was no sign of the deposit and without it back, I knew I could not afford the rent payment for my new property which would leave my account 2 weeks later. The man I spoke to assured me that he had inspected the property, that it was OK and that the deposit would be returned within a few days. There had been a delay because he had been unable to get into the property as the front door stuck. Yes, I said, that’s because of the damp, the damp that I reported to you several times. I’d become inured to kicking the front door open, it had become a normal part of life.
By 4 April there was still no sign of the deposit. I did some digging around. I could not find my deposit registered with any deposit protection service and I had not received any notification from Bower & Bower that it was registered. I emailed them to this effect. I should point out that I did not have the evidence – they may have registered it but if they did, I had not been made aware of the fact. I received no reply that day despite telling them of the urgency of the matter. Thus on Saturday 5 April I started phoning them repeatedly. I did eventually get to speak to someone, I told him I didn’t care what excuses he came up with, I wanted my deposit back, end of story. Then I hung up and went back to the internet to research.
A very helpful person on Twitter gave me some good advice and pointed me in the direction of Shelter. From Shelter I downloaded a letter that makes it very clear what the penalties are for landlords and letting agents who don’t use the tenancy deposit scheme. I downloaded this and emailed it to Bower & Bower. Finally, it was their turn to contact me in a panic. They even managed to check my account details, which they had taken incorrectly the first time. By Tuesday 8 April the deposit was back in my account.
In fact, Bower & Bower continued to panic because frankly I didn’t see why I should contact them to tell them I’d got the money back. I already felt as if I should have billed them for a considerable amount of my time. Finally, to get them to stop phoning me (how times change) I told them that yes, I had got the deposit back and then I told them this:
It doesn’t compensate me for my overdraft charges. It doesn’t make up for your staff not following any procedures for the end of my tenancy, checking the flat, returning keys or agreeing on the deposit. It doesn’t make up for the stress of wondering if I would be able to pay my rent this month, or having my phone calls and emails ignored until I threatened the company with action through the county court. It doesn’t, in any way, shape or form, make up for your company leaving me living in a flat with a leaking hole in the ceiling for 10 weeks or the way in which my landlord tried to put the rent up every time he was asked to do anything. And really, getting my deposit back doesn’t alleviate that nagging sense prevalent in UK society in general and within your organisation in particular that somehow, because I am a tenant and not a landlord, I really don’t matter.
The power balance between letting agents and tenants encapsulates much of what is currently wrong with British society. As a tenant, I have very little chance to check out a letting agent. I certainly cannot run a credit check on them; ask for written assurance that the landlord has sufficient funds and won’t suddenly need to sell up; ask to see every one of their procedures and policies and ask them for the addresses of previous tenants so that I can ask those tenants whether or not the agent is reliable. And can you imagine not only being able to ask a letting agent for those things but in addition, charging them for the privilege? No? Well why not? Because as far as I can see, the letting agent or landlord is just as likely to be an unreliable charlatan out to fleece you, as you are to be an unreliable tenant who cannot pay. And yet there is an assumption that letting agents are trustworthy and that tenants are so unreliable that they not only have to prove themselves but have to pay to do so. Either you should both trust each other, or both check each other out. The asymmetry reflects a power imbalance and embodies the assumption that it is landowners who are trustworthy whilst tenants are shiftless.
It is part of a wider imbalance. I don’t have the right to charge Bower & Bower for my time, for interest and for overdraft charges. However, should I notch up a debt to a company, they can do just that to me. And so, when you’re waiting around for letting agents and other people who like to hold onto your money for longer than they should, you find yourself borrowing money in ways that simply make you poorer. And because you have so little capital anything you need to buy you buy cheaply, and so as the old saying goes, you buy it twice.
Thus you stay poor. Somewhere, somehow, this needs to change. There are fundamental changes needed in the housing market but we could start small. We could start by assuming that tenants are reasonable people, that renting property isn’t something done only by people too idle to work and save. By charging over the odds, companies entrap tenants in poverty and then claim that it is the tenant’s own fecklessness rather than the system the landlords and letting agents help to create that is at fault. We have built a system that fails the most vulnerable people.