Life

Life For Rent: Our Letting Agent Stole Our Rent and Disappeared

01 June 2020, 8:00am
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A housing advice column for all your renting problems from VICE UK columnist Vicky Spratt. Got a burning question? Email lifeforrent@vice.com.

We have been living in London for two years and we use an agent. He has always been rubbish, but this time he seems to have outdone himself. Earlier this month, we received a letter claiming to be from our landlord, stating that they have not received rent via our agent since November 2019. This was news to us as we have always paid rent on time and had never been contacted about missing rent before. They are not holding us responsible – nor should they – as they claim they are seeking to recoup this missing rent from the agent, who has seemingly disappeared.

I am pissed that our hard-earned income has been supposedly going to some crook and that it took them SIX MONTHS to raise this. I don't want to get dragged into a criminal matter, but I also don't want others to fall victim to the landlord's incompetence or the agent's criminal behaviour. Is there anything I can do besides what I've done already? Would it be worth it to report either party later down the line and if so, who?

Usually, I feel the need to caveat my Life for Rent answers with a slightly wordier equivalent to “not all letting agents...” but, then, I hear stories like this and I’m ready to picket with a hammer and sickle. Housing is an essential human right. You literally cannot survive without shelter, so why is private renting such a cartel?

I could feign Pollyannaish outrage – how the hell did this happen, this is wild etc. But, sadly, I already know the answer: our private rented sector isn’t properly regulated and it isn’t fit for purpose. Private renting was deregulated in the 1980s, fuelling a buy-to-let boom. The sector has grown exponentially in the last three decades as a result, and is now the second largest tenure in England behind owner occupation. Almost 20 million people live this way because we don’t have enough social housing – we sold it off through Right to Buy and didn’t build more to replace it.

Believe it or not, there is currently no overarching statutory regulation of private sector letting or managing agents in England. Yep, you read right. The government has said that regulation will be introduced but it’s all very piecemeal – “let’s introduce a letting fee ban” here, “we’ll ban Section 21 evictions” there.

You’re right to be pissed. Let’s make sure you don’t get mugged off moving forward. Hold tight, because this is complicated. Shelter expert advisor Andy Parnell agrees that you’re right to be cautious. Generally, I live my life by one rule and one rule only: “get it in writing”.

Andy warns: “You may need to be flexible with the proof you’re asking for – not all landlords have solicitors, and they’d probably be reluctant to spend money hiring one just to write you a letter.”

Ask your landlord whether they belong to a legit and accredited professional body like the Residential Landlords Association (RLA). If they do, this gives you some redress. Membership isn’t compulsory, though so they might not.

That said, the agent does legally have to be a member of a redress scheme. As you can’t get hold of them, you should report them straight away. If they aren’t signed up to any, report them to Trading Standards, who can take action because, as you rightly point out, they’ve potentially committed fraud.

If you’re really spooked and feeling ultra-sceptical which, let’s be real, you are, you can also find out whose name the property is registered in by checking the Land Registry website. This costs £3 but it’s a lot cheaper than a solicitor and it will mean you know, once and for all, that you’re not being fobbed off by a scammer.

“If you haven’t already,” Andy adds, “have a look at your tenancy agreement. The landlord’s name and address will normally be on it – and will tell you who they are. If their name isn’t there, you can ask them for their address. By law, they must give you an address so you can serve notice should you need to.”

Assuming everything checks out – and I hope it does – Andy says that when you start paying the landlord directly, “ask for proof of receipt so you have evidence of money having changed hands in case anything else goes wrong”.

As for getting a rent reduction: “Unfortunately this is tricky, because your landlord has no obligation to reduce your rent. By law, it’s your responsibility to make sure you pay your rent in full. Current government pandemic guidance does say that if a tenant can’t pay all their rent, one option might be to reduce the amount they have to pay, but this is only a suggestion and the landlord doesn’t have to agree. If you can’t agree on a reduction, you could ask your landlord if you can pay off any arrears over a longer period or see if they’d agree to using some of your deposit to cover the rent.”

