A few months ago we rented out a house through a letting agent. He found us a tenant and assured us that all the necessary checks had been done into her credit worthiness. But things didn't work out: she didn't pay the rent and we're fairly sure she's broken the agreement by subletting rooms. We're in the process of having her evicted but in the meantime we've managed to find someone else who rented a property to her. It seems she has done the same thing in the past. What come back do we have against the letting agent who obviously didn't check her out when he said he had? This episode is costing us a fortune in lost rent and court costs. We let because we couldn't sell but we'd be worried about letting again.
As you've discovered, letting can be a nightmare. It is possible that the letting agent did do all the checks, but the credit reference agency they used hadn't picked up on your tenant's past payment record. However, the more likely scenario is that the right checks weren't done and they didn't get references from past landlords.
You may be able to make a complaint against the agent. If he is a member of Arla (the Association of Residential Letting Agents) or the NAEA (National Association of Estate Agents) there are complaints procedures you can go through. You'll find more information at arla.co.uk or naea.co.uk. They will look at the agent's professional conduct but can't award you compensation. If the agent comes under the Property Ombudsman scheme (tpos.co.uk) or the Surveyors Ombudsman Service (surveyors-ombudsman.org.uk) there's a complaints process and the possibility of compensation. In all cases you need to have exhausted the agent's internal complaints procedure first.
However, according to David Oliver, the Compliance Officer at the NAEA, there's no obligation for an agent to be a member of any of those schemes. If he is not, there's no complaints procedure open to you. Your only other option is to make a claim against the agent in the County Court under the special procedure for handling smaller claims (sometimes referred to incorrectly as the Small Claims Court). To be successful, you'll have to prove that the agent was negligent. If the agent isn't able to produce the references and checks he told you he'd made you might win your case. It's fairly inexpensive to take a small claim through the court, but there's no guarantee you'll win and legal action should always be the last resort. Take advice before you go down that route. If there's a Law Centre near you (find out at lawcentres.org.uk, or your phone book) they should be able to help. Your local Citizens Advice is a good place to start.
When it comes to letting your house out again, make sure you check out the agent as well as the tenant. You want to be sure that they are reputable and a member of one of the schemes I've mentioned. You can take out insurance to cover you in case the tenant doesn't pay or causes damage. And you can safeguard yourself further by checking out any tenants yourself. If you use a search engine to ask "how do I check my tenants" various options will pop up. Experian, the credit reference agency, has CheckMyTenant.co.uk, where you can get an instant report on a prospective tenant or a more comprehensive report. You can't see all their payment details on cards and loans but you can find out about any County Court judgments that have been made against them for debts, and if they've been made bankrupt. You can ask for previous landlord references and employer's references. If you're taking out insurance, the company will do checks too.
As you know, you can't evict a non-paying tenant yourself, but have to go through the courts. You've been unlucky, because most leave when they're behind with the rent and get a letter from the landlord's solicitor telling them to go or face court action. But if you decide you can't go through it all again, beware of leaving the house empty and unloved. You'll lose rent, and have to pay some council tax, insurance (don't forget to tell your insurance company it's empty) and repairs, and keep it burglar proof.
My mum died recently. I'm the executor of her will, and her belongings are to be sold and the proceeds split between her grandchildren. They're getting impatient to get their hands on the money. I suspect there's not a lot that's valuable but she had some old furniture, a few interesting pieces of china and a nice picture. I'm finding it difficult, and I'm worried I'll be lied to about how much her items are worth?
This is one of the hardest things to do, so don't let yourself be pushed to get on with it. There are a few options. You could sell the items you think are valuable yourself at auction or at an online auction. You could call in several firms of valuers and ask them for estimates of how much any valuable items could make. It might be worth taking the china and the painting to specialist local dealers rather than putting everything up for sale together. There are firms that specialise in house clearances and will value the items and take them away to be sold – usually at auction. If there's a lot of other furniture in the house there's also the question of how to dispose of that. The cost of having someone clear the house might well be more than the saleable items make. Check out any firms you contact to make sure they're members of professional trade bodies, possibly the best way is to ask friends and relatives for recommendations.
As the grandchildren are the ones who'll benefit from the sale, you could get them involved in finding out how much items are worth. That way they'll see for themselves that often what appear to be good pieces of furniture don't sell for much. Old furniture is often too big for modern houses, so is hard to shift. As executor, you are obliged to get the best possible price for the contents to make sure the beneficiaries get as much as possible, and it can be lonely making these decisions. Think about talking to your solicitor or your mother's solicitor about how to handle it. Even though their advice will cost money, they will have valuable experience. You don't have to do it on your own.
Do you need a financial makeover?
Write to Julian Knight at the Independent on Sunday, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5HF email@example.com