Our dream flat gave us nightmares

With private rental regulation the hot political debate, we speak to one of many tenants with horror stories.
When Octavia Coates first viewed the flat in Hampstead that became her home for 12 tumultuous months, it seemed perfect — light filled, with two bedrooms, high ceilings and in a great area. She and her partner, both self-employed, could manage the monthly £3,200 rent and last year they moved in.
 
But the problems soon started. They claim possessions left in a cupboard began to smell so badly they had to call in fumigators. The couple also claim that basic maintenance, such as keeping plants outside their windows pruned, was not carried out. Meanwhile, they say, the landlord made numerous requests to inspect the flat. They weren’t happy so they gave notice to quit.
 
They had put down a £4,500 deposit and paid more than £400 admin fees to a letting agent, and say that before they moved out they spent £1,500 to have parts of the flat repainted. Ms Coates, 36, who runs a beauty PR firm, said: “It was in a better state when we left than when we moved in.”
 
Shock repairs bill
The landlord, however, claimed they had damaged the flat. He wanted £7,500 for repairs including new flooring and two new lamps. The couple claim their letting agent would not help. As rental deposits must now be held by an independent body which can arbitrate in disputes, Ms Coates compiled a dossier on the state the flat was in when she and her partner moved in, and when they moved out.
 
Other than agreeing the landlord was owed £150 for some scuffs to the floor, the damage claims were thrown out, although Ms Coates had to forfeit an extra week’s rent for vacating the flat a few days late — despite her claim that she had agreed the date with the letting agent, with no mention of a penalty.
 
“I would never rent again without sitting down with the landlord first and being 100 per cent clear on every detail,” said Ms Coates. “And I would never rely on a letting agent for anything.” Hers is just one of countless tales of woe enforcing the view that the rental sector needs more stringent regulation to tackle rogue landlords.
 
The Government set up the deposit protection system but has consistently backed away from compulsory licensing for landlords. This has left renters facing a postcode lottery, with some councils setting up their own licensing schemes. Newham, for example, is prosecuting 133 landlords for alleged Housing Act breaches. Labour has promised a national register if it wins the general election next year.
 
But Nigel Bosworth, managing director of Dwell Residential letting and property management company, says: “Over-regulation of private landlords in certain boroughs is a significant disincentive to increase housing supply... good landlords face increased costs and administration while the rogues continue to ignore the law.”
 
Declan Curren, founder of property maintenance firm HomeFix Direct, calls licensing “a random, greedy tax on an easily targeted group”.
 
As for letting agents, it was announced last month they will have to join a government-approved complaints service this year, allowing for independent investigations and potential compensation for tenants. There are also moves to make them display full details of their fees on websites and in their offices.
 
Rob Clifford, chief executive of letting agents Century 21 UK says cracking down on agents will not help tenants who rent directly from a landlord. He feels England can learn from Scotland. “It is a legal requirement there for all landlords to register with their local authority, which then decides whether the landlord is ‘fit and proper’.
 
“If the local authority receives complaints about the landlord which are proven to be true, or the landlord fails to abide by their legal requirements, then the local authority has the power to remove them from its registration list. This means they cannot legally rent out their property any longer. They could also face a fine or be issued with a rent penalty notice.
 
“This type of process would be a welcome addition to the lettings industry in England, as we could then be confident that those operating within the industry, both agents and landlords, meet the ‘fit and proper’ criteria.”
 
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS — AND RESPONSIBILITIES
  • Letting agents must tell you about all fees upfront. If they don’t, ask.
  • Tenants must keep their home in good order, but are not responsible for “fair wear and tear”.
  • Get a detailed inventory of the property’s contents and condition. Don’t sign it until you’ve checked it.
  • Within a month of moving in, your deposit should be held by an independent third party scheme which can arbitrate in any disputes.
  • You can be evicted for failing to pay rent, noisy parties, altering a property without permission, taking lodgers, running a business, letting guests smoke, or refusing your landlord reasonable access.
  • A landlord cannot visit when you are out or without your permission. If they do, then seek advice from your council or a lawyer.
  • The landlord cannot raise the rent before the end of your contract period.

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