It’s with a shiver down my spine and clenched teeth that I recall my first rented flat in London.
I was 22-years-old, looking for work and had never lived south of Manchester. Looking back, I was terribly naive and, truth be told, absolutely petrified about moving to the big city. Put simply, I was fair game for an unscrupulous letting agent.
To say the agent took his duties lightly would be an understatement. From the gas boiler which broke down repeatedly to the coin-operated lekky, it wasn’t an easy time. Add into the mix a bitterly cold winter and damp in the bathroom and these weren’t exactly halcyon days.
When it came time to move out (six months later and not a moment too soon), he insisted on keeping my deposit, citing the damp (hardly my fault) and cat hairs on the carpet. Knowing that some letting agreements forbid the keeping of pets, I’d obtained permission for the cat and was therefore more than a little surprised when he said carpet cleaning costs would be deducted from the deposit. The whole experience was a rude awakening.
This was 20 years ago. But I’m not surprised to learn that nefarious practices within the lettings industry, particularly when it comes to younger tenants, still abound.
Citizens Advice helped people with 6,500 grievances concerning letting agencies between July 2015 and June 2016, a 14 per cent rise from the 5,700 problems reported two years ago. The biggest rise was among 17 to 24-year-olds who sought help with 810 problems with letting agents in the last year, compared to 360 cases reported between July 2013 and June 2014.
Previous research by Citizens Advice highlighted problems with letting agents’ ongoing management of properties, with delays in getting basic repairs completed or in fixing properties that were so damp or cold they could pose a health risk. In other cases tenants sought help when they felt the fees they paid for administration were much more than the cost of renewing their tenancy agreement.
That’s not all. The price of letting agents’ fees has risen considerably, soaring by as much as 60 per cent over the past five years. Official figures from a survey of tenants suggests the average letting agent fee has risen from £125 in 2009-10 to £200 in 2014-15.
But people could be paying much more. Citizens Advice’s research with letting agents has previously revealed fees as high as £337 on average, and up to £700 in some cases.
With rents in some areas of the country at all time highs, the spiralling costs of letting agent fees is a serious issue. Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: ‘Letting agents are hiking up their fees for a service that’s often not up to scratch. With fees rising year on year for letting agents, many tenants will rightly be wondering why they are paying hundreds of pounds for a simple contract renewal or for management services that leave them waiting months for essential repairs.
‘It is concerning that younger renters are among the most likely to report problems with a letting agent, when many will end up using letting agents to find somewhere to live at university. Private renters shop around for properties, not for letting agents. Landlords are better able to choose agencies based on performance and cost and it should therefore be landlords paying letting agent fees, not tenants picking up these rising costs.’
I accept, however, that tenants aren’t always the best of customers.
Research out today by Direct Line Landlord Insurance suggests that one in seven renters have broken one or more rules outlined in their tenancy agreement. The rules tenants bend range from not paying the rent on time (or at all) to failing to regularly check the smoke or carbon monoxide alarm. Other common broken rules include smoking, keeping a pet and damaging or making alterations to the property.
I’ve no doubt that letting agents and landlords have their own issues when it comes to problem tenants. But that’s no excuse to take advantage of young people who are just starting out in life and therefore least likely to know their rights.
Helen Nugent is Online Money Editor of The Spectator