The accidental landlord

Victoria Whitlock discovers a letting agent who really isn't doing her any favours
First, I must apologise to honest, reliable, hardworking letting agents for what I am about to say. But if I have to deal with the smooth-talking, sharpsuited, lying-through-their bleached-teeth variety ever again it will be way too soon.

One such letting agent found me a tenant for my house, which, to be fair, I had been unable to let on my own, but their cavalier tactics made both of us look bad.

Not content with the 11 per cent commission they were going to earn from the let, the agent claimed the tenant's offer was conditional on them managing the property, for which the agency would take a further seven per cent.

I insisted that I would manage the property myself. The agent threatened that I could lose the tenant. I said I'd risk it, thanks. The tenants decided to take the house regardless.

To further bump up their earnings, the agency insisted I paid £320 for their Assured Shorthold Tenancy Agreement (AST) rather than allowing me to supply my own. As I can buy an off-the-shelf AST for £2.50, I reckon this earned them an extra £317.50.

I asked the agency to insert a six-month break clause into the 12-month AST and to warn the tenant, prior to him signing the overpriced piece of paper, that I was likely to move back to the property before the year was up.

The message I got back from the agent was, "He's totally cool with that". Only after the poor guy moved into the house did I discover that he wasn't "cool", he was livid. The agent had told him the break clause was "only a formality" and omitted to mention I might cut short the lease.

I might, possibly, have forgiven all of the above, but then I found out that the agent hadn't passed on my request to the tenant to allow me to hold his deposit; instead, the agency stuck the money into its own account, where it is now presumably earning interest.

Okay, I won't miss the .001 per cent I could have earned on the money, but I'm uneasy about the fact that I am liable for the deposit even though it's in the agency's bank account rather than mine.

I have received a letter from the Mydeposits tenancy deposit protection scheme, of which my agent is a member, warning me that, as the landlord, I am "always ultimately responsible for the return of the deposit to the tenant".

It went on to say: "By law you are still liable for its return even if the agent is at fault, acts fraudulently or ceases trading." Which rather leaves me and other landlords who don't hold deposits themselves caught between a rock and a hard place.

Mydeposits admitted in the letter that there have been occasions where deposit money has been lost or become untraceable when an agent becomes insolvent, forcing the landlord to repay the cash.

Regular readers of this column might remember that a letting agency withheld a chunk of my previous tenant's deposit for several weeks after the end of their tenancy.

When I complained to Mydeposits it said it was powerless to act, even though the agent was supposed to be protecting the deposit under its jurisdiction, which makes a mockery of the whole scheme.

I read last week that the Association of Residential Letting Agents is concerned that its members, mainly high street agents, haven't got enough properties to meet demand.

I wonder whether there is really a shortage of properties available to let, or perhaps landlords are so sick of agents like mine, they are finding tenants for themselves?

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