Overview: Trying to rent for the first time? Wake up to the grim reality

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The Independent Online

Right now, thousands of people are discovering for themselves for the first time just how difficult it is to find somewhere decent to rent.

Right now, thousands of people are discovering for themselves for the first time just how difficult it is to find somewhere decent to rent.

This is the peak season for lettings, with students and those starting new jobs scouring agencies and websites for the best place they can afford.

But when under pressure to get themselves settled, it is a fair bet that few scrutinise an agent as carefully as they do the property.

While the lettings business is unrecognisable from its Cinderella years as the poor relation to sales, there are still plenty of outfits from which the public would do well to steer clear.

It would be unfair to malign every business that chose to remain outside the three professional bodies that regulate their members, but an excellent reputation is not much consolation if an agency collapses, taking with it tenants' and landlords' money.

An Exeter lettings firm collapsed last month, ones in Brighton, Bristol and Nottingham earlier this year and last week a company in north London closed its doors leaving landlords and tenants looking for rents and deposits.

Regulated letting agents would ensure that these sums of money are ring-fenced and bonded.

"It can be a bit depressing when we do so much to protect the public with bonding, insurance and qualification requirements and, now, the Tenancy Deposit Scheme, and still the public goes to unregulated agents, especially as there is no need," says Adrian Turner, the chief executive of the Association of Residential Letting Agents (ARLA). "Properly qualified regulated agents are to be found in most places."

But is it really so baffling, certainly as far as tenants are concerned? It is easy to forget how grim it can be looking for a place with limited time and funds.

Agencies often fail get back to you, websites may be out of date and telephone calls to a newspaper advertisement are more often than not greeted by the engaged signal or a "sorry, it's gone".

If a small operator in the high street is the one who can deliver, questions about its membership of a professional body might seem ever so slightly superfluous.

Besides, tenants will probably have more pressing matters than the long-term viability of the firm.

If the agent is also managing the property, it may become clear why the landlord was offered such favourable terms.

Shortly after one woman moved into her first rented flat in Croydon, she had to endure two months without hot water because no one would mend the boiler.

Another, more worldly wise, tenant was resigned to not getting her deposit back even though her flat was immaculate - because, as she put it, you never do.

Nick Goble, from the Pimlico office of Winkworth estate agents, says he still hears grim stories even though generally tenants are far better protected than they were, as well as being more savvy about their rights.

Nevertheless, there are landlords who do not act fairly and that is why Winkworth has set up an independent company to provide inventories and schedules of condition.

This is one of the biggest areas of contention, and must cause more tenants to lose their money than the collapse of an agent.

It makes absolute sense for tenants to avoid unregulated agencies, but they can hardly be blamed for not making it a priority if the ideal property pops up. Choosing an agent may not be a luxury they can afford.