Here’s the real squatters of the housing market: letting agents

Here is a not-at-all unusual scenario in the modern housing market: having to fork out over nearly £100 to have a contract ‘renewed’. 

And by renewed, I mean emailed – to print, sign and post back. That’s what myself and my housemates have just done, and probably will do for many years. We’re not alone

Letting agents. They are the real squatters of the housing market – who almost every agrees need to be evicted, but it feels like they’ve just been there too long.

And it’s getting worse, because the business is there: private sector renting more than doubled between 1980 and 2014, with a fifth of households now at the whim of a landlord – or more likely, the agent.

Nearly 60% of Londoners are expected to be renters by 2025: an agency-dependent majority, if nothing is done. What’s more, people are expecting it to remain that way. So we have to find a way to make renting work. Reforming or scrapping letting agencies has to be part on that.

The first letting agent fee I paid was around £200, when I was in York. A couple of years later, I payed around £500 in letting agent fees when I moved to London (for an unfurnished room in a half-built housing block).

Upfront fees can set a typical two-person household back £404 on average when they move home, according to new research from campaign group Generation Rent. And seven of the eight chains with more than 100 branches are charging more than that.

Most of the time, potential tenants don’t know how much they’ll be charged until they’re lumped with the bill: major chains are failing in their basic duty to publish full details of their fees online. And a lack of clarity around check-in fees makes it hard for tenants to compare agents’ costs, say Generation Rent. That’s despite letting agents being required by law to publish details of their fees on their websites.

That’s one level of opacity. Here’s another: one tenant, charged £100 every year to electronically sign a renewed contract, told me she asks for breakdowns of the costs incurred every time. She never gets them.

Well, name and shame. The research out today shows Countrywide top the list of chains with the biggest charges – two adults starting a tenancy are told to fork out £622, which comprises the admin fee, the reference fee, the tenancy agreement fee and the check-in fee. ‘The company made £19.5m in pre-tax profit in 2016’, the activists wryly note.

They are followed by the Leaders and Romans partnership whose branches’ charges average £593, and Connells, with typical fees of £570.

Even the cheapest of the eight charge nearly £400 a pop. For sorting a contract, most of the time. In reality, it’s rent by the back door – but going straight to the agent instead of the person who owns the property.

Here’s a novel idea. If you rent out property, it’s your responsibility. The buck stops with you. If you don’t want to deal with anything regarding your property, you probably shouldn’t own it or rent it out.

Regardless – agents already make money from the privilege landlords receive for outsourcing that responsibility. That’s the way it should be. No random bills landing on the doormat of tenants (or email inbox – it’s cheaper after all…). No meaningless ‘contract renewal’ fees that only involve changing the date on a pro forma document.

There are plenty of blights on the housing market – but letting agents have to be the most rightly despised, obnoxious unnecessary.

Parties have to tackle that issue this General Election – for their own sake. The millions of private renters won’t tolerate this situation for much longer.  

Generation Rent have gathered details of 1081 lettings agents’ fees for 19 council areas in England: www.lettingfees.co.uk

Josiah Mortimer is a reporter and Contributing Editor for Left Foot Forward. He also works for the Electoral Reform Society, and tweets at @josiahmortimer.

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