The accidental landlord: be hands on to avoid big maintenance bills

The accidental landlord says she is far too picky - and much too stingy - to fall for those extortionate maintenance bills.
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Hallelujah! At last the boss of a property maintenance company has blown the whistle on letting agents, some of whom, in his words, are "burning the pockets of landlords" with rip-off charges.

Will Davies, of aspect.co.uk, says some agents "milk" landlords of properties they manage by demanding up to 20 per cent commission from any contractors they hire. Contractors then load this on to the landlords' bills.

Mr Davies implied that not all agents inform landlords of this practice and alleged that even if they do, it's sometimes tucked away in the small print of their terms of business. He admits aspect.co.uk used to work for agents who charged 15 per cent commission but stopped a few years ago following complaints from landlords — a decision that coincided with one agent allegedly raising its commission to 20 per cent.

Not all letting agents demand commission, says Mr Davies. He now only works with those that don't.

Regular readers of this column may remember that a year ago I wrote about the launch of The Happy Tenant Company, which promises landlords a "hassle-free" property management service. Crucially, it doesn't charge contractors commission, only passing on to landlords the true cost of any work carried out.

Throughout last year, at their request, I put The Happy Tenant team to the test, letting them manage my four-bedroom rental property. True to the company's word, it dealt promptly with three problems — a broken loo flush, faulty light fitting and two broken wall lights — and the charges, though not cheap, weren't excessive. Best of all, I didn't have to do anything.

For a while, I was happy. However, I was peed off when I was charged £66 by a heating engineer to loosen the valve on a radiator. Given that the engineer was already at the flat carrying out the annual gas safety check (for which I paid another £66), and the second job shouldn't have taken more than 10 minutes, this was ridiculous.

When I queried the charge I was refunded £66, but I was concerned that The Happy Tenant had let it slip through in the first place. It also sent me a £354 estimate from a heating engineer to re-pressurise the boiler — a two-minute job — and replace a broken bath screen, which it was said was beyond repair but in fact simply required a new £13 hinge.

While I was relieved the company sought my approval before replacing the screen, I thought it ought to have sourced more than one quote. Of more concern to me was that it allowed the annual gas safety check to be carried out a week late, leaving me without a valid record, which is a legal requirement for all landlords.

Also, it gave me only 10 days' notice that my tenants were intending to leave at the end of their contract, which wasn't enough time to re-market the property. Following my feedback the company has hired a dedicated property systems manager to ensure no more slip-ups on things like gas safety inspections, and says it will monitor contractors more closely. With these better systems in place The Happy Tenant (the happytenant.co.uk) may prove to be a good option for landlords who can't manage their own properties, but this experiment has shown me that I'm way too picky (not to mention far too tight) to let anyone manage mine.

Victoria Whitlock lets three properties in south London. To contact Victoria with your ideas and views, tweet @vicwhitlock

       
  

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