The accidental landlord

Victoria Whitlock is in favour of tougher regulations for the letting-agent industry
Good. I breathed a sigh of relief at the housing minister Grant Shapps's decision to dump Labour's plans for a national register for landlords into the Government's equivalent of Room 101, but I have an uneasy feeling that he might simply be clearing his desk of the clutter his predecessor left by sweeping every bit of paper into the bin without reading it.

Of course, some of Labour's plans for the private rented sector, including a TripAdvisor-style website for tenants to rate landlords, were bonkers and would have served only to tangle us up in more red tape, but the last government did have some good ideas which Mr Shapps has swiftly discarded.

In particular I'm frustrated that, by binning regulation of the private rental sector, he has ditched Labour's proposal to regulate letting agents. If he can't see that this is a murky business that requires the Government to jump in and clean it up, then the Right Honourable MP has obviously been fortunate enough never to have rented - or let - a property.

Letting agents hold the keys to properties worth millions and they take deposits from tenants for thousands of pounds. Yet any Tom, Dick or Harry can set up an agency with no registration, no qualifications and no experience whatsoever. How can that be right? Sure, anyone who holds a deposit must be registered and must register the money, but if an agent goes bust having spent the cash, the buck rests with the landlord and they must refund the tenant. Which means that landlords have to make sure they are using a reputable letting agent in the first place.

But how do you weed out the good from the bad? How do you know that "Serena" from the flash agency with minibars in reception is any less of a shark than "Wayne" who works out of his living room? When I have to use an agent I try to find one that is a member of the Association of Residential Letting Agents (arla.co.uk). Arla has a bonding scheme to protect deposits that have been misappropriated and its members must have professional indemnity insurance, so if they break anything in my properties I'm covered.

However, just because an agent is a member of Arla it doesn't mean they are any good. The association has long campaigned for compulsory registration of letting agents to rid the business of "unprofessional, unqualified and unethical operators", and yet a few of its own members could possibly fit this description. The one that didn't check my tenant's references, for example, and the one that deducted money from my tenant's deposit without my permission.

ARLA says its code of practice provides "a framework of ethical and professional standards at a level far higher than the law demands". The point is the law demands very little: it didn't stop one Arla member from sneaking additional fees into the small print; or from grossly overvaluing properties to secure more business, or from trying to extort money from naïve tenants. Without legislation the lettings business will continue to be a perfect place for people with flexible morals to flourish.

I don't want to suggest that all letting agents are lying little toerags. There are probably as many good agents as there are bad landlords, but the Government would do these agents a favour if it brought in legislation to get rid of the rest.

Maybe once Mr Shapps has tidied his desk he'll come back to review the private rented sector.

Victoria Whitlock is a mother of two who lets three properties in south London.

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