Few professions are more universally loathed than estate agents. But when you haven't got a hope in hell of getting on the property ladder then you're much more likely to encounter a lettings agent who are probably giving the guys at Foxtons a run for their money. Research by Citizens Advice last year found that tenants were paying an average of £337 in charges.
Step forward Haringey council, which hopes it can bring an end to this sorry saga and free tenants from the "the scourge of rip-off fees and charges". In March they set up their own lettings agency for privately rented properties called Move51° North. The website draws on the gamut of gentrification imagery: black and white with stock photography of bright young things going about their bright young lives.
The council-run agency charges tenants a relatively affordable £180 admin fee and £72 for credit checks. It also does away with the ridiculous "renewal fees" that some agents charge merely for tenants staying in a property beyond the initial rental period. Unfortunately there's only one property listed at the moment, so it might not quite be the answer to London's housing crisis we've all been hoping for.
Maybe it will take off and other councils will follow suit, but alas we can't all move to Haringey, and in the short term you're still going to have to navigate your way through a sector that Labour MP Chuka Umunna once aptly described as the "Wild West". So how do you avoid letting agents' fees?
HOW TO AVOID GETTING SCREWED OVER BY WITH TRADITIONAL LETTINGS AGENTS
Before we get into the ways of side-stepping letting agents completely, there are ways of going the normal route more cheaply. Firstly, why not simply haggle? That can seem like a pointless suggestion when there are queues of other people wanting the flat you're looking at. However, if you are already quite far into the process, the lettings agent won't want to disappoint the landlord by having to start things over with a new tenant resulting in a costly void period for the property, so it could be worth a shot.
Before you sign anything, make sure you ask to see list of all the charges you will have to pay. Advertising rules now require agents to publish a breakdown of all their fees online and in their offices.
When you've seen that list, challenge it. A friend of mine was asked to pay two credit-check fees when moving in with her boyfriend, despite the fact she was paying all the rent and the tenancy agreement was in her name only. She argued it and ended up having to pay one fee, saving about £50. I've also heard several success stories of tenants refusing to pay renewal fees or bargaining agents down, so it's definitely worth a go, but if the landlord or agent is angling to raise rents or wants you out, you might not get very far.
Then there are the bullshit charges to avoid: it is against the law for a letting agent to charge a fee simply to register you for viewings or to put you on their books as a potential tenant, so never pay for this.
Whether renting privately or through an agent, in most cases your deposit must be registered with one of the government-approved protection schemes. There are some exceptions, such as if you share the property with your landlord. Shelter has all the info here. At the beginning and end of any tenancy make sure you take lots of photos or even a video to avoid losing your deposit over some cigarette burns in the sofa that were already there when you moved in.
HOW TO AVOID TRADITIONAL LETTINGS AGENTS ALTOGETHER
Aside from Haringey council's launch, there are plenty of websites that offer an alternative route to mainstream agencies and promise lower fees.
OpenRent has around 2,500 properties listed and the only fee for the tenant is £20 for a reference if the landlord requires it. It says: "Contract signing is free. Deposit processing is free and we make sure your deposit is protected. No renewal, key handling, or other hidden charges."
EasyRoommate has around 55,000 UK rooms and properties listed – mainly studios or flatshares. As a tenant you can register and contact some landlords for free. If you want to have your profile featured more prominently to landlords and roommates, to be able to contact all landlords and for all landlords to be able to contact you, you would have to upgrade to Premium membership. This is £9.90 for seven days, £16.90 for 14 days and £26.90 for 30 days. So you'll still end up handing over some cash.
SpareRoom has more than 76,000 properties featured. Many are private landlords, flatshares and lodgings, but some are agents. As a tenant, you don't pay to use the website unless you want to upgrade to its "Earlybird" service giving you access to all advertisers straight away (one week is £10.99, two weeks £16.99 or 28 days at £23.99). With basic membership you can only see adverts seven days after they go up, so realistically you're unlikely to get a free ride here unless you're after somewhere nobody else wants to live.
With a bit of detective work you can also find private landlords with properties to rent via groups on Facebook or by using the right hashtags on Twitter. But be careful not to post too much personal info that could leave you open to ID fraud, burglary or worse.
Follow local bloggers, community projects, cafes and news sites that cover your target area. Ask any of these tweeters with a local following to retweet you. After all, many landlords want to bypass agents too.
HOW TO AVOID GETTING SCAMMED
A few years ago I met a couple in their early twenties who lost over £3,000 to a landlord they found on Gumtree. He was in fact only a tenant of the property but pretended to be its owner. He gave viewings and took took money from around 30 other prospective renters. They all showed up on their agreed move-in date to find the gate padlocked and a note in the window from the genuine owner, who was not involved in the fraud, telling them they had been scammed and to contact the police. The couple didn't get their money back, nor their day in court. Partly because of this and other disastrous experiences of renting in London, they've now moved to Berlin.
If you want to avoid a similarly depressing experience, the main lesson is: never hand over any money until you have thoroughly checked out the individual in question, including asking for photo ID and proof of ownership of the property. Never transfer money to a prospective landlord or agent by Western Union, as it is totally untraceable.
If things do go wrong, your first step should be to complain to the agent, or if you rented directly, the landlord. If there is a dispute over the return of a deposit, speak to the deposit protection scheme you are registered with. If the letting agent is registered with one of the alphabet soup of professional bodies, which include ARLA and the NALS among others then they might also offer assistance. As a last resort, the Property Ombudsman can help to resolve disputes that can't be settled via the above routes.
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