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Katy Guest: Renting a flat? Choose your agent carefully

A call for regulation of lucrative property letting

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.