The accidental landlord: avoid high letting fees and rent direct from owner

Victoria Whitlock is baffled by tenants who use letting agents and insists it's far cheaper to deal direct with the landlord
Lower-ground floor flat in Grosvenor Road, Pimlico
£375 a week: conveniently next door to the pub, this lower-ground floor flat in Grosvenor Road, Pimlico, has one double bedroom, a large reception room and a courtyard garden, and is available through John D Wood

For a landlord, handing over the keys to a property to a new tenant is obviously something to celebrate — but last week I almost punched the air, I was so damned relieved to have finally found someone to rent a flat that proved surprisingly difficult to let.

Why are tenants so wary of private lets? It took several weeks to get any real interest in the place, despite the carefully crafted advert I'd placed on all the main property websites.

In the first month I received only a few enquiries and wasted a total of three hours driving to the flat on three separate occasions for viewers who failed to show up and didn't bother to call to cancel. I hope they end up living in rat-infested fleapits.

After three weeks I thought I'd found the perfect tenant and hastily cancelled a night out at short notice, at her request, so I could show her around a second time. I was already halfway there when she rang to say she'd put in an offer on another flat.

If anyone saw a deranged-looking woman sitting in a car in a lay-by near Clapham Common beating her head against the steering wheel, yep, that was me.

While I suppose I should have taken comfort from the fact that the letting agent who was marketing the flat at the same time was managing to attract more viewers than me, this actually added to my irritation. Why were people viewing with him instead of me when his asking price was 10 per cent higher and, if any of these viewers took the flat, he'd charge them a stonking fee as well?

I made it clear in my ad — which appeared right next to his on all the property websites — that it was a private let with no fees for tenants. This agent, on the other hand, charged an administration fee of £450, including £75 for a credit check that would have cost him only a few pence.

Yet he still got more viewers than I did.

According to a survey by Rentify, one of several online letting agents that enable landlords to advertise their properties on websites such as Rightmove, the typical admin fee charged by letting agents in London is £220, but nearly a quarter charge over £300 and one, in East Ham, charges £600.

So why, when tenants have the choice of renting direct from a landlord, would they look at a property with an agent instead?

Are they still oblivious to these fees, or are they actually happy to pay the equivalent of a couple of weeks' rent for the reassurance of dealing with a well-known high street agent rather than direct with a landlord? I can see why cash-rich, time-poor tenants would be happy to pay for the convenience of having an agent drive them to several hand-picked properties, but not those who my agent dragged round to my flat. They were a mixed bag of students and young professionals, barely scraping by.

Perhaps these tenants are lured into the letting agents' offices by the promise of free premium bottled water and, mesmerised by the fluorescent furnishings, they sign away a week's wages before realising what they have done.

However, from Friday this week the Advertising Standards Authority will require letting agents to clearly display their fees in all property ads. If agents comply, maybe tenants will realise before they walk into a letting agent's place just how much they are going to be charged for "free" bottles of Perrier.

Perhaps more of them will then be inclined to seek out private lets. We shall see.

Follow our accidental landlord on Twitter at @VicWhitlock

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