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'Agent wanted to keep deposit for inflated repair bill'

A long-running dispute over a £344 bill for £144-worth of water damage was solved only after the intervention of an adjudicator. Samantha Downes reports

Ruth and David Ainsworth are, on paper, a landlord's dream. They are homeowners, both hold down professional jobs and have two young children, Arthur, aged two and 11-month-old Charlotte.

The couple, who moved to Lancaster from Stratford, east London to be closer to family, had been renting for a year when they found a property to buy.

But after giving their letting agent notice to quit in July last year, they were handed an unexpected £344 bill.

Mrs Ainsworth says: "We knew that leaks from the washing machine had caused slight damage to the cupboard, but we were shocked to be told it was going to cost at least £288 to fix."

The couple complained to the letting agent who agreed to let them get their own quote. "Even the owner of the property agreed that the amount quoted was too high."

In the meantime the couple completed on the purchase of their new place and new tenants moved into their old home.

"We were kept on hold for several months. The letting agent told us the landlord was going to get another quote but nothing happened."

They sought the help of the Deposit Protection Scheme (DPS), one of three government-registered schemes which safeguards cash from rental deposits and can act as arbitrator when disputes arise.

Mr Ainsworth, an IT purchasing manager, says: "An adjudicator at the DPS agreed that we did need to pay towards the cost of damage but only £144 rather than £288."

The couple also agreed to pay £65 towards the cost of cleaning the property's carpets.

Enlisting the aid of the DPS made the whole process of getting their deposit back easier and quicker.

Mrs Ainsworth says: "Because the DPS holds the money, you get the undisputed amount of your deposit back straight away. Only the disputed amount is held.

"In the end, it was a case of telling the DPS that we didn't agree with the agent's decision, then the DPS asked for full background. It was as simple as that."

However, the couple are concerned others facing the same problem may be reluctant to use the service.

"I think many would be put off by thinking it's a long and difficult process because you do have to write a detailed and articulate letter. My husband was really good at doing this," says Mrs Ainsworth.

The whole process took about a month from the day Ruth submitted the evidence.

"The agent tried to put me off going to the DPS by telling me it would take ages if it went down this route," she says. "My only criticism of the service is that their website isn't very user-friendly. They obviously want you to get any advice from their FAQs (frequently asked questions) in the first instance, but they are badly written, and a bit too technical.

"However, once the process was underway, they do send you letters which explain the next steps much more clearly."

Tenancy Deposit Protection (TDP) schemes were introduced in April 2007. These are three government-regulated schemes which include the Deposit Protection Service (DPS) at MyDeposits at (www.mydeposits. co.uk) and the Tenancy Deposit Scheme (TDS) at www.thedisputeservice.co.uk.

All landlords are legally obliged to put deposits in one of these schemes.

But although the schemes were introduced to protect tenants from rogue landlords withholding deposits, the housing charity Shelter claim the number of tenants looking for advice increased last year.

Between July and September 2011, Shelter's advice line saw calls about rent deposit issues rise by more than 40 per cent. The charity hopes that a tightening in the law on tenancy deposit schemes, which comes into force later this year, will help.

The changes will allow tenants to make a claim against their landlord after their tenancy ends, while landlords taken to court for failing to safeguard a deposit will no longer be able to evade a penalty by signing up the day before the case is to be heard.

But despite this, tenants still need to watch out.

Kay Boycott at Shelter says: "There are still some landlords out there who are flouting these rules."

She says anyone renting privately should ask their letting agent or landlord which tenancy deposit scheme they use and check that it's one of the three government-approved schemes.

"Once you've paid your deposit, your landlord should provide you with full details about the scheme within 14 days, which will include information about how to get the deposit back at the end of the tenancy."

With the average rental deposit now over £2,000, tenants are also advised to make sure a full inventory is made of any property before they move in.

Ian Potter, the operations manager of The Association of Residential Letting Agents, says: "A true inventory is not simply a list of items in a property – it also includes a description of the condition and cleanliness at the start and finish of the tenancy, enabling one to be compared against the other with clarity and accuracy."

Renters should also take their own photographs but make sure they are signed and dated.

Mr Potter says: "If you are a tenant, ensure you are aware of guidelines on 'betterment'. Some aspects of a property, such as paintwork, will naturally deteriorate; therefore a landlord should not request that items be restored to a condition surpassing the quality at the start of the lease.

"Landlords need to allow for fair wear and tear by the occupier relative to the length of time in the property, the number of occupiers and their age. Family homes, in particular, will always require a greater allowance for wear and tear."

Eddie Hooker, the chief executive of MyDeposits, says disagreements over cleaning and damage to property are the most likely causes of a deposit dispute.

"Speaking to your landlord first is the most effective way to stop a minor disagreement becoming a formal dispute. Almost 99 per cent of tenancies end with no problems and communication is the key. Remember to keep as much evidence as possible and keep in mind, if you do seek Alternative Dispute Resolution, the adjudicator's decision is final."

Lucy Newcombe of the Deposit Protection Scheme says: "The legislation has helped many tenants in England and Wales and will start to benefit those in Scotland this spring. Building awareness of the schemes is the challenge we face now."