Home > Politics & social justice > Mould, cold and dodgy fees – letting agents or con artists?

Mould, cold and dodgy fees – letting agents or con artists?

The U.K. government has announced the banning of letting agents fees in England, but a Welsh Assembly oversight means the changes don’t apply to Wales. Now lagging behind renters in England and Scotland, are renters in Cardiff getting a fair deal from letting agencies and landlords?

 

Students renting in Cathays pay agency fees as high as £200 to secure properties

Students renting in Cathays pay agency fees as high as £200 to secure properties

With most students in Cardiff living in rented housing after their first year, liaising with letting agents and landlords has become part and parcel of the university experience. Stop a student on Salisbury Road and odds are they’ll have a story of an evasive plumber, absent landlord or stubborn letting agent.

On top of rent, the cost of finding and securing a new property can put pressure on many students’ budgets. So when Phillip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced plans to ban letting agents’ fees in the Autumn Statement, many renters in Cardiff breathed a sigh of relief. However even Cardiff Central MP Jo Stevens wasn’t sure whether it would include Wales, and as it turned out the plans only applied to England.

The Labour Welsh Government had previously voted down a Plaid Cymru amendment to ban the fees last year on the basis that the Assembly did not have the devolved powers to do so. However, Hammond’s announcement excluded Wales precisely because it is a devolved matter, which Westminster cannot legally interfere with.

As a result Wales are left trailing England and Scotland (who imposed their own fees ban in 2011) in terms of tenants’ rights. While they were happy for renters in England, campaign group ‘Let Down in Wales’ said, “it was tinged with a bit of jealousy as this was for England’s private renters, not Wales.” Students and campaigners are now crossing their fingers that an emergency bill proposed by Cardiff Central AM Jenny Rathbone is selected for debate in the Sennedd on 25th January.

Properties are hastily converted so landlords can house more tenants

With a large percentage of students resident in Cathays, letting is a big business. Many streets house five or six agencies.

In the meantime, on top of dubious fees, many students are still contending with poor living conditions and unscrupulous behaviour from their landlords. Joe, 21, told us about his experience on moving into his house on Woodville Road this summer. “It was disgusting. The small print of our contract says they’ll deduct money from us for compulsory cleaning at the end of the year, even if we leave it clean. Well they certainly hadn’t bothered before we moved in. The bathrooms stank of piss, the kitchen sink had a leak and the cupboards were rotting. One of the fridges had been left switched off with food in it all summer, and there was an infestation of flies living inside.”

Joe was welcomed into his new house by an infestation of flies and rotting food.

Joe was welcomed into his new house by an infestation of flies and rotting food.

Contracts stipulate that homes will be cleaned, and maintenance performed, so the agency sent people over to sort it all, right? “They essentially ignored us until another tenant had his dad give them a bollocking in person. Even then we had to deal with the flies and the piss ourselves. The arrogance of the agency was astounding. I can’t imagine any of them living in these conditions.”

Still, at least Joe had a house to move into. The same can’t be said for Natalie, 21, a zoology student currently on her placement year. “When we turned up to collect our keys on July 1st the agency had no record of who we were and that we’d secured a property. They’d still taken fees and a deposit off us though. They didn’t even work with that landlord any more. He’d rented it through another agency. So once we got our money back we had a day to run round Cardiff and find somewhere to live. Fair to say the best houses had been taken by then.”

Alarmingly, InterCardiff has heard more than one example of a letting agent and the landlord being one and the same person. Toby, a 23-year old chemistry student was furious when he realised. “When they asked for the first payment of rent, we noticed the name and details were the same as for the agency fee and deposit. So we’re charged £150 each for an agency fee, when the agent IS the landlord. They’ve made £900 for doing literally nothing. I’m amazed they can get away with that.”

Worse still are times when agencies’ negligence put tenants’ health at risk. Megan, 21, has repeatedly been ignored when bringing up her concerns. “The house is damp, mouldy and unliveable, we’ve been told this by multiple specialists who come to clean the mould or survey the house, and last term I discovered rats living directly under my floorboards.”

The walls of Megan's bedroom are covered in mould, a health hazard her landlord has done little to combat

The walls of Megan’s bedroom are covered in mould, a health hazard her landlord has done little to combat

“The mould specialist said that these houses weren’t built for multiple occupancies, they were built for families. The landlord’s modifications have ruined the air flow, so the mould can’t be our fault. He also said that the house should be condemned, it’s not fit for habitation.”

Megan hasn’t found her agency to be very sympathetic considering the property has been deemed uninhabitable. “And the agencies and landlords suggest that we keep our windows open, but I’m sure they aren’t doing that themselves in their own house in the middle of winter. It’s like living homeless but paying £310 a month for the privilege.”

 

With a large percentage of students resident in Cathays, letting is a big business. Many streets house five or six agencies.

Properties are hastily converted so landlords can house more tenants

Across the students we spoke to, there was a common pattern of annoyance that the fees seem totally arbitrary. If fees really are a necessary evil, surely agencies should be able to provide justification in terms of what service they’re actually providing, and why it costs them to provide that service.

While maintenance loans are failing to increase in line with inflation, students’ budgets are taking a hit of around £400 each spring as they look for a new home. For students who don’t receive financial support from their parents, that’s a massive hit that they can ill afford to take.

With backbencher Jenny Rathbone AM’s proposal to ban fees in Wales up for ballot on 25th January (frontbenchers still won’t push it through by conventional means), Let Down In Cardiff are adamant about the importance of a Welsh ban.

“It cannot be emphasised enough how much of a difference this will make to struggling renters. Letting agents are not always bad, but most of them are very expensive. This will finally make moving house less prohibitive a cost and it will level the playing field a good amount between renters and those supplying their homes. So, bring on the ban!”