Katy Guest: Renting a flat? Choose your agent carefully

A call for regulation of lucrative property letting

Share
Related Topics

Here is a maths question: Billy has agreed to rent a house from Susie for six months. Billy pays Susie all the six months' rent in advance. At what point should Billy start to pay the next chunk of rent – after six months in the house, or after four? For most people, this is simple: Billy will pay further rent after six months. But for one letting agent, the answer would have been four, except that he refused to cave in to their ridiculous demand.

When the charity Shelter reported last week that rents in Britain are at a record high, it concentrated, quite understandably, on the renting poverty trap. It didn't mention the other ways in which having to rent can make your life hell. The Citizens Advice Bureau has told The Independent on Sunday, not all that shockingly, that the number of people with housing problems rose by 8 per cent in 2010-11 to 146,000, mostly in the private rented sector. Dodgy landlords are bad enough. I had one who had so many bad debts that bailiffs kept turning up, threatening to seize my possessions. But at least a landlady has an interest in keeping you sweet while you live in her property; a letting agent, on the other hand, really couldn't seem to care less.

The first flat I ever rented was a damp two-bed in south-west London. Having paid our deposit and some extortionate fees, my flatmate and I arrived on check-in day, but the furniture did not. "We're not paying a furnished rate for a flat with no furniture," we complained. "Well, we've got your deposit," the letting agent said, "and you have nothing but all your possessions in cardboard boxes. Pay up or be homeless." We paid.

The number of people renting has soared by a million in the past five years, to 3.35 million and counting. With tenants being gazumped even on utter grot holes, renters are easy targets. That's what I rediscovered when I rented a house through Townends letting agents this summer, and ended up in rental hell.

It was the £130 fee for an invisible inventory that initially rang alarm bells, and then I was hit with the Billy & Susie contract as outlined above. First, I had handed over more than £10,000 in rent, deposit and fees. Then, after nearly a month of my asking, they sent me the contract a week before check-in day, with a demand that despite all the money that I had paid up front I would have to pay the next instalment two months early. I asked for it to be corrected; Townends refused. Then they refused to let me move in at all unless I promised in writing that I'd spoken to a solicitor and was completely happy with every aspect of the contract. They still had my 10 grand and I had nowhere else to live, so I begged them to let me sign a contract – any contract. They continued to refuse, until the day before I was due to move in.

I have complained about this to the Property Ombudsman, whose handy code of conduct Townends appears to have broken. First, I had to put my complaint to Townends, who mysteriously never received my letters unless I sent them by recorded delivery. After leaving it with them for three months I am now allowed to ask the Ombudsman to investigate. That will take 16 to 20 weeks. Townends still has my fees.

A statement from Townends press office tells me that the firm "successfully arranges over 3,000 new tenancies each year [and] operates to the highest possible levels of professionalism and integrity". The 3,000 tenancies I can easily believe. On the "integrity" thing, we'll have to agree to differ. When, as a journalist, I ask for a quote, they say they don't comment on individual cases.

My experience is far from unusual, and since my Townends trauma I feel as if I have heard 3.35 million similar tales of woe. Until this industry is properly regulated, letting agents have Britain's renters over a barrel. Even worse, the rent on the barrel is continually going up.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show  

When an Aussie calls you a ‘bastard’, you know you’ve arrived

Howard Jacobson
The number of schools converting to academies in the primary sector has now overtaken those in the secondary sector – 2,299 to 1,884 (Getty)  

In its headlong rush to make a profit, our education system is in danger of ignoring its main purpose

Janet Street-Porter
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee