The accidental landlord

Victoria Whitlock may already have let her south London flat, but that doesn't stop agents trying to grab a slice of her business
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By rights, I should be feeling immensely popular this week as my mobile hasn't stopped ringing; sadly almost all the calls are from letting agents trying to persuade me to let them market my flat. They all say they've got lots of tenants looking to rent in my part of south London but not enough properties, so is the market really picking up or are the agents just getting desperate? I suspect it's the latter as some of the agents are very persistent.

'They've got me over a barrel... they know that I'll have to sign the contract, otherwise I'll lose the tenant'

Even when I tell them my flat is already let, it's hard to get them off the phone. The manager of London's pushiest letting agency even suggested he should "swing by" and value the flat so he can tell me how much more rent he might be able to achieve. Pointless, I say.

When I remind him his agency did market the flat a year ago, without any success, he tells me rents have gone up in the past 12 months and there are now more tenants looking. "For similar properties in your area, we're getting as much as £300 a week," he says. I'm getting £400, I tell him, feeling pretty smug.

You'd think that would be the end of our little chat, but without even the briefest hesitation, the agent comes right back at me. "We could probably get more," he says. Some of these letting agents are like cockroaches, I think, you can stamp on them as hard as you like, but they're impossible to crush.

A friend who is letting a flat through one of the best-known London agencies thinks they have really stitched her up. Before they began marketing the property, my friend verbally agreed to pay nine per cent commission, but nothing after the first 12 months.

However, once the letting agent had found her a tenant, she asked her to sign a contract agreeing to pay renewal fees of seven per cent for the second year and five per cent for the third. The agent denied there had been any verbal agreement to the contrary, although an email sent by the agent to my friend at the outset stated the fee as nine per cent and made no mention of any renewal fees. They weren't laid out in the agency's terms and conditions either.

Earlier this year the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) wrote to letting agents saying that it considered renewal fees to be unfair. It said that if agents persisted in charging such fees, they should be "actively flagged".

The OFT said the fees should be highlighted not only in the contract but also in any promotional literature or advertising. Now I'm no lawyer, but presumably they should also have been mentioned in this agent's email to my friend and in its terms and conditions? "That's all very well, but they've got me over a barrel," she hisses. "They know I'll have to sign the contract, otherwise I'll lose the tenant and I can't afford to pay the mortgage while the flat is empty."

In a state of agitation she rings other local agents to find what they charge. Most quote eight per cent with no renewal fees. She reports her findings to the original agent.

"Of course they're offering you a better deal now because they want your business," says the agent, shamelessly, "but if they find you a tenant they'll increase their fees."

Which is exactly what she had done. Eventually she agreed to reduce her commission to five per cent for year two and waive the fee for year three. Did I call agents cockroaches? I take that back. They're slippery eels.

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