Thursday, 3 May 2007

Property in the UK 2: Take the Deposit and Run

Now, this is one issue which a few months ago would have angered me even more than it does now, so I suppose you can say I should not be disheartened as some things get better. Since leaving home in the 1980s, bar for a short period in 2001, I have been a tenant. I rented in Germany for some time in 1989, but the bulk of my experience has been in the UK. I am a clean person who treats where he is living with respect and I always spent time and money clearing and cleaning before I leave a property. However, as yet only as late as 2005 have I ever got any of my deposit back and it was not until 2007 that I actually had a whole deposit returned. Until 2007 deposits which are supposed to cover damage a tenant does to the house or flat have been treated as bonuses for the landlord. At something around £500-3000 (€730-4380; US$1000-6000) per time it was a heavy loss. It does not matter if you were renting from a letting agency or direct from the owner, they would invent the maddest excuses to hold back money: £30 for moving a microwave from the garage back into the house, when I could have done it for free if they asked; £30 for 'soap residue' left around a sink after cleaning; £45 for 'dust in the bottom of a drawer'. These are all genuine charges that I and friends have suffered. The big improvement in 2007 is that deposits now have to go into a licenced independent account and they measure the charges against an agreed itinerary. This is one of the very few things that the New Labour government has done for the British population (and visitors from abroad too). [New Labour fans, be patient, I will mention the handful of other things in coming postings.]

These made up things are not what deposits are for, they are for if you broke the front door in or burnt the carpet. NOTE: those people letting out flats can totally redecorate the house and replace all the furniture and claim it back as business expenses. NOTE: in addition to being able to get this work done tax free, they can also claim back 10% depreciation on everything from the inland revenue, so they do not need to snatch the money from your deposit.

You might think you would get a better deal from letting agents, but in my decades of renting I have only encountered 2 letting agencies that have not tried to rip me off. In general they take 13-15% of the rent that is paid, some take as little as 7% but they are desperate. To save money they tell the tenants to fix things. I was told that when a bulb went in a fixed external light it was up to me to fix. I have no electrician qualifications and was not going to hang off a ladder to unscrew and fit an expensive bulb. When the shoe was on the other foot and the oven did not function for 8 weeks and the central heating was shut down for 9 weeks because no-one had bothered to put mortar between the bricks in the flue, did I get any discount, no, of course not.

The other scam letting agents do is all the excess charges such as 'credit check' or 'arrangement fee'. I accept they have to make money, but they rake it anyway. They charges in my experience range from £120-350 (€175-510; US$240-700). They can check your credit rating in 5 minutes using a relevant company at a lot cheaper and anyway you have to provide bank and employments details, in detail. I have encountered only one letting agency in the whole of the UK that does not charge this. One company in Milton Keynes, a strange new city built in the South Midlands, and which has tens of letting agencies as it is growing so fast, admitted to me that they ran a little scam with these fees. They would show the potential tenants a house knowing that they would reject them because they were, to quote 'unclean', but still took the £200 fee, knowing they would reject the tenants. On one house they showed me they had already taken £600. The arrogance was incredible that one of the staff boasted this to me. Of course the owner of the property does not see any of this fee, they only get the 85% of the rent, so it was straight into the letting agents' pockets. Now I know not all agents do this, but it is incredible that some can and do and no-one can do anything about it.

A new trick which appeared from letting agents in the mid-2000s was fixed contracts. When I revealed what was going on to landlords/ladies even some of them were shocked and one dropped the letting agent they were using. As you know, normally, if you want to leave a house or if the owner wants the tenant to leave, they give notice of usually 1-3 months. Under the fixed contracts, it does not matter if you give 6 months notice, you still have to pay up to the end of the contract. When I left Milton Keynes I was still liable to be paying rent on that house for 4 months after I had started paying rent on a house in the new town I was moving to. In addition the agency was still free to move someone into the house I had vacated and get rent from them too. I checked this with the Citizens' Advice Bureau and apparently there is no legal comeback. Letting agents now often guarantee rent to landlords/ladies and this is the way they cover months when it might be empty. Even madder, though they might have moved other tenants into the property, I was still liable for its upkeep, mowing the lawns, cleaning windows, etc., even though I lived 120 miles (192 Km) away by then. I obviously told them where to stick their idea but then they said I was a 'bad tenant' for questioning their procedures (despite me putting up with no oven and no central heating for 8-9 weeks without protest) and they would write a bad reference for me.

Family members of friends of mine ran into real financial problems with such fixed contracts. Rent on one property takes 55% of my income and I earn 50% above the national average salary, so imagine how tough it is for people on the average or less to have to pay two rents for months. No wonder debt is such a huge problem in the UK. Bascially running a letting agency is a licence to print your own money. They expect you to do the maintenance and pay them for the pleasure of doing so. Good letting agents are extremely rare, barely competent ones are the norm and greedy, swindling ones are increasingly common. The whole sector needs much more regulation as it is hurting the ordinary people.

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