Shabby room service

Changes to the Housing Act aren't helping tenants. By Penny Jackson
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Hardly a day passes without more evidence of the boom in the rental market. Whether it is a report of rising rental incomes, cash-rich investors rushing to buy flats or an estate agent opening a new lettings department, no one can be in any doubt that rentals are going through a good phase. No one that is, except the would-be tenant who often ends up feeling more like a nuisance caller than a customer.

Tenants complain of a second-rate service provided by people with little knowledge of what they are marketing and even less interest in their applicants' requirements. Far from benefiting from the growth in the numbers of letting agencies and what they imagined would be a new professionalism, more often than not they have to put up with unreturned phone calls, poor-quality property and lacklustre staff. A recent survey by Hamptons International of 50 tenants showed that more than 60 per cent were disappointed with the compromises they had to make.

Annabel Barnes describes her recent search for a one-bedroom flat in Kingston as a hideous experience. It is not the first time she has rented and as an associate director of Hamptons country lettings, she understands the business. She knows how much pressure is put on staff by demand far outstripping supply but was nevertheless shocked by the poor service she received. Her complaints are echoed across London. "Virtually nobody rang me back, but the one person who did, saying he had found the perfect flat, on four occasions came up with a furnished one when I had clearly specified unfurnished. I was getting desperate and was ringing agents almost every other day. I could tell by their voices they were thinking, 'Oh no, not another one'."

Many tenants complain of having their time wasted by either being sent lists of unsuitable properties or being sent off to view places that bear no resemblance to their needs.

"A sole-agency agreement might have given me a better service, but nobody suggested it," says Annabel Barnes. "I think my search would have been much easier if they had bothered to find out about me, but very few had the time or inclination. Some of them never even took my name, others took my phone number but not my address. An appalling number never even asked if I was in employment." With only 10 days left to find a home, she saw eight properties over 48 hours. Only one was suitable, but her offer was rejected because the landlord decided to rent privately. In the Hamptons survey, a large number of people whose offers had been accepted were gazumped or the landlord pulled out because he wanted more rent.

Penny Parr-Head, who as Hamptons' central London lettings director conducted the survey, believes agencies can do more than throw their hands up in despair when faced with gazumping. "As soon as we have an offer we charge landlords a penalty fee of a few hundred pounds if they withdraw. It makes them think."

In a tough market, speed is of the essence. "It is an agent's job to try to get a contract out within 24 hours. If a landlord is multi-agencied we insist that they fax other agents and take back the keys," says Penny Parr-Head. (Winkworth, the London agents, nearly half of whose business is rentals, is working towards putting information on the Internet so that it can be updated hourly.) Agents could take a tough line on other issues as well, according to Mr Parr-Head. "If we have a landlord who has behaved unscrupulously, at end of tenancy we would consider whether to remarket the flat."

Hamptons recently refused to continue with a client who turned down a couple on racial grounds. "They were terrific tenants offering the full asking price of pounds 1,000 a week. They never knew, but we told the landlord he was contravening the Estate Agents Act. Race is a big issue at the top end of the market and it would make a huge difference if agents didn't turn a blind eye to it."

Penny Parr-Head is one of those expressing concern about the number of inexperienced agents jumping on the lettings bandwagon. She argues that as they need to know about fire and safety regulations, tax implications, and are responsible for their own legal work, a much wider pool of knowledge is needed in lettings than in sales. "How many tenants, for instance, are warned that they could find themselves liable for a landlord's tax if he lives overseas?"

She is also sceptical about the latest amendments to the Housing Act. One of the changes now allows a landlord to go to court if a tenant is two months in arrears instead of three. This, she believes, will do little to protect the landlord against constant non-payers and nothing for the vulnerable tenant who falls on hard times. "We need to protect those at the lower end of the market while making sure that tenants who can afford to pay, do so. For rents over a certain level, one month in arrears should be grounds enough to go to court. There are tenants swanning around in Porsches, constantly owing a couple of months' rent and living at the expense of the landlord."

But for those whose biggest problem is becoming a tenant at all, playing the loyalty card might help. Choose an agent and offer them your sole custom for a period. As Penny Parr-Head says, "Who will get the better service from an agency? The 100 people registered all over the place, or the 10 exclusive to that one agent?" At least they might return your calls.

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