I’ve also got some bad news about the tenancy agreement details you shared in your extended letter. It sounds like it might be a joint agreement. “This,” Andy explains, “means the departing tenant would have had to transfer their share in the property to any new tenant or end your current joint tenancy to end their liability. After this had happened, this would allow you and any new tenants to create a new agreement with the agent or landlord to stay in the property.”

You’re reading this right: the person who moved out could still be a joint tenant – and therefore still responsible for the rent. Andy says you should talk to your landlord if this is the case: “Hopefully the landlord will agree to issue a new tenancy agreement, but this is their decision.”

I’m really sorry. This all totally sucks. Good luck.

I wanted to ask if you had any info on terminating a rental contract during this pandemic. My brother – he’s a student – has moved home and wants to cancel his contract which runs for another few months but the agents are having none of it. Wondering if I can point him in the right direction of a place that might be able to help him. Agents are no help, so he might just stop paying his rent.

This is cute – your brother is very lucky to have you. Thanks for reaching out on his behalf and, for that matter, an untold number of student renters who find themselves in a similar situation because a pandemic means that the messy primordial ooze that is otherwise known as “being at uni” is currently on hold.

Rents, however, sadly, are… not!

Fear not, the National Union of Students are fighting the good fight. They’re calling on the government to ensure that every student landlord must offer a no-penalty release from tenancy contracts for the current and next academic year and make sure that student renters who are financially impacted by coronavirus have their forthcoming rents subsidised, significantly reduced or waived entirely for three months – with the option to renew if needed. (Sadly, there’s no sign that the government is planning to take on either of these suggestions.)

I’m going to assume that your brother has a standard fixed-term tenancy agreement. Andy notes: “[These] can’t usually be ended without the landlord or agent’s agreement, which means that your brother could be bound by his contract until the end of the fixed term.

“To end a fixed-term tenancy, you’ll need a break clause in the contract, which allows either the landlord or tenant to end the fixed term early or negotiate a mutual agreement to ‘surrender’ the contract.”

Here’s what your brother needs to do. First: he should check his agreement carefully. If there is a break clause, it will say how and when it can be used. If there’s no break clause, I’m sorry to say he won’t have much room to manoeuvre. He’ll have to talk to his landlord, negotiate and hope they change their mind and agree to end the tenancy early.

I’m afraid there is absolutely no requirement for them to do this, even though we’re smack bang in the middle of a pandemic and none of this is his fault.

Now, you’re not going to like this bit; a lot of people aren’t. I know left-leaning social media is awash with calls for a rent strike. It’s a tantalising prospect – the idea we could all rise up like Mary Barbour, who led a rent strike in Glasgow in 1915, and scare landlords into submission. Maybe it would turn out like that; but, maybe, if your brother just stopped paying rent, his landlord or agent would take him to court for the money owed. This could leave him with a County Court Judgement (CCJ) against his name, affecting his credit rating, and he could be ordered to pay the rent he owes anyway.

So what options does that leave him? “If the landlord is separate from the agency, your brother could try contacting them directly to ask if they’re willing to agree to an alternative,” Andy suggests. “Even if he can’t end the tenancy completely, they might agree to reduce the rent, or for rent to be paid off after the tenancy has finished. If he doesn’t have the landlord’s details, he can write to the agent and ask for their name and address – the agent is likely to be legally required to give him this information.”

Now, you have a couple of options if you’re feeling sneaky which, reader, I always am. It’s possible that the letting agent hasn’t done their job properly. See Exhibit A – the scam above.

Firstly, get your brother to check whether his deposit has been properly protected. This is a legal requirement but – you guessed it – it doesn’t always happen. If it’s not, he could claim compensation. The agent won’t want to cough up so this could give him enough clout to help negotiate an early end to the tenancy.

Secondly, if your brother is sharing a house with five or more people living there, the property should usually also have an HMO (house in multiple occupation) licence. If it doesn’t, the local council may be able to take action against the landlord or agent, and your brother can potentially claim up to 12 months’ rent back.

Obviously, both these options would only work if the agent has not fulfilled their obligations. I’m sorry I can’t offer more straightforward advice or crack a few more jokes. I’m feeling more than a bit serious this week – coronavirus didn’t cause the housing crisis but it’s really driving home what a mess renting is in this country.

If you need it, there’s more information about all of this on Shelter’s website.

@Victoria_Spratt

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