Monthly Archives: May 2014

Letting agents: Just what is it they do with your money?

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.

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Chris Hoy, cycling and the borg…

…or, Please stop blaming me for what that other person did

Hoy tweet

I suspect that Hoy’s had enough feedback from this tweet by now. In one sentence he managed to sum up all that’s wrong with “othering” and the pervasive attitude in British society that cycling is different and odd.

So why do I think Hoy is wrong? To illustrate this, I’ll discuss two things: first the way in which drivers are treated when they act criminally and second the accusations levelled at cyclists and the way in which they are held collectively responsible for the behaviour of others, behaviour over which they have no control.

In discussing driver behaviour I’ve looked at my local papers for the last couple of days. So pervasive is adverse driver behaviour that there’s no real need to look any further. Leanne Burnell has just been released from jail after killing a cyclist. She is not allowed anywhere near where the cyclist used to live. Burnell and her boyfriend were racing in a 30mph zone when they killed Amy Hofmeister. But is anyone saying that these two give drivers a bad name through their actions? After all they have basically murdered someone. Are they a small minority that give other drivers a bad rep by being irresponsible? If they are, it doesn’t feature anywhere in the reporting.

This drunk driver isn’t being held up as an example of why people dislike drivers. And then there’s teaching assistant Emma Walker, who decided to travel at twice the speed limit and drive on the wrong side of the road whilst her passengers begged her to stop. Walker got away with it but her three friends variously suffered brain damage, a dislocated hip meaning a shortened leg, a broken neck and a ruptured spleen. So is Walker giving drivers a bad reputation, and if not, why not? To answer this, let’s examine what it is cyclists are blamed for.

Cycle1

So this cyclist is blamed for their own death despite the fact that the actual stats on red light jumping tell a different story. As for outrunning cars, well yes cyclists will filter if cars are going slower, which they generally are in rush hour traffic. The Twit in question had no idea about the details of the accident or who had caused it, they just blamed the cyclist on the grounds that “they” ALL go through red lights.

Moving on:

Road tax

Now there are multiple problems with this. Road tax was abolished in 1937; VED is a tax on pollutants and bikes would be zero-rated; in the UK roads are public highways we all have a right to use; payment of something doesn’t confer a right to violence because you’re a bit irritated, and so on. But what you can see in that tweet is that cyclists are hated on erroneous grounds. Road tax is a side issue, it’s an excuse to justify a hatred that stems from something else. Nothing I do on a bike, whether stopping at a red light or not, is going to change this person’s prejudices because they aren’t based on facts.

And again:

hungover driver

It isn’t for this person to decide whether or not others have a need to be on the road. Driving with a hangover is at best inadvisable. And if your blood-alcohol content is still over the limit, it’s illegal. Again, cyclists doing nothing wrong, driver possibly breaking the law.
And the last one for today:

Cycle2.jpg

Again, cycling side by side isn’t actually illegal. Drivers accuse cyclists of doing something wrong even when cyclists are acting within the law. Thus whatever cyclists do, whether they act legally or illegally, this invective will be directed at them. Whereas no matter what drivers do, whether it’s actually killing someone, maiming their friends, or just threatening random violence against strangers, the individual is deemed to be responsible, not the group. So what is going on here?

Essentially driving is seen as a normal activity that almost every adult does. It’s the default option. There’s always an assumption that you’ve travelled by car or that you will travel by car. For evidence just look at invitations you get to events and the instructions for how to get there. Thus the behaviour, because it’s “normal” is disassociated from the person doing it. A person driving badly is an individual doing something normal but doing it wrongly.

In contrast, cycling is something other and different. People will ask you why you cycle, but they will rarely ask you why you drive. Thus if you cycle, you’re not disassociated from the activity, it is assumed to be part of your identity. And as such you’re then identified with everyone else who cycles, because this random abnormal behaviour identifies you and marks you out with “them”. Thus you can be blamed for what someone else does, as if you’re all part of some borg hive mind. And along with the blame comes the punishment – it’s OK to run one cyclist over because once someone saw another cyclist somewhere else doing something wrong.

Cyclists are not disliked for their law breaking. Most of the time they’re not breaking the law and much of the time those accusing them of so doing don’t really know what the law states. Cyclists are disliked for transgressing social boundaries, for not doing what’s “normal”, for questioning a consumerist culture and a lifestyle that relies completely on the motorcar.

Thus in arguing that the actions of a few cyclists taint those of the many, Hoy feeds into a prejudice rather than questioning it. He is validating the assumption that cyclists are other, different, blameworthy. Hoy thinks cyclists should earn respect on the road. Did Emma Walker earn respect for drivers? Did Emma Way, when she knocked down a cyclist and boasted about it? Once you realise that cyclists are a bullied minority, the notion that they should earn respect takes on a rather nastier tone. It’s like telling a bullied school child that the problem lies with them, that if only they would change their behaviour the bullies would go away rather than realising that the problem lies with the stupidity of the bullies. Cyclists shouldn’t have to earn respect any more than any other road group. The shift in attitude needs to come from the idiots who blame all cyclists for the behaviour of one cyclist. We need deeper cultural shifts so that the vulnerable are respected, not mocked and threatened. Shame on you Hoy, for adding to a bullying culture.

